Salman Khan on the Pool Table

“Can we play pool Ninu Kaka?”
“Okay! Do you know how to play?”

The paasam (affection) between these two would make a rock bloom. Ronak adores Ninaad. Ninaad is my 36 year old almost husband. Ronak is his 8 year old adoring nephew. They’re more like best friends than anything. Earlier in the evening, they had been discussing Ninaad’s thoughts on the politics of education and Ronak’s thoughts on Star Wars.

“Pool is all about geometry and physics. At what angle do I have to hit the ball? And with what force do I need to hit it in order to make it hit that ball and then go into that corner pocket?” explained Nin. Ronak is an inquisitive kiddo. Nin was using the game to hook him deeper into learning. Meanwhile, I was having a “Family Matters” flashback.

I watched and listened as they enjoyed each other’s company. Pool has a lot of rules. You can’t hit the cue ball more than once and if it goes into a pocket, it’s called a scratch. In order to win, you have to get all your balls (stripes or solids) into the pockets before the other person does. And if you hit the 8-ball in before you’ve done that, you automatically lose.

This game wasn’t going well for Ronak. Not that it was going so great for Nin. But between nephew and uncle, Nin was mopping the floor with him.

“Why don’t you try hitting the cue ball into the red ball, which will push the 5 into the side pocket?”

It was a straightforward shot that Nin was suggesting. Easy side pocket set-up, each ball not more than 3 inches from the other. Ronak took his stance. He scrunched his face, pressing his fingertips firmly into the rough, green felt. He lined up his shot, drew the cue stick back…and MISSED.

Ninaad shook his head, attempting to offer some comfort. “Nice try,” he said.

The disappointment was solid. Ronak had wanted to succeed. But instead he had tried.

Which is when I realized: tried is a pseudonym for failure.

I recently read a Huffington Post article by Salman Khan, in which Khan talks about the “growth mindset”. Khan encourages parents to congratulate their children not on what they’ve succeeded in doing, but on the effort they’ve exerted – the effort they’ve taken to push themselves beyond what is easy or achievable, taking themselves into the realm of difficulty and struggle.

“Meenadchi Aunty, do you want to play?”

The question broke me out of my reverie. And it made me think.

“Alright!,” I said, “But I propose a new way of playing. This round, you have to take the most challenging shot you can find. You have to set it up and call it. You down?”

YEAH! came the unanimous response.

We reset the table and Ronak broke. Then it was my turn. I surveyed my options.

“For my first shot, I’m going to hit the 9 into this wall. It’s going to ricochet into the 14 which will then spin back into the right corner pocket.”

“What does ricochet mean?” Ronak asked.
“It means to hit or bounce off of,” I explained.

I took my shot. Click, clack, cluck! Everybody cheered. That right corner pocket remained empty, but man what a rush! Ninaad was up next.

“Hm,” he pondered, “I wonder what I should do?”
“What if you hit that ball and then it ricochets and then it hits that wall and then it ricochets back and then it goes into that pocket?” piped Ronak.
“Good idea!” replied Ninaad.

And so the game went. At one point, Ronak suggested that Ninaad take a direct shot into the corner pocket.

“But that’s not the most challenging shot,” said Ninaad (always one to play by the rules).
“…it doesn’t always have to be challenging…right?” asked Ronak.

And in that moment, I questioned the way we were playing. No, it doesn’t always have to be challenging. Sometimes it’s nice to have that rush of success, seeing the ball you hit roll into that corner pocket. Because feeling good feels good.

The parents called us down shortly thereafter. The party was winding down. Ronak’s parents had left him with us and it was time for us to head home. Piling into the car, Ronak and Nin jabbered about the evening’s events.

“That was fun!” said Ninaad.
“Yeah! Hey Ninu Kaka, remember the shot you took with two ricochets?!”
Somewhere, a rock was blooming.


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