The Dangers of Being ‘Young and Talented’

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My previous two posts on this theme considered the scenario of a young, skilled musician taking on the role of director for the first time with an established choir, and, respectively, the challenges they are likely to face, and the advantages they are likely to wield. This last post in the series looks a bit wider to the dangers the category ‘young and talented’ presents to those it is applied to in general, as well as how this plays out the specific scenario of the new director.

Talent, as I have discussed before, is a mythological category. Our culture largely regards it as an inborn, innate quality, an assumption for which the literature on expertise can find no basis. Depth of skill emerges from the quantity and quality of practise someone undertakes; capacity follows rather than precedes the activity.

But, because the mythology of talent is so ubiquitous, people still use it to describe the facts of aptitude that they observe. Henry Kingsbury describes how it thus becomes a socially-negotiated label: those with authority bestow it upon junior members of that social world, giving them permission to consider themselves as particularly and specially endowed. This label can then prove a useful motivator for continued engagement: a child who is led to believe they have a special capacity for something is arguably less likely to give it up.

However, the education literature also tells us that those who attribute their success to their own efforts find themselves with greater resilience in the face of obstacles. If ‘talent’ is in-born then success or failure is outside of your locus of control; if it is a product of practice, then it is within your power to overcome your difficulties when you get stuck.

Moreover, the authority to bestow the label of ‘talented’ is not a stable thing throughout your growth as a practitioner. As a small child, your parents can tell you that you’re special and talented and you believe them. But as you progress, you look more to your teacher, and then when you move onto more high-profile teachers, their opinion trumps those who started you off. Kingsbury’s study shows how hazardous the category of ‘talent’ can be at each of these stages of progression: for something ostensibly innate, it is fragile and unstable in the face of those with the power to diagnose it.

So, what this adds up to is a situation I have observed often enough (both in my years in further and higher education, and out in the wilds of music-making in the community) to be able to generalise about. You get people who have been showered in approval of their parents and their immediate social world who head through adolescence towards adulthood believing they are special and talented. They do, in fact, display considerably more skill than those around them, which reinforces the general belief structure about their specialness, both in them and those who have conferred the label.

People at this stage can be confident to the point of cockiness, and at this stage everyone is quite happy with the situation. It feels nice to be completely assured of your own prowess. The problem comes when they should be at the point of out-growing their current sources of input, when they need to move into a bigger pond, in which they will necessarily be a smaller fish.

The first thing you experience on moving into a higher league is that you are challenged. Either directly (someone tells you that you need to do something differently), or indirectly (the activities required are beyond your current capacities). And in theory everyone will say, ‘But yes of course, I want to go to the next level.’

But if your self-identity has been consistently validated in terms of an innate capacity for this activity, then the challenge is not just to your skills, it is also to your ego. If your motivation has been stoked and nurtured by the extrinsic fuel of approval, to be faced with the expectation that you will do this thing for its own sake at the same time as you are having to cope with newly-discovered skill deficits, is emotionally very difficult.

Some people make it through this phase and out into the wider world of their discipline. Others don’t cope so well. One casualty of this process is the promising young talent who fades away into obscurity, or even into different spheres of activity entirely, without ever making the impact expected of them. Another is the Bright Young Thing who grows into adulthood in the same social world that nurtured them only to discover that the rewards of ego-boosting they used to receive as a matter of course diminish along with their cuteness. What was precocious in a 12-year-old is irritating at 25.

And in the specific case of the ‘young and talented’ director whose situation I have been exploring recently, the danger is that the choir itself can play the part of the approving parent and thereby affirm the director at a level of development below that which they would achieve with more realistic feedback. Ten years on the director will be within sight of middle-age, and the choir doing reasonably well, but without ever having got near the high-flying hopes they had when they brought the director on board.

Two suggestions emerge from this, one for all of us, one specifically for directors.

Everyone: learn to frame your approval for people’s achievements in terms that recognise the efforts that produced them, rather than the mythical and counter-productive quality of ‘talent’. Celebrate the skills of those around you, but give the credit to those who wield the skill, rather than to magic or to genetics. That way they will feel safe to keep developing each time they meet a new challenge.

Directors: the place to get realistic feedback on how you’re doing is the choral sound. Is it vibrant? Is it clean? Is it together? Is it well-balanced? If it’s not, or not as much as it could be, you can still accept the love your choir gives you, but you still need to work on your directing.

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