The grinch who stole talent

Chris Dillow (of Stumbling and Mumbling), responding to Gordon Brown’s recent speech to the Labour Party, says that “economic success requires that talent not be unlocked, and remain unused”. So Brown’s call for the development of “all the talents of all the people” is “purest wibble” because “all profits come from power, and this means disempowering talented workers”.

Now Chris may be shooting for some sort of curmudgeon of the year award here, but what’s worse is that his argument is misleading. The first problem is that he politicises something which can’t be changed, which is the fact that life involves choice. Chris says:

… specialisation stifles many of our talents. The musician who becomes a lawyer never fully unlocks his musical talent. The cricketer who becomes a doctor lets his cricketing talent wither.

But these examples are chosen so to contrast the ‘world of work’ with ‘fun’ things. You could just as well say ‘the gymnast who becomes a lacrosse player never fully develops his vaulting skills’ or ‘the muralist who becomes a photographer never fully develops her drafting skills’. Even an imaginary society of extended lifespans and perfect leisure will produce these sorts of choices. I’d hope we can agree that Gordon Brown can’t be blamed for not having an answer to that.

When you do turn to ‘work’, of course, you have to agree that it does constrain people. This is because work is transactional: you have to keep your side of the bargain. But you get things in return, including things that help you to develop your ‘talent’, not the least of which may be a context through which to define your talent. The transactional framework of skill development is, in fact, wider than what is often understood as ‘work’. The trainee gymnast, for example, has to agree to stick to a certain diet and a certain training schedule. If he doesn’t, he won’t receive further coaching. So becoming a gymnast resembles work (even if no money changes hands). Many gymnasts might say it is work. Conversely, work can be fun and rewarding: you get to get better at something.

Of course, Chris would argue that while this might be an ideal formulation of ‘work’, most jobs just aren’t like that. Part of his argument is that the transaction is unequal: the ‘skills’ you get to acquire are in fact demeaning and – crucially – you’re often expected to work at less than your full capacity. True, plenty of jobs are dull and demeaning. But use any economic model you like – and Chris is using a Marxist model – the trends have been going the other way. There is more automation. There are more high skill jobs than there used to be; people live longer, and have longer retirements in which to develop other skills. There is more leisure time. Politically – and this is one of the EU’s finest achievements – there is greater labour mobility and therefore more choice of occupation. And there are more educational opportunities. Many of these things could be reversed – and our political culture will be one determinant of this – but drudgery for all is not yet a requirement.

Another problem with Chris’s argument is that he takes ‘talent’ as essentially personal. In Chris’s view, talent is a thing that lies within which can either be released or kept imprisoned. The latent premier league footballer inside the call centre operative; fully formed but denied opportunity for expression. I would suggest that a better way to think of ‘talent’ is as a predisposition to respond quickly to development in the context of a willing audience. Skills and admirers: for ‘talent’, you need both. On this understanding, latent premier league footballers don’t exist: there are only those who actually do play in the premier league. The rest (including you and me, possibly) are ‘other’ footballers. We might in some sense be ‘better’ than the premier leaguers, but we don’t have their audience. Or look at it from the other end. Imagine that the number of premier league clubs were halved tomorrow (the TV audience has declined). None of the premier leaguers are changed, physically. Their passing and dribbling skills are undiminished. But now, suddenly, half of them are no longer premier league players. So was that talent ever fully theirs?

This is significant in the context of increasing diversity, which has been the trend. There are more kinds of sports than there used to be (new sports get invented). Handball is popular in Germany but not – so far – in Britain: after the 2012 London Olympics this could change. And it’s not just sports: there are more kinds of job than there used to be. Necessarily, the ‘audience’ for each is smaller. What does this mean for talent? Less opportunity, or more? We seem to have to give a mixed verdict.

Finally, there’s personal experience. My experience of work is that there’s no limit to how challenging you can make it. You can aim to make it easy, of course, and that’s a sensible aim. But despite occasional idiocies, there are regular opportunities to do things in a new way. I think this is true at least of every profession. By contrast, here is Chris’s view of the way things work in medicine:

If you had to go to hospital for a minor operation, who would you rather perform it: the brilliant surgeon for whom the operation is a dull routine one, or the young and mediocre one for whom it’s a challenge requiring full use of their talent?

I suspect this situation never arises, and not just because surgeons, like most people, tend to work in teams so as to combine experience. The young surgeon will be committed to doing her job well – on the basis of her training – and the older one is likely to want to innovate. Both are good.

Going Into Business

“Madam Wang Haiyan, who runs a pre-school class from her home, reckons that she would have been earning half of what she is now and be less happy to boot if she had stayed in her job at a state-owned firm. “

Any one else round here old enough to remember Dustin Hoffman’s ‘Little Big Man’, with the character who insisted on riding his horse back to front? I feel a bit like that sometimes: with my back-office for India and China right here in Barcelona. Of course this makes life pretty surreal, people waltz in on the messenger at all times of the day and night: from all the strange corners of the planet.

This morning it was the turn of one of my ‘sources’ in China: he came in over the messenger to tell me he’d left his job. He has had a ‘new’ idea. He is going to set up a company to do guess what? Outsourcing. He is dead set on it since he tells me he can get university graduates in China to work for him for ‘just’ 150 dollars a month.

Actually in his case no one is going to accuse him of destroying western jobs: he wants to design and put up websites for Western clients who want to sell to Chinese customers. We might well ask ourselves however, if he is succesful in this how long it will be before he leverages his position to start offering those websites in more distant climes. And good luck to him.
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