The Guardian’s Jenni Russell is always worth reading. Today she shines a light on an important dimension of the Brand Ross debacle. She describes her own experience as a young BBC producer trying to deal with a cantankerous and sloppy radio presenter. After trying to get the star in question to perform better it was quickly made clear by the powers that be it was he the ‘talent’ - not she the producer - who would call the shots. Within days the presenter had her removed from the programme.
Russell cites her own experience to underline the thesis that the problem at the BBC was about the power imbalance between Brand and Ross and their fixers on the one hand, and the young producers and corporate executives on the other. There are parallels here with the widespread feeling among football fans that individual players and their agents (who, unlike the fans who pay their wages, generally lack any loyalty to a club) have too much power. Echoes too of the City in which mathematical whiz kids and super charged deal makers ran rings round both internal and external supervision.
Which takes us to a much bigger debate about the nature and value of individual talent. Coming from another angle Malcolm Gladwell has made two important contributions to this debate. First, he has demonstrated that the point at which geniuses produce what is deemed by their peers to be their master work is distributed across the life cycle. The Mozart phenomenon of genius being exhibited almost from the cradle is the exception. Of course, people who prove to be great artists, intellectuals or inventors are likely to show talent in their youth but the point at which this talent creates a truly exceptional product is unpredictable. This randomness is often subsequently disguised. This is because once someone achieves genius status all their work before and after their breakthrough will tend to be favourably reassessed.
This is a point made by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in ‘The Black Swan’ where he suggests the process by which certain authors or composers emerge as geniuses while the rest fall back into obscurity is much more serendipitous than we like to imagine. I love Dickens and think Great Expectations is a work of genius but I suspect that in the canon of Dickens there are many novels which are seen as classics even though they are inferior to other forgotten works by Victorians who never got their big breakthrough. Thus the idea that Dickens was a genius throughout his life and that he stood head and shoulders above his contemporaries is a self fulfilling prophesy.
Gladwell has also thrown his weight behind the argument that scientific breakthroughs, which end up being attributed to one person, are nearly always the outcomes of the work of many people, one of whom happens to put in place the final piece of the jigsaw. Had the so called genius not existed then the piece would have inevitably been put in place by someone else.
The combination of post-hoc rationalisation, the allure of simple stories of human heroism and the ideology of individualism has cemented the myth of individual talent. Globalisation, the growth of PR and celebrity culture have accelerated this process. Those deemed talented are then in a powerful position to reinforce the myth at every turn.
The blind worship of individual talent is intellectually suspect and socially destructive. Maybe this too will be a welcome victim of these new times.
In his fifth post for the RSA Living Change Campaign, Matthew Taylor explores some of the implications of the framework he has outlined over the last month and asks why ideas like these aren’t more widely known and used.
As we emerge from Covid-19, Ruth Hannan argues there is an opportunity to shift from short-term solutions to approaches based on deeper understanding of citizens’ needs and which focus on systemic change.
If young people are to flourish in this new world of rapid change and insecurity, we need policies that support young people in the here and now, whilst also protecting their futures. Thinking about economic security is one way to do this.