On the Hunt for the X Factor - What is Talent?

Harry Kane, Idris Elba, Cara Delevingne. Three people who, among many, many others, are frequently celebrated for their ‘talent’ in their fields (a very well-kept field, in Harry Kane’s case). Fan clubs gush over the ‘talent’ of their heroes. Television programmes are guilty of the same thing, with so-called ‘talent shows’ glamorising this mysterious abstract idea. These countless people who idolise ‘talent’ not only need to expand their vocabulary somewhat, they cause me to ask a seemingly pointless question – what is talent? Does it even exist? And more importantly, what is it doing to us?

A common definition of talent, and the one you presumably gave instinctively, is something along the lines of ‘natural ability’. These people were born excelling at football, acting or, for Cara Delevingne, beatboxing. To riff off a popular prime-time programme, their genetic makeup includes a non-specific ‘X-factor’ that places them on a level beyond mere mortals such as ourselves. What separates David Tennant from Joey Tribbiani is, quite simply, Lady Luck, and what she decrees is final. Having written all of this down, I must admit that I’m a little disheartened. How can our society, so focused on individual identity and ambitions, continue to believe in such an idea? How can the same world that produced ‘The American Dream’ and ‘The Communist Paradise’, where sheer hard work determined your lot in life, maintain the ‘X-factor’ theory? If we are one of the millions (billions, even) who don’t win the genetic lottery jackpot of this indefinable piece of code, are we simply doomed to inevitable insignificance? I shudder to think.

We could always, of course, alter our definition of ‘talent’ to account for this apparent contradiction. We could say that, instead of a ‘natural ability’, talent is a ‘natural inclination’ towards something - Cristiano Ronaldo didn’t come out of the womb winning Ballon d’Ors, he got to that level through supplementing enthusiasm and passion for football with hard work. This, however, presents another problem, in that I am positive there will have been other academy footballers who, alongside Ronaldo, tried just as hard if not harder to make it to the first team. Their chances were dashed not through a lack of trying, but merely through Ronaldo’s indescribable ‘betterness’. The even playing field we’re born into is not even for long, then, as we observe in most classrooms – some children simply seem to ‘get’ maths faster than others, scoring consistently higher on increasingly draconian SATs, GCSEs, A-Levels, BAs. Others progress through multiple levels of musical instruments whilst their classmates are relegated to triangle duty. Considering all this, is it right to praise talent? In praising talent, do we risk alienating those who struggle to perform to that standard? Are we placing a glass ceiling on hard work? If there’s a limit to how far work can get you, then what’s the point of work?

The beauty of ‘The American Dream’, and the reason it attracted vast swathes of foreigners to the USA, is that it depicted a truly level playing field (ignoring, of course, the rampant racism of the era). A worker born in the United States held no advantage over a German or an Irishman or a Pole. If you were prepared to work, there was no barrier to what you could achieve. Similarly, the beauty of ‘The Communist Paradise’ lay in that it promised work to all its citizens, regardless of heritage or background. In these idealised realms, there’s no reason why Taylor Swift’s ‘talent’ should allow her to go any further than any music-mad girl in high school, provided they put the same amount of time into their pursuits. Yet these ideals are just that – ideals. They are concepts which we have failed to properly translate into realities. We are content to carry on dividing people based on undefined characteristics. Why?

From this (rushed and scientifically laughable) study, I find talent has no set definition, meaning different things to different people in different situations – it cannot, and so does not, truly exist. Talent persists only as a safety net for us less-remarkable humans to catch ourselves with, a blanket to cover us from our own fears of insignificance. We are all familiar with the pressure to succeed; it unites those in the creative pursuits to those in the sporting world to those engaging with the sciences when nothing else does. We all want to avoid being labelled a ‘failure’, and so we encourage ourselves to find our ‘passion’, our ‘love’, our talent. In our merit-centric society, never finding your talent and subsequent success renders you a disappointment, one of the most brutal British insults there is. In coddling ourselves to explain away our lack of achievements, are we in fact creating the fear we aim to hide from?