Parables of Global Talent

Watch this:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=thxSlKVz3fo&color1=0xb1b1b1&color2=0xcfcfcf&hl=en&feature=player_embedded&fs=1]

I found this video at Presentation Zen. It’s one of the 34,000 60-second video applications that people all over the world submitted to the Queensland Tourism Board for the “best job in the world”, working as an island caretaker on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

Here’s another video, one of 50 that has been put on the short list:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vafzo53E6vg&rel=0&color1=0xb1b1b1&color2=0xcfcfcf&hl=en&feature=player_embedded&fs=1]

After watching these videos I realized something about the paradox of talent in the contemporary world. All of the finalists are talented, any one of them could do the job of island caretaker very well. But only one of them can get a job and that’s the heart of the problem in today’s winner-take-all world.

Back in 1995 Robert Frank and Philip Cook wrote a book called The winner-take-all society : how more and more Americans compete for ever fewer and bigger prizes, encouraging economic waste, income inequality, and an impoverished cultural life. They convincingly argued that a society with huge winners and a mass of middle-of-the-road losers is destined for conflict and inequality.

In 1997 Pierre Levy wrote Collective intelligence : mankind’s emerging world in cyberspace. He argued that we have a severe talent problem in the modern world; there are an incredible number of people who could contribute to the productive future of humanity but they are held back because of politics, access, or other circumstances.

There is really no significant difference in talent between the 50 people on the short list. The Queensland Tourism Board is faced with the same choice that faces any manager making a hiring decision or an admissions committee choosing who to accept for college – at a certain point a choice must be made and it will be made based on inexpressible qualities, the first impressions and other ineffable qualities that human resource professionals base their careers on. Once someone has met the minimum requirements for a job there is not much more to make a hiring choice on except for gut instinct.

Trying to eliminate this instinct is a fool’s errand. Working together is always about getting along with other people and often the fluffy qualities of personality are much more important than the skills list shown on a resume.

But for every job that opens there are always some people who are rejected. Some are rejected for good reasons, such as missing skills. But among the finalists there are always people who could do the job but just don’t make it. How do we deal with these people – the people who are still talented but didn’t have the right connections, the right network, the right clothes, the right accent, the right skin color, the right family?

This is the justice problem that faces our world today. And the continuing development of social technologies on the internet and elsewhere are going to make the problem worse. In the past we might have been able to ignore all of the others who are shut out. Today that ignorance will kill us.

And the ignorance will grow before it begins to shrink. Our multiple mediums of information exchange will make it easier than ever for the have-nots to see the lives of the haves and vice versa.

If talent is equally distributed throughout the world, and there seems little reason not to suppose that it is, then the world will need to change. We can’t just give access to the talented. We need to grow the total number of opportunities available to all. The current economic system isn’t up to the job. So we will need to build something better.