The Great Talent Robbery

By Peter Weddle

The Great Talent Robbery was the endless crime of the 20th and early 21st centuries. It was perpetrated by elementary and high school administrators and by the faculties of undergraduate and graduate programs in our colleges and universities. They convinced generations of Americans that talent is something reserved for only a precious few in the population. They brainwashed kids and their parents into accepting that those who are the most capable physically – think professional athletes; creatively – think musicians and actors; and intellectually – think Westinghouse Science Talent Search winners, are the only ones in our species endowed with talent. They led everyone else to believe that they were at the end of the line when talent was handed out.

The Gifted and Talented programs administered in elementary schools across the nation are a perfect case in point. Based on an arbitrarily determined intelligence quotient (IQ) score, they recognize a select group of kids as “gifted and talented,” which by definition means that every other child was born without a gift or talent. They take care of the kids who are – at least according to the standard of these experts – intellectually superior and consign the rest of the kids to a standardized education that views and treats them as an average Joe or Jane student. As devoted as their teachers may be, that experience all too often leads these youngsters to conclude that they have nothing special to offer. They accept their designation and shape their performance accordingly. They become average Joe and Jane graduates.

And, that’s a tragedy. Because these “average” Joe and Jane graduates become average Joe and Jane adults. They go through life believing that they have no talent and therefore cannot be extraordinary, cannot excel at something that inspires and fulfills them. Average Joe and Jane adults become average Joe and Jane workers and average Joe and Jane citizens. While some will be able to break out of this Manchurian mindlock, many won’t. They will be able to soar – they will have the capacity to achieve superior performance in an endeavor they consider important – but they will spend their entire life mislead into mediocrity, boredom or both.

What they won’t realize, what they will never discover is that talent is not defined by an IQ score. Or by how sweetly they can sing. Or by how far they can throw a football. It is not limited to their ability to wow the judges in some contest. Or to their interest in discovering a new strain of bacteria. No, talent is the opposite of all that. It is not a gift bestowed only on an elite few, but instead, is a far more encompassing attribute with a much greater reach.

Talent is the capacity for excellence, and it resides in each and all of us. It is an attribute of our species. Like our opposable thumb, talent is one of the characteristics that defines being human. Everyone has it, waiting to be discovered inside them. It is a universal trait that is expressed in far more ways than the ability to do well on science projects and the basketball court. It can be the ability to communicate complex ideas clearly in speech or prose. Or the ability to organize a diverse group and lead them in the accomplishment of a specific task. Or the ability to show compassion and care for those in need. Talent can be all of those genuine and special competencies, and every single one of them can be put to work, even in today’s high tech economy.

The Great Talent Robbery, therefore, has impoverished America in two ways. First, it has created a workforce filled with undiscovered and therefore unemployed talent. These individual capacities to excel can be married to a grounding in STEM – the subjects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics – and bring excellence to high tech enterprises. They can also be applied in settings that do not involve or require such a grounding and deliver excellence there, as well. Talent is a mission critical asset for all employers, and one they struggle to find in today’s workforce. Not because it doesn’t exist – there is no talent shortage in America – but because it is hidden away within the country’s working men and women. Employers can’t access it because workers don’t even know it’s there. Most have never been given permission to look for it or taught how to recognize and nurture it. As a result, America is a nation rich in talent, but its employers are talent poor, undermining their performance and their competitive position in the global marketplace.

The second way in which the Great Talent Robbery has impoverished America is by its denial of a fundamental individual right. The capacity for excellence is not only something that all Americans have, it is an aspect of life they all deserve to experience. The Declaration of Independence states that people have been endowed with certain unalienable rights, and though not enumerated by the Founding Fathers, the expression of their talent is certainly one of them. They have that right because doing something worthwhile with the best of themselves is the only sure way they can reach for Happiness. And as with Life and Liberty, the pursuit of Happiness is an enumerated right. So, the implicit abnegation of talent among all those average Joes or Janes cancels out their ability to excel and that, in turn, denies them access to their potential pinnacle of success in the workplace. They never get to experience their talent or to enjoy the Happiness its expression can bring.

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