The Excessive Praise of “Talent”

The other evening, I attended a university opera program featuring two Puccini one-act operas. After the production was over, the Dean of the College of Performing Arts spoke to the Director of the Voice and Opera program. Her remarks were largely about the female leads, talking about how talented and impressive they were.

As I’ve mentioned some time back, this sort of talk infuriates me, especially from someone who should know better.

Why? Because the two leading singers she mentioned came to the university several years ago with nice but hardly outstanding voices. The head of the voice area worked with them, and many other students, over that period. They didn’t come as stars, as most singers don’t. It took time and effort and the expertise of the voice professor and others to bring out the best in their voices, but all the dean could rave about was their “talent.”

Singing that well isn’t just talent. It requires not only hard effort on the part of the student but a good technical and artistic voice professor to develop that “star” quality. It requires good accompanists and instruction beyond the mechanics of singing. But that effort by faculty is seldom if ever recognized. It’s as though such “stars” arrived at the university as stars.

This lack of understanding is hardly new. I’ve watched it for nearly thirty years at the university, but it’s not just here. It permeates American culture. The students did it all. The actors or actresses did it all. The athletes did it all.

Behind every “star” is a plethora of individuals who contributed to that “stardom.”

Society isn’t built on stars; it’s built on the people who developed them and who continue to support them. Stars – or billionaires – wouldn’t be possible without that support, and the excessive praise of talent and stardom is just another factor behind the current social unrest and discontent.

7 thoughts on “The Excessive Praise of “Talent””

  1. Censored Far Too Often says:

    This seems to be a particularly American disease. Saying “Oh you’re so smart!” suffocates people, whether they think they are smart (I better not disappoint) or whether they think they aren’t (Oh, I could never achieve anything). The Mindset book by Carol Dweck is a good antidote.

    1. Tim says:

      The UK is right up there with the US.

      Also classes can be taught to the lowest common denominator such that bright children are pulled down both by peer pressure (the terms swot in my day and boff latterly) and by the teacher having to spend more time with the more disadvantaged or difficult children.

      No wonder independent schools do so well and make up a disproportionate number of places at Oxford and Cambridge – which are therefore under pressure to let more students in from the state schools. Which gives them a challenge regarding their entry standards.

  2. Christopher Robin says:

    This is something I combat daily. Students who think being smart is all they need and then take only the easiest classes thinking they can “turn it up” when things get harder. They have big plans in life and end up just living with mom and dad playing video games.

    There also seems to be a trend in the last decade where it is no longer “manly” or “masculine” to work hard at academics. A high male population in an honors or advanced class is about 30%. It’s typically 20% or lower. This mix of “I’m naturally smart” and “real guys don’t work hard at academics” is a detriment to our future.

  3. Tom says:

    I have been looking for papers on the association of authoritarianism, bullying and artificial praise without success. It seems to me that the artificial praise in scholastics and sports preceded the increase in bullying which seems to have preceded the authoritarianism in political leadership since WW II. If so, such a grouping recognizes the difficulty we face as individuals in balancing whatever our concept of freedom is with what level of responsibility we accept as members of society which determines what effort we are willing to expend on achieving our dreams. This is influenced by various forces peaking in society – such as, parental abuse and/or parental over-protectiveness.

    LEMs observation of the Dean of the College of Performing Arts effusive praise of ‘talent’ goes to the heart of the difficulty all of us have: how to note the achievement of another human without blunting their desire for improvement and yet encouraging their pursuit of excellence. You are good; you can do better; go for it! But why make such an observation about the performers to the Director of the Voice and Opera program unless it is to praise the program and the teaching?

    “Society isn’t built on stars; it’s built on the people who developed them and who continue to support them. Stars – or billionaires – wouldn’t be possible without that support, and the excessive praise of talent and stardom is just another factor behind the current social unrest and discontent.”

    Unfortunately, my view is that, the US is a celebrity based society/culture. We create celebrities and then idolize them. We all want to be acknowledged as important; particularly if we have no idea of our own strengths and weaknesses. We follow the lives of “celebrities” and even believe whatever they spout no matter how impossible the concept. As pointed out by Christopher Robin this form of authoritarianism has spread with the US culture throughout the world: not only the UK and Europe but even the otherwise level-headed in New Zealand.

    The “failures” of science, “deviants” in arts, and the “diversity” of morals may be the consequence of our relying on celebrities for leadership but why on earth are the other non-celebrity cultures deferring to this form of unreality? Is the lie of the inappropriate praise the driving force? We can no longer point out deficits in our friends and family; only in our perceived enemies.

    1. Tom says:

      Sorry Tim and Christopher Robin.
      Wrong mind association.

    2. Censored Far Too Often says:

      artificial praise -> bullying -> authoritarianism

      Interesting hypothesis. Various forms of avoidance of genuineness.

  4. Darcherd says:

    While I understand the distinction between “talent” (something inherent) and “skill” (something hard-won through diligence and effort), it seems to me all the Dean was really trying to say was that the singers sang well. Surely there are a great many more important things to take umbrage over?

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