Words that should be banned: Talent

Until I worked for an investment bank, I’d only ever heard the word “talent” used of the likes of David Beckham, Bryn Terfel or hot-looking boys on a night out. But as soon as I arrived in the world of finance, I discovered that everyone was talented.

Traders. Managers. HR people. Heck, even me.

There had been, it seemed, a quantitative easing of talent in the City. (Quite fitting, I guess, given the word’s origins as a unit of currency.) More than that. There was a whole “war for talent” raging in the City.

What I don’t like about the word “talent” is the way it confers a sense of entitlement on those it describes. It reflects a belief in your innate superiority and validates your claims to wealth and power.

Yep, the City’s faith in its own talent isn’t down to a touchy-feely, no-one’s-allowed-to-fail diversity stance (though all those white men in suits do talk a lot about diversity, too). It’s a declaration that bankers represent the very best of the human gene pool.

But I think the economist J. K. Galbraith got it right in his small but brilliant book A Short History of Financial Euphoria. In this must-read for our times, Galbraith points out that financial bubbles are partly fuelled by a general (and mistaken) association of the world of finance with intelligence.

And doesn’t that just ring so true of our own times? Think about all those SIVs and CDOs and ABSs that the bankers created, thinking they’d reinvented the laws of physics.

No one (bar a feisty little blonde woman at the FT) dared challenge the bankers on their AHF (Acronym Heavy Finance), because that would have meant admitting we weren’t smart enough to understand what they were doing. That we didn’t have the bankers’ talent.

Turns out, of course, that neither did the bankers. And their financial alchemy was about as effective as, well, alchemy.

And now? Well, apparently, the CEO of one of the world’s most well-known investment banks, has been telling his staff not to flash their money around too much, for fear of attracting attention (isn’t that what Mafia bosses always tell their henchmen to do after a successful heist?).

And I suspect the bankers will be toning down the talent talk too, given their new status as the guys who made you realise that that pointy-shoed, slavebox-touting estate agent wasn’t so bad after all. You know, in the grand scheme of things.

So the City will be a talent-free zone for a while yet. But the moment the talent craze starts up again, you’ll know the bust is over and we’re back in bubble territory.

“A government of all the talents”
However, I’ve noticed that it’s no longer just bankers who’ve got talent. On being appointed the UK prime minister, Gordon Brown announced that he wanted to create a “government of all the talents”.

This phrase has always annoyed me. What grates about it isn’t so much its ugly noun-heaviness, which is typical of so much of our leader’s language (parodied beautifully as Stalinist in Private Eye).

It’s not even the illiterate pluralisation and concretisation of an uncountable abstract noun, a practice that until then I’d assumed was the preserve of Swiss colleagues with a shaky grasp of English.

It’s the implication that these “talents” are genetically destined to have a say in the way our country is being run, not because they’ve been given a mandate by the people, but, well, because they’re just so much smarter than the rest of us. People like our glorious new Enterprise Tsar, Alan Sugar, who unbeknownst to the electorate had been auditioning for this government role on his TV show, The Apprentice.

In other words, for “government of all the talents”, read “government of the unelected”. Heck, let’s not beat around the bush here: just read “government of all the bankers”.

Britain’s got talent? Really?
Surely, then, it’s only a matter of time before Simon Cowell is put in charge of our education system and named the UK’s Talent Tsar. For who has done more for the UK in these dark, depressing times than the man who’s told us that the whole country is talented?

Britain’s got talent? C’mon guys, I think we can come up with some ideas for a TV show that better reflects our true place in the world. Something that captures more accurately the great British character. How about:

Britain’s got a chip on its shoulder about its neighbour’s car

Britain’s got a problem talking to people until it’s got a few drinks inside it

Britain’s got a bastard of a mortgage keeping it awake at night and isn’t feeling like such a clever investor now, is it?

Britain’s got good curry houses, I’ll give it that

Or how about this, from Twitterer umisenyamasen:

Britain’s got about a month, according to the IMF

Nope, for me, nothing quite sums up the general griminess and grubbiness of life in the UK today – not to mention the mundanity and mediocrity of its people – better or more succinctly than:

Britain’s Got Clamydia

Are you talented enough to come up with something better?

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8 comments so far . . . come and pitch in!

  1. Brad Shorr says:

    Clare, You’ve pretty well summed up everything wrong in the world today. The cult of the expert is back upon us. Woe is us. (Woe are we?) Here in the U.S., this riptide of irrationality is reflected in the widespread delusion that our federal government can solve problems. I mean, after all, they are so talented. Talent without ethics is disaster. Talent without common sense is disaster. What do you call talent without ethics, common sense, or talent? Answer: Current affairs.

  2. dave says:

    If we’re all talented, then, surely, none of us is talented – even me!

  3. Chris says:

    I feel uncomfortable saying this, but is that a typo in the quoted phrase “government of all the bankers”? Or a bit of cockney rhyming slang?

  4. Chris says:

    Couldn’t resist that opportunity for some crass humour, sorry.
    Talent seems to be another word that changes its meaning as it goes through company doors. I’d thought of ‘talent’ as an innate quality that let folks make the best of their skills and opportunities. I heard that in HR circles it means something more like ‘chosen one’.

  5. Clare Lynch says:

    Chris – yes, “he’s a right merchant” is a well known bit of cockney rhyming slang.

  6. Elaine Swift says:

    I agree Clare. Talent is yet another of those words that has been rendered meaningless by over-use. And I loathe the phrase ‘war on talent’. It’s so aggressive and unnecessary.

    I do think that HR is competing with marketing for the most mangled use of language awards. One of the worst mis-used words has to be ‘piece’ and I come across it more often in HR-speak than anywhere else. As in ‘across the piece’ and ‘and that sort of piece’. It’s the verbal equivalent of nails scrapping down a blackboard.

    I even heard it during the England match commentary the other week – ‘England will bring on three subs at the start of the second half leaving us two for the rest of the piece’. Forgive me if I’ve got the maths wrong there but you get my drift.

  7. Clare Lynch says:

    Ugh, I’ve yet to encounter “across the piece” and “that sort of piece” – but I look forward to hearing them from an HR department near me soon.

  8. did you know says:

    On My Twitter Feed…

    Then I checked my feed and spotted someone posting one of the links to the site…

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