We need talent identification for even the smallest needs

19.54, Tuesday 25 May 2021

There are a lot of talented people in the world aren’t there.

I was reminded of this when I ran across the latest False Knees comic, which is gorgeous. (False Knees is a regular watercolored comic strip about birds voicing observations, alternately profound and profane.) And I thought: it’s so great that they have 628k followers on Instagram, 139k on Twitter, 270k on Facebook, and also an online store.

This is new! The transition: When I was at school, all the kids played football or mooched around the grounds outside during break. We weren’t allowed indoors. I visited 10 years later, and some of the music offices had been turned into recording studios; during breaks, kids were inside making music, making art, and yes outside playing sport too, but what I mean is that they were enjoying their talents.

But I feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface. False Knees is exceptional and it’s wonderful that they have a million fans, but generally speaking:

  • Mechanisms to identify talent are rare – how many people would be great at writing lyrics, or talking about history, but they don’t have the opportunity to recognise they have that special skill.
  • Mechanisms to connect talent to the people who love it: also scarce.

I think about all the great artists who aren’t necessarily also great hustlers.

I think about those two kids in Kenya who invented a prosthetic robot arm, controlled by brain signals. Of the almost-8-billion people alive, how many other great inventors are there who don’t get the opportunity to walk the path to their inventions?

We have unlocked like 1% of opportunity and realisation of talent in the world.

I don’t mean in a purely commercial way but primarily artistic and imaginative. So not really about jobs; more generally about being fulfilled.

But let’s think about jobs for a minute…

Makes you wonder what the global economic cost is, of LinkedIn being so terrible, said Kevin Cannon (when I talked about this on Twitter) and that’s a provocative framing. If you were to take the LinkedIn mission in its broadest sense as

  • helping people recognise their own personal potential
  • connecting potential to those that value it

…then what would you do?

One model is the traditional labour exchange – in the UK government-run labour exchanges were established in 1909, and honestly my only insight into how they worked (compared to today’s job centres) comes from listening to a ton of old episodes of Hancock’s Half Hour from the late 1950s, which is the show that invented the sitcom, and our lad Tony Hancock often ends up in one.

They seem maybe more hands-on, compared to today’s model? That’s interesting.

So maybe let’s look at the London Olympics (2012) “talent identification” program: a nationwide scheme where you, a fit person in your early 20s who plays hockey on weekends, turn up, have experts measure your arms and legs and strength ratios and twitch muscles, etc, and say, “hey, have you thought about Niche Sport X, we could hothouse you in that and not many other countries participate, so you might win and our ROI is good”. Which is how Team GB ended up 3rd in the medals table.

I have a picture in my head of something like that…

You turn up with an aptitude for making smart aleck remarks and a good eye, so the “creative industries talent identification bureau” (or whatever) gives you a digital tablet, a mentor relationship with a handful of web artists, and some back-office support to set you up with an online shop and a merchant account.

I mean… why not? Why not hand crank the process, literally handhold people into discovering and fulfilling their potential, leading to them (a) improving culture, or (b) paying more taxes, or (c) both, and if not then at least (d) being happy? Rethink the model. How could it be economically viable?

Another model I admire is the Open University. Established in 1969 to provide a university education exploiting the new technology of television, it’s now the UK’s largest undergrad institution and reaches people that others can’t. What’s the 2021 equivalent?

At times like this I think of Bao Xishun.

In 2006, two dolphins at an aquarium in Fushun, China, swallowed some plastic shards and were at risk of death. Veterinarians were unable to extract the plastic.

But China has the world’s largest population.

And with the world’s largest population, it has the world’s tallest man.

And the world’s tallest man has the world’s longest arms. They called him.

And so Mongolian herdsman Bao Xishun, the tallest man, reached into the mouths and down the throats of the dolphins with his arms, the longest arms, 1.06 metres, and retrieved the plastic and saved their lives.

I can only imagine the infrastructure and institutions required to connect that particular need to that particular talent, and what could be unlocked if those connections could be made continuously and in all sorts of ways.

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