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Between Aptitude and Attitude

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“We need both aptitude and the right attitude to excel. While aptitude deficiency can be bridged with training and education, attitudinal change is much more difficult to effect.” – Author

Mike Omeri

This reflection was inspired by a paper presented on behalf of Mike Omeri, the Director-General of the National Orientation Agency (NOA) at the Annual Management Meeting of the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) held in Asaba, Delta State on January 27 2016. 

The idea of a relevant lead paper and a panel of experts to discuss such paper was one of the innovations introduced by Brigadier-General Johnson Bamidele Olawumi, the DG of the NYSC, to this year’s Conference of the body. Brigadier-General Olawumi said the aim was to allow ideas from ‘outside experts’ to challenge and interrogate the ways the NYSC does things.

The lead paper by Mike Omeri was entitled ‘Effecting Attitudinal Change in the Nigerian Youth: A Case Study of the NYSC.’  I was on a three-man panel that discussed the paper. I took my point of departure from posing a question I felt was central to the theme of the paper, namely, why do we (not just the youth) need attitudinal change?

To properly situate a discussion on attitude, I felt it would be more useful if it was done in comparison to its near opposite: aptitude. What is aptitude and how does it relate to attitude?

To answer the question, I decided to first define the two concepts and reflect on the relationship between them and second to develop two broad hypotheses about how the mix between attitude and aptitude can affect our quest for success in life. 

Aptitude and Attitude

Your aptitude is your capacity, skill-set and ability to carry out a given task. This ability is either innate or acquired, often through formal education. In contrast to your aptitude, your attitude is your behaviour towards accomplishing a given task. It is also the way you look at things. A good illustration of a positive attitude which made a very strong impression on me was from the late George Edafe Menta, the lead character in the sitcom Cockcrow at Dawn, which was very popular in the early 1980s.  

Mr Menta played the role of Papa Bitrus, a gentleman par excellence.   I recall one of the episodes when his son Bitrus ran to him to complain angrily that a neighbour called him (Papa Bitrus) ‘stupid’.  Bitrus had obviously expected his father to get furious but his father, very unfazed by the apparent insult, calmly asked him: ‘And do you believe I am stupid?’ When his son answered in the negative, Papa Bitrus replied, ‘So why should that bother you that he said I am stupid?’ 

The moral I took away from that episode of the sitcom was that it is not what people say about us that can hurt us but the way we react to it. You can say Papa Bitrus had a positive attitude. Another person might have decided that the neighbour who called him ‘stupid’ was trying to embarrass him or bring him to public ridicule and therefore deserved to be taught a lesson or two.

To succeed in any enterprise, attitude and aptitude have to be mixed in the right proportion. Many people in fact believe that attitude rather than aptitude is the driver of success. If we look at the most successful people around us, we will discover that they are often not the most academically brilliant or those who have the most impressive academic qualifications.  For example people who have consistently supported President Buhari in the years that he sought for the presidency of this country never marketed him on the basis of his academic qualifications or even his competence (aptitude). Rather they always talked about his integrity or incorruptibility (attitude). Similarly many people  suspect that Jonathan was chosen as running mate to the late Umaru Yaradua because of the loyalty he showed when his boss Diepreye Alamieyeseigha was about to be impeached in December 2005. Jonathan was later to become the country’s President. I don’t think that even Jonathan’s most fanatical supporters would market him on the basis of his academic brilliance or competence.

Former World Heavy Weight boxing champion Muhammed Ali must have had the tension between aptitude and attitude in mind when he said: “Champions aren’t made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them – a desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have the skill, and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill.”  The late American author Zig Ziglar (1912-2012) expressed the same sentiment in a different way when he said: ‘Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude.’ Another American writer Denis Waitley said the same thing using different words: ‘The winner’s edge is not in a gifted birth, a high IQ or in talent. The winner’s edge is all in the attitude. Attitude is the criterion of successes’.

Two hypotheses on the relationship between aptitude / attitude and success

Based on the above, it is possible to formulate two broad hypotheses on the relationship between aptitude and attitude on the one hand and success on the other hand. 

Hypothesis 1: In most tasks in life, your attitude, rather than your aptitude will determine how far you can go. This is consistent with our reflections so far on the relationship between aptitude/ attitude and attaining a desired outcome. This partly explains why the cleverest people in class may not always be the most successful – ten to twenty years down the line. It takes more than brilliance to climb the ladder of success. Let me tell a story that further illustrates this point. 

Some years ago veteran columnist Sonala Olumhense published an article in The Guardian about a certain young man who graduated with First Class Honours in Philosophy from Nnamdi Azikiwe university Awka, Anambra State. The young man had claimed that an extant University rule of employing those who graduated with First Class Honours as teaching assistants was denied him – ‘for no reason’.

Eventually the young man found job as a clerk or something of that nature in a ‘clearing and forwarding’ company in Lagos. Many Nigerians, especially those living in the Diaspora, were touched by the story. A number of people wrote to strongly condemn a ‘system’ which would allow such a ‘huge talent’ to be wasted. Like many others, I reached out to Sonala Olumhense and eventually got in contact with the young man. My publishing firm Adonis & Abbey Publishers (www.adonis-abbey.com) was at that time trying to set up an office in Nigeria.

We already had a bookshop in Bode Thomas Lagos so I offered the man a job, which he was to start immediately at the bookshop in Lagos while we worked out the logistics of the office, which was to be set up in Enugu.  As far as I can remember I paid him about three month salary as a lump sum up front. But as quickly as he got the money and some books that were sent to him he stopped picking up my calls. He made several promises to show up in the office and resume work which he never kept.  

I later learnt he was working in the governorship campaign of Dr Chris Ngige. I also learnt he had issues with that campaign and was disengaged. So we can argue that despite the young man’s academic brilliance, he lacked the requisite attitude for success. In essence when we say a graduate is unemployable, it could either mean that he does not possess the requisite skills or that he or she lacks the sort of attitude that potential employers will be comfortable with.

Hypothesis 2: Aptitude trumps attitude only in careers where the trajectory is short or where the returns from managing the character deficit is huge. 

We all know that some hugely talented sports people and creative artists (musicians, authors etc) can be extremely difficult to handle or even relate with. Some call this ‘artistic temperament’. However a football coach may be willing to overlook the character deficit of a player only because of the value the player can add during 90 minutes of play. 

After all, if such an attitude-challenged player helps the team to win, the coach also gets a big part of the credit. We saw the same deliberate overlooking of character deficits by those who promoted Mike Tyson’s bouts in his hey days as World Heavy Weight Boxing Champion.

In essence, we need both aptitude and the right attitude to excel. While aptitude deficiency can be bridged with training and education, attitudinal change is much more difficult to effect because the motivation for such change must necessarily have to come from the individuals concerned.

Email: pcjadibe@yahoo.com, Twitter: @JideoforAdibe


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