Pete Martin: Scots talent needs space to flourish

Jimmy Johnstone playing for Celtic in 1970. Picture: SNS-
Jimmy Johnstone playing for Celtic in 1970. Picture: SNS-
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If we want Scotland to thrive, every child and adult needs the freedom to develop their skills that will allow them to stand out from the ordinary, writes Pete Martin

I met Jimmy Johnstone once. For our readers from Venus, let me say that “Jinky” was a tiny, tough, twinkle-toed Scottish footballer in the 60s and early 70s. He was just like Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, if the “World Player of the Year” had ginger hair and a taste for vodka and rowing boat escapades. In the photo taken by my Dad, I’m clutching an autograph book. Jimmy smiles for the camera, looking improbably young. Me, I’m wearing shorts, sandals and an anorak – and looking the other way.

Tragically, that’s not so different from how we treat talent today. We have a childish wish to get close to celebrity. But there’s a complete failure to appreciate real greatness: what it means and, more importantly, how it happens. We know what genius looks like, but we let our attention be drawn to a dog or a car, or maybe a dog chasing a car.

Consider Davie Cooper playing keepy-uppy against England at Wembley. Or imagine Johnstone just playing keepy-uppy during a Jock Stein team talk. You’ll understand that these were men not only of immense talent, but the were also men without fear.

The diminution of talent in modern society leaves us with a deeper, more general problem than cowardy-custardness. It’s a conundrum that affects our sporting arena, but also infects almost every walk of life from education to entrepreneurship, from creativity to commerce.

The simplest part of the issue is that we have developed the delusion that talent is ten-a-penny: easily acquired, cheap and instantly disposable.

Of course, modern gadgetry takes away many of the technical challenges that only hard-won knowledge and ability could overcome in the past. As photo-sharing sites demonstrate, automatic digital cameras allow even the most visually-illiterate to take a snap that’s in focus and correctly exposed. But technology also hides just how hard it is to take a great picture. In the past few years, we’ve taken as many pictures as were previously snapped in the whole of photography’s history. By sheer statistics, there are inevitably many good shots nowadays. The general bar has been raised, but it’s hard to avoid the overall impression of massive mediocrity: talent is drowned in a tsunami of tedium.

Today’s communications also makes it easy to scout for “talent” – so much so that 250,000 deluded souls queued to be ridiculed on X-Factor this year. Such unreality shows prove that it’s not hard to find the next Tommy Steel, aka cheeky chappie Ollie Murs. And, admittedly, it would be hard not to wander down your own street and stumble upon a woman who could sing better than Cilla Black. So the old system of guts and grit and industry connections was far from foolproof either.

Arguably and laughably, talent is all harmless fun, isn’t it? Indeed, across all our mainstream media, we’re usually more interested in the contents of someone’s wardrobe than in the contents of their mind. To use Professor Phil Hanlon’s phrase, the public obsession with superficiality and easy fame is merely part of the modern “dis-ease”.

Still, in a society without due respect for talent, what’s truly dangerous isn’t the cult of celebrity and slack-jawed dependency: the most deadly and deadening idea ingrained in our current culture – across business, as well as the arts and sport – is that talent can be replaced by process.

Of course, there are many situations where proper process and checks and balances are essential. For example, in aviation, complex systems create the opportunity for human error with grave consequences, and demand failsafe procedures. However, if your plane were to come down in the Hudson, you probably still wouldn’t want your pilot to be flying by rote.

More generally, processes are designed for risk management and minimum standards, for making mediocrity predictable and acceptable. Rather than reaching for the moon, it’s more like limbo dancing to ensure everyone crawls under the same low-quality bar. Why hire a chef when frozen, factory-made food can be heated up by a low-paid worker? Why try to win a game when you can play for a scoreless draw?

Process is generally designed to cut costs and increase efficiency – often code for reducing staff numbers and destroying job satisfaction. However, all too often process merely adds complexity, creates paperwork, stifles initiative and eats time. Then, even if the opportunity hasn’t already sailed, the process holes the best ideas below the waterline.

That’s why increasing “professionalisation” tends to produce disappointing results. In rugby, as in business, the teams get bulkier. The workrate dwindles and the results don’t improve. And everyone is baffled.

Stranger still, talent can often achieve in minutes what the most muscular evidenced-based process fails to achieve at all. Many years ago, I witnessed a challenge between a psychologist and a psychic. Quite rightly, the scientist “knew” how the cold-reading trick was done. But the attempt to stitch together the dead lumps of laboratory logic only proved, embarrassingly, that he couldn’t do it in a live setting. With years of experience in reading people, the mind-reader’s skill seemed all the more remarkable for being so obviously human.

Most of these issues revolve around the fallacy that real talent is magical and thereby erratic, while process is rational and, therefore, effective. Process is the alchemy to turn leaden mediocrity into gold. Yes, fools’ gold.

It reveals a basic misconception as to what talent is, and how it develops. Basically, it’s like the old joke “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The punchline is “Practice!” In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell pointed to outperformance as largely the product of extended, intensive training. To become world class takes roughly 10,000 hours. There’s no short cut. You’re not born with talent. If you have the desire and dedication to put in that level of training – equivalent to working intensively on skills development for, say, three hours a day for a decade – that’s hard. But it’s probably also hard not to get very good.

Nonetheless, whether you want to be a singer or a software engineer, a footballer or a financier, a chef or a chief executive, you do need the environment in which your skill can flourish.

That’s the trouble with modern Scotland. We have created a society that is sucking opportunity out of everyday life. When everything is processed, pre-packaged, de-personalised, flat-packed, formulaic, bought in, riven by rules and driven by committees, where’s the opportunity for anyone to become different class at anything? Name the kid who’ll aspire to be a baker when the job only involves defrosting dough? Who’ll dream of being a builder when every house comes as a kit? Who’ll want to kick a ball when national ambition is so easily punctured?

It’s partly an economic issue. People do not work for money alone. Pay matters, but so does the opportunity for human interaction, for the most basic self-expression, for pride in work well done, for learning from experience. If we want people to put in their best efforts, to take the best of themselves to work and create added value, the whole job has to have value.

Success without wellbeing won’t work: we will merely make a sick society.

If we want Scotland to thrive – independently or not – every child and adult needs the freedom to develop their talents. The real benefit is that growing your skills base isn’t just internationally competitive. Personal development also gives a sense of purpose to daily life that’s crucial for creating self-worth and mental resilience. With talent, we can take on the world with our socks rolled down, jinking past life’s Atletico defenders, with the courage to take the knocks and get back up again. Just like Jimmy.