We’ve Got Talent

We’ve Got Talent


“Talent” by Claus Buhl, 2011, 229 pages


Do you have talent? For many of us this may at first seem a nonsensical question. We did not learn how to read at age two. We did not play the piano flawlessly and with feeling at age four. We could not run a 60 meter to save our lives – let’s not even get into the entire marathon/iron-person territory. So, we may have assigned ourselves to one of the numerous groups that constitute “the salt of the earth”. Salt is a needed and appreciated ingredient, but it has nothing special about it – there’s heaps and heaps of it and it all pretty much looks and tastes the same. Salt is a commodity (pardon to all gourmet salt producers out there, no offence intended).

We may have heard from countless well-meaning sources in our lives that we are not one of the chosen few endowed with talent, because we did not measure up to some standard, expectation or preconceived script of what a Talent is and should be able to do. We may now be in the continual process of telling ourselves this message every day. Does it sound like an approach that encourages progress, innovation and making the most of ourselves? Or does it sound and feel like a bit of a downer? Does it even sound particularly true, that the vast majority of us are, pardon the terminology, talentless?

The Danish thinker and writer Claus Buhl has written on this subject in his book “Talent”. And he has good and very much needed news for us all. Talent is much more widespread than we may be led to believe by the spin that has been put on "talent” over the years.

What Is Talent, Really?

A couple of myths surround the concept of “Talent”. First, there’s the Ugly Duckling” myth, i.e. you are born a talent and it will shine through no matter your surroundings. Then there is the “work your behind off” myth, i.e. by sheer determination and lots of hard work you can be a talent. We also have the myth that talent is for young people; once you are past your youth, no talent is to be expected to show in you. However, neither myth seems to hold up to closer inspection.

The first thing to note is that we cannot be a talent in isolation. We need the right circumstances to foster and develop that which is our talent. If we do not have access to information, peers and mentors within our talent field, no amount of being born with it or working ourselves silly will get us far. Without input, guidance and recognition from our surroundings, our talent will not blossom. If our environment does not recognize the field in which we are talented, most likely this will stilt our development in this field.

Next, we seem to forget that talents do not grab their feats out of thin air. Talents stand on the shoulders of those who came before them. We start by studying these greats, imitating them (putting in the 10000 hours / 10 years of practice) and then develop our own take and contribution to the area in which our talent is found.

Lastly, we generally romanticize and talk about people who display great talents when young (cult of youth?), but more or less overlook those people who may have started in their field young but achieve greatness in (ripe) older age. Talent may express themselves at different points in people’s lives due to the characteristic of their talent. Are they the "conceptual" mold talent, where talentis realized whole and complete early on, but then usually not developed further (youth talent). Or are they the talent that are continuously searching for the most perfect representation of their talent, going through many iterations and different experiences before arriving at greatness and keeping getting ever better (old talent).

Getting More Talent Requires Change

If we will not buy into that “talent” is only a thing for the absolute minority of us, how do we ensure that many more of us discover our talent and realize it in ways that benefit everybody?

Claus Buhl suggests looking at how we school children. Most small children are full of wonder, ideas and are masters of divergent thinking. Once these small children have been through the schooling system, all but a very small minority have lost these characteristics. Why? Maybe it is because schools have a too narrow focus on the standard learning of reading, writing, math, languages and the IQ part of intelligence while catering to only two specific learning preferences: reading and listening.

The traditional school will appeal to some pupils’ preferences and talents, and these pupils will be given good grades and may even be moved to special “Talented” classes. However, for a large number of pupils school becomes the place where they learn that what they are good at and what interests them is not wanted. That their preferred way of learning (touching, moving) is not wanted. These pupils may well get classified as lacking talent and start believing this. Even if they display talent in their leisure time activities of choice or just need to take a different learning approach to grasp the school curriculum. If the perspective of the schooling system could be broadened, the number of talents we have would increase.

The tendency to focus too narrowly on a subset of attributes also plays out in businesses and organizations. The focus on the formal educational background of employees, the previous assignments done by the employee and their IQ ability; all that points back in time and traps the employee in what may simply have been an experiment made with regard to education and jobs on the way to realizing their true talent.

The traditional business way of looking at talent tends toward the “cult of youth”, where we must display our talent with a bang when still young and work our behinds off, or we will not be given the environment to grow. However, soon the days of linear careers as a talent within a particular field will be gone. Soon it will become more important to be able to switch and combine domains. Organizations who trap their employees by their education and previous assignments instead of focusing on the potential of employees to grow their overall talents will lose out on employee motivation, innovation and growth.


So, what are our talents? Does our environment give us room to unfold these talents, does it appreciate our talents and our way of going about working on them? Are we forced into the traditional school/business youth/IQ box or are we free to roam across different domains and via divergent thinking come to new insights that will move us forward? It is my sincere hope that the coming years will see changes in schools and business to be more inclusive and supportive of talents that do not fit the traditional mold. After all, the more varied talents we realize, the richer we  will grow  as a society culturally, scientifically and socially.

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