Ali Farag (left) and Ramit Tandon in the college finals

You hear it all the time: to be a success in business, you have to think outside the box. Also in America, the squeaky wheel gets the grease…though in Japan the nail that sticks up too high gets hammered down. So some cultures encourage individuality, while others promote conformity and not rocking the boat.

In sport however—and maybe war—it pays to be different, to surprise your opponents, to be able to deceive and do the unexpected. That is why it was so unbelievably thrilling this past three-day weekend at the college squash individual nationals to see the country’s top players competing to be the best, the first, the number one talent. But in addition to the joy of watching outstanding sport, there was an incredible lesson learned that I still can’t digest easily. And it has to do with culture, mentality, and the inhibitions of group behavior.

A happy champion kisses his father, Amr

The first place trophy went to Ali Farag, a Harvard sophomore who grew up playing squash in Egypt. Three of the top five professional players in the world (and 7 of the top 16) are all from Egypt. Even in 2007, the Wall Street Journal was writing about how the Egyptians had “Cornered the Squash Racket.” So Ali grew up in a society that is squash-centric, where some say squash is the first or second most popular sport (along with tennis), and where young players at 15 or 16 are so good they become professionals. In fact Ali won the world Juniors and became the 66th ranked professional, before he transferred to Harvard and can compete as a student. He is only 20.

Watching him play is like art: fluid, deft, surprising, precise. But most impressive is that he has shots that I have hardly ever—or never—seen others use. Granted I am not so experienced in watching, but I have attended dozens of matches involving top college players, and this weekend and two weeks earlier at the team finals, I saw Ali making shots the others don’t even attempt. Shots that win him points, games and matches.

Ali (ctr) with mother, Mona, and best friend Mohamed Abdelmaksoud

I sat next to a college squash coach at one match and heard that Ali is certainly gifted, “and his mind works so fast that he is considering five different shots in the time that others are just planning to use one. He chooses instinctively…It happens so fast that even Ali doesn’t have time to think about it.”

Why don’t the other players just copy Ali’s shots I asked a second college coach? “Because they are used to just doing what they have grown up doing.” That wasn’t very satisfying.

So I asked Ali himself after one match. “Where I grew up, everyone plays like this,” he explained. “I just followed what I saw all around me.”

Why don’t the other players do the shots that you do? I asked him. “I don’t know. Ask them” he advised me.

So I asked a third coach, one I have known for a few years, why don’t Ali’s competitors adapt? They see a new shot, a winning shot, at the beginning of the season. Why don’t they learn how to do it, practice until they do it perfectly themselves? “It’s too late for the seniors,” I was told. “Maybe the juniors can try to integrate some of the shots into their game. But it’s very hard if you haven’t grown up doing it. You can’t easily change your style of playing.”

Well I am crushed. This is too upsetting. You have to adapt in life to survive or succeed. And I am being told that in squash—and maybe other sports…and maybe in other life pursuits—once you learn how to do something, you can’t change easily…or at all? That is terrible. If your career meets a roadblock, is it hopeless to surmount it? That’s not what I was taught. If your profession becomes obsolete, are you supposed to go on welfare? Not what I have been taught. If you play football, and an opposing team comes up with an original play or defense, can’t you learn it? I thought so. If serve and volley tennis strategy was losing in an age of new rackets to base line play, shouldn’t you change your tennis game? I know that is what the newer pros have done. Couldn’t the older guys?

But in squash, three coaches told me it just isn’t so easy…so Ali and others with his skills might just dominate the game for a while. Very exciting to watch. It was like a professional outmaneuvering an amateur in some of the matches. Brilliant. Unexpected. Masterful. He just does his thing, barely breaks a sweat. He is from another world, and the new culture he is visiting can’t respond effectively, so he wins. He never lost a game in the 15 he played in the tournament this weekend. No one won more than 7 points in 12 of those games, and no more than 5 in 9 of those games.

In the final against Ramit Tandon from India of Columbia University, Ali gave up 10 and 8 points the first two games, but just 4 to win the match. Quite a talent. I still think there is a bigger lesson here to be learned about life…

After showing this story above to Ali’s father Amr, he wrote the following comment:

“We read the article and we were both very impressed. We liked the flow of ideas, the very descriptive words and definitely above all the philosophical part linking learning to life in general. However, I might have some explanation. I think it is easier to learn things when we are younger and definitely things we acquire during childhood become part of our system. It is like you sometimes find a kid 6 or 7 years old who can speak 4 different languages because his parents come from different parts of the world and yet live in another country. That would be more difficult for a teenager for example. Yet, I also believe in your words that this should not be an excuse for us to stop learning and always trying to acquire new skills to get us where we want.”