Saturday, November 23, 2013

Unpopular Opinion: The Problem Isn't That There Aren't Enough Special People in the World -- It's That There Are Too Many!

There is a mocking term for people who have an unearned sense of their own importance: "snowflake."

"You're such a special snowflake!" the taunt goes.  "You got trophies just for showing up in kindergarten.  Your mommy and daddy told you every day how wonderful you are and no one else is like you.  You think you shit gold.  Only now do you understand that no one else gives a shit about you."

This taunt is usually aimed at today's youth, up to about the age of 30, though technically it could be aimed at anyone.  The taunter aims to knock a sense of humility into the recipient, reduce the recipient's confidence, remind him or her that the world is hard and unforgiving.  People get used and chewed up and spit out, and only a few truly get to wear the "special" mantle.

But what if this is the wrong message?

What if the problem is that this person is special?  That there are not too few special people in this world, but too many?

Too many, that is, for our society to utilize their skills properly, so that they are able to be their best selves?

Think about it: you hear a lot about the supposed abundant mediocrity that exists everywhere in our society.  Yet what else do you see?  Stories about thousands of highly skilled, overqualified people fighting for just a few jobs that may not even use their skills.  Except for certain fields, these stories seem to affect everyone, from artists to scientists.

Those of us in creative fields are probably the most familiar with this sort of crapshoot.  When I was trying to be a television writer, I looked at two roads: production assistant on a television show who would then rise through the ranks, or staffed via an agent.  Either one was absolutely stuffed with people trying to do the same thing.  While I'm sure countless hacks traveled those roads, the other occupants were talented, smart, and driven people trying to win one job.

Sometimes it makes sense for opportunities to be so limited.  You can't, for instance, have 2,000 successful electric car companies, even though there might be enough people to create and run such companies.  You can't have 1,000 ballerinas in a performance, or five people serving as one lead character in a musical.  There might have been 20 brilliant choices, but There Can Only Be One.

And yet, do options need to be so restricted in other cases?  Must any aspiring writer only go through the channels created by Hollywood, or the publishing industry, to gain success?  Why can't a television writer job be like an engineering job -- no matter where you live, there are companies that hire television writers to produce their scripted shows?  Those that are hired would go to their office five days a week, where they would brainstorm or write a script.  Why are these positions treated like a holy grail kept just out of reach?  Why do there seem to be plenty of engineering jobs, but so few television writing jobs?

For a long time, it was supposedly because people would only watch content produced by Hollywood, especially the big networks.  There were no other options, or if there were, no one would take them seriously, and they would not be profitable.  People's attention spans were only so great.

Countless dreams and productions died because of these assumptions.  Yet as Internet television becomes more popular, we are learning that, in fact, people are willing to check out content not produced by Hollywood, and that there is an audience available for just about every type of show.  Yes, not every show will succeed, but many more will succeed than would have been the case 20 years ago.

Yet even so, people chosen to work in these competitive fields are treated as though they have something special, an "it" factor that others lacked.  Often that "it" factor is a relative in the industry, but I digress.  In all likelihood, these people are not more special than their competitors for the role -- it's just that the producer may have had a biased toward a particular type, and he or she fit that type on that particular day.  Treating "winners" in the creative field like they have uniquely endowed gifts only serves to justify the stifling, cut-throat nature of the industry.  The system MUST work because the best people were chosen, right?

It used to be that these situations were largely restricted to creative fields.  But now they seem to be everywhere -- teaching, bio chemistry, nursing.  Each person who gets a highly competitive job in this bleak economy is the "best," a "winner."

In reality, what this shows is that our society -- and I am referring specifically to the United States, though other countries could apply as well -- does a lousy job developing and rewarding talent.

Make no mistake -- there are a lot of people with great skills and talent out there.  Ignore the laments of employers who claim that Americans don't do X or don't know Y -- half of the time, it is just an excuse to bring in cheaper replacements.  While our society encourages the development of skills in certain occupations -- such as the tech industry -- other valuable skills are pushed to the wayside.

Never mind those "English major" skills of writing and analyzing -- who needs those? -- what about science?  What about biotechnology, which paves the way for so many promising treatments?  Hiring prospects are bleak, and have not improved much since this paper was written.  Fairly recently, many of those with biotech degrees were encouraged to switch from their "riskier, more exploratory fields" to the more nuts-and-bolts computer science, which is in demand.

Some skills and talent being more in demand than others is nothing new.  And some would defend the cut-throat competition that currently pervades everything as a way of sharpening skills and thickening skins.  That would be a good point as long as those who were the "losers" still had a place to use their talents.  So Big Company A didn't hire you?  At least you can work for Medium-Sized Company B.

Instead, what is often the case is that Big Company A is the only ticket in town.  If you can't work for Big Company A, it's time to put your dream, talents, and skill aside and choose something safe and money making.  To do anything else means that you are a perpetual loser, since if you were a winner, you would be making money from your dreams.

Yet who is the loser -- the thousands of smart, talented, motivated people who can't find employment suitable for their talents, or a society that is not flexible enough to develop areas where these people could thrive?

I realize that full employment -- much less full employment in the job of one's choice -- is pretty much a dream.  But how about thinking outside the box a little bit more?  How about deciding that not every job opening has to be like an audition for American Idol?  How about not forcing people to waste so much energy looking for work instead of being at work?

Yeah, yeah, bad economy, I know.  But this was a problem even when the economy was technically "good" -- from 2001 to 2009, slightly over one million jobs were created.  And half of them seemed to be in finance.

The solution likely won't be easy, but surely there has to be something better than letting so much talent rot?  So how about it, folks?  How about we put our heads together and try to think of a world that's better for all of us?  

The above photo comes from Stock Xchng and is free to use.

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