We are getting Talent Wrong

A lot of people really enjoy the various talent shows that have rippled out across the world over the last decade – Britain Has Talent, America Has Talent, … and all the variants that stretch from Australia to Korea.

The shows of course serve up the maximum of weirdness and horrible lack of talent too, which perhaps says something about how deluded some people are about their abilities, and that performance requires not just passionate enthusiasm (or gall) but also excellence of ability.
To be really successful at anything, of course, requires more than just piles of eagerness, and some people are unskilled and also unaware of it.(Kruger and Dunning 1999; Hodges, Regehr et al. 2001)

I find the shows horrifying though, and I am left staring into space thinking that what the shows really demonstrate is that we have got something very, very wrong.

Let me explain.

It isn’t that I don’t also feel the emotional surge when some little child like Holly Steel or Jackie Evancho or Ronan Parke belt out a vocal with voices that belong more in the body of somebody in their 30’s with a lifetime of experience and training than in somebody under 12yrs old. The thing is that these people have more or less already been “discovered” early in life and are pretty much the “normal quota” of stunningly good performers. These are the ones that become a Sarah Brightman or a Celine Dion, and while their trajectories are in an early, nascent phase, they can be plotted out into the future with little stretch of the imagination.

One can look at Olivia Binfield the 7yr old poet and champion of animals, and it is easy to see her future mapped out ahead as the next Carol Ann Duffy or Jane Goodall.

I feel that same sense of wonder over them as the audience does, and these are the people that Simon Cowell means when he says that these are the “special, special talent” that he is there to find, but I think that these leave us so awe-struck that we miss the bigger picture.

The performers that chill me to the bone are the adults – Jamie Pugh (37), Julian Smith (40), Paul Potts (41), Susan Boyle (49), Fiona Mariah (50), or Janey Cutler (80).

These are adults whose talents have been available but unknown to anyone but themselves and their immediate circle for decades – at the time of his first public audition Jamie Pugh was driving a van as a day job and delivered pizza by night, Paul Potts sold cellphones, Fiona Mariah was a busker, and Janey’s singing was known only to local pubs in Lanarkshire.

For every Faryl Smith (12) or Zara Larsson (10) that can make your jaw drop in amazement, is there perhaps an eighty year old Janey who just never got heard until just two years before her death, or never at all?

One might think that at least there are shows like these that make some inroads into the numbers that we must be missing, but as such they only scrape the surface – they focus only on a very narrow band of human ability related to performance art, and there is no real equivalent to the rest of the spectrum of what people are capable of – There is for instance no mathematics, engineering, or general science equivalent to “X-Factor” or “America’s Got Talent“.

Happenstance discovery through game shows is really not a satisfactory way to deal with either our problems or with the planet’s talent, we simply should do better.

That is my story, and I am sticking to it.

References

Hodges, B., G. Regehr, et al. (2001). “Difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence: novice physicians who are unskilled and unaware of it.” Acad Med
76(10 Suppl): S87-9.

Kruger, J. and D. Dunning (1999). “Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
77(6): 1121-1134.

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One Response to “We are getting Talent Wrong”

  1. robc0450 Says:

    You have to remember that the producers are only interested in the revenue acquired from the voting system and a potential TV series. With the exception of very few of the contestants (not necessarily the winners), the word “talent” misses the boat by a mile because of the show’s revenue-based format. Profits and transient popularity are not always directly proportional to talent. For example, people would pay me NOT to sing!

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