What is talent, and how do we use it at work?

In a world that increasingly evangelizes hard work as a determinant of success, that innate and elusive quality called talent has become something as sought after as it is controversial: no one still knows what exactly it is

How would you rate your job? The jury at a dance competition in Germany score the participants.
How would you rate your job? The jury at a dance competition in Germany score the participants.picture alliance (picture alliance via Getty Image)

The main character in The Lost Weekend by Billy Wilder, is an alcoholic writer called Don Birman. The fictional character betrays those who help him and humiliates himself in order to carry on drinking. At least, that’s what all the synopses say. But is 33-year-old Don, who still hasn’t published anything (he barely finished a few stories in his youth and then repeatedly put off writing the novel he fantasizes about) really a writer?

Everyone around him thinks so. His brother, his girlfriend, even the audience. He is the only one who doubts it. Birnam drinks because he is a writer who is unable to write, and he can’t write because he drinks. In the end, the alleged writer manages to get away from alcohol and writes a masterpiece that is immediately bought by a major publisher. So The Lost Weekend is a film about addiction, but also about how talent prevails in the end.

If it seems at all plausible that such a disastrous character is saved thanks to his talent, it is because talent is a quality to which we attribute almost magical properties. First of all, it has many names. For example, for each musical genre it has its own label and where flamenco artists refer to talent as duende, jazz musicians call it “swing,” for funk musicians it is “groove,” and talented hip hop artists have “flow.” In all these cases, it is a special sensitivity that goes beyond technique. It cannot be learned, nor bought. “Seeking the duende, there is neither map nor discipline. We only know it burns the blood like powdered glass, that it exhausts, rejects all the sweet geometry we understand, that it shatters styles,” García Lorca stated in 1933, in his Theory and Play of the Duende, in which he also clarified that this gift is not exclusive to singers and can appear in any artist (he mentions Goya, Saint Teresa of Ávila, and Rimbaud).

As thousands of examples over the centuries demonstrate, the discussion about talent has always been part of the core of aesthetics (the branch of philosophy that deals with beauty) and has always been alive, but it has only recently been that the word talent has become ubiquitous. It has never been used so much and to name such different but related concepts.

The question of talent has been renewed and expanded. Today it is at the center of literature on business management (or talent management), business school programs, and everything that sociologists call “managerial discourse.” Agencies that represent celebrities or influencers call them “the talent.” A contest where an ordinary person goes to do something they consider themselves good at is a “talent show.”

Lawless territory

Much of the work of cultural criticism and the press consists of locating artistic talent, dissecting it, and offering it to the public. It is a difficult task because “we still carry many superstitions about talent and style,” as stated by literary theorist and critic Vicente Luis Mora. Mora remembers that he led a research project on creative imagination that surveyed 50 authors about their creative processes.

“I found it curious that quite a few disbelieved in any type of inspiration or muse,” he explains, “when for me it is something that is obvious. But perhaps it shows that there are two types of artist, some who wait for the text, as Pierre Michon says, and others who actively go looking for it. There are hundreds of documented cases of creative outbursts, but inspiration also sometimes finds you working. The research made me cautious about the existence of general laws.”

The novel that the writer in 'The Lost Weekend' is trying to finish one drink at a time.
The novel that the writer in 'The Lost Weekend' is trying to finish one drink at a time.CBS Photo Archive (CBS via Getty Images)
Ray Milland
Don Birnam, drunk and talented in 'The Lost Weekend.'George Rinhart (Corbis via Getty Images)

While many aspects of the creative process remain a mystery, psychologist Howard Gardner has attempted to make sense of it. The creator of the theory of multiple intelligences, it is no coincidence that in his book Intelligence Reframed he deals within the same chapter with “the intelligence [in singular] of creators and leaders.” Gardner argues that, while both intelligence and creativity involve “solving problems and creating products,” creativity “includes the additional ability to ask new questions.” Of course, always within a specific discipline because “one is not creative in general.” Regarding the relationship between creators and leaders, he maintains that they are “surprisingly similar” because “both seek to influence the thoughts and behaviors of other people and use persuasion. The difference lies in the immediacy of that influence.”

In turn, “the relationship between talent and creativity is direct,” explains Hortensia Soler, professor and researcher in the faculties of Education and Communication at the University of Murcia (Spain). “The dimension of talent is made up of several subdimensions, among which creativity or leadership ability stand out in particular.”

Soler, who does dare to offer a definition of talent (“above average ability to understand and execute certain tasks in a given field of activity”), abounds in the idea that it is always limited to a certain practice. And, faced with the eternal question about whether it is something innate or can be learned, the expert sends a hopeful message: “although it is true that we are born with certain genetic predispositions, it has also been studied and research shows that if a series of processes are put into operation, cognitive functions of the brain, talent, and creativity are ‘trainable.’

The Dalí case

Years ago, the manager of a Scandinavian furniture multinational fired an employee with the phrase “Dalí was a genius, but Dalí would never work for this company.” Dalí would probably have worked with anyone who had paid him enough. With all its inaccuracy, this anecdote summarizes one of the main paradoxes about talent in the business world. Talent has to do with transgression, with “the war against cliché,” according to an expression by Martin Amis. And companies, at least until recently, were strongly hierarchical organizations with production organized by technicians according to models that left little room for improvisation.

Ingvar Kamprad
IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad outside the company's office in Stockholm in 1989.LARS NYBERG (SCANPIX SWEDEN/AFP via Getty Ima)

“This is the great difficulty,” comments Carlos J. Fernández, sociologist and author of books such as Power and sacrifice or Capitalism and personality, “but it is part of contemporary management business, which often resorts to double bind situations, contradictory orders that generate ambiguity and stress, but also discipline. You have flexibility, but you work all the time. There is diversity, but you must appear perfect. You can go home, but you should stay. You must break the rules, but you must also follow them. The person who has to manage these ambivalences and contradictions is the worker, while the company simply hopes to reap the results.”

Although the tension between discipline and creativity can negatively affect the managers most obsessed with talent, in texts like Fernández’ it is possible to find a much deeper objection to the “culture of talent.” Since this is such as broad concept and difficult to specify, it works as a wild card that is used for almost everything, including enforcing unfair situations, and inequality in particular.

“Undoubtedly, talent is being used to justify inequality,” the theorist confirms. “It is presented as a kind of natural substance that can be produced at any time and place, or as a gift of creativity and imagination that arises in very special people and that is not the result of hard work or learning, but through some unique characteristics that only some individuals possess. It is something ambiguous, elusive, and yet, some of those in positions of power say that it must be taken care of and paid for. And, by the way, in many cases they attribute it to themselves.”

The Monkees
1960s pop group The Monkees waiting for inspiration to call them on the telephone.NBC (NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via)

On the one hand, Fernández attributes all this abuse of the term talent to the need to constantly legitimize “classic liberal egoism, now transformed under the mantle of genius and innovation.” On the other hand, he says it is attributable to the instability that has characterized recent economic cycles.

“The contemporary business world faces a scenario full of uncertainty: one must be successful in a confusing, unpredictable context, marked by information overload and very rapid technological development. Not only companies, but sectors appear and disappear at great speed, regardless of investment, the employees’ qualifications, or the management. Talent is trusted as what will allow us to overcome problems in the industry as luck or divine intervention did in the past,” he concludes.

So, as Soler recalls, developing talent in the world of education and then in the world of work can mean many positive things, such as “knowing what cognitive processes have to be put into operation to be able to execute tasks effectively or what activities are more suitable for each personal profile.” But, as Fernández warns, by opening up so much, the term has also become a fundamental piece for the justification of many counterproductive practices for both companies and society.

In any case, if interest in talent were to decline at some point, a good part of the meanings that the word carries today would be diluted and it would once again refer only to that force that inhabits artists and to which Goethe, speaking of the composer Paganini, referred to as a “mysterious power that everyone feels but that no philosopher can explain.” It is no small thing, although, at the moment, the talent is much more and jumps from the Culture pages to those in the Economy or Society sections of the press. That is, from the chronicle of a concert to the analysis of a merger between multinationals.

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