The Talent Crash

Most of us assume when we talk about technology that, while jobs will be automated out of existence and technological unemployment will be an issue, it’ll most likely be someone else’s problem. At least in technology, we associate ourselves with the unemployers rather than the unemployed. We’re talented, we note. We’ll be OK.

Is that so?

Let me ask a question: what is the universal sign of an untalented person?

Think about it. Write something down.

It’s not being bad at something, because even talented people are bad at many things. No one would pay to watch me play basketball.

Here’s the answer: an untalented person lives on his reputation. That’s it. That’s how it works. Talented people can succeed on their merits; untalented people succeed if they create and exploit feedback loops (wealth and prestige begetting same) in human societies. I suppose that if someone can do this intentionally (and a few people, I believe, can) that would be a talent of its own sort, but most often this is unintentional. With celebrities, it’s called “famous for being famous”. It’s the same thing with business executives, though. I will never be tapped for those jobs; I’m not part of that social network, I wasn’t born into that class, et cetera. But anything those guys could do, I could do better. They’re not talented people. They just have a track record (with support, often invisible, from their social class) that presents an image of professional competence that compels other people to do work on their behalf and keep that impression going. It’s nothing magical.

I don’t think it’s hard to make that case. Looking at the world economy, we can examine the intersection of class and talent. At the bottom, class-wise, the distinctions don’t matter so much because people survive by offering raw labor. There is a reputation component to getting these jobs– a felony conviction is nearly fatal– but it’s relatively easy to stay above that blade. In the middle and upper classes, it gets harder. Talent is hard enough to measure as it is, but talented people are usually doing things other than evaluating talent. This means that our society must trust talentless people to evaluate talent when filling coveted jobs. The results are just as laughable as one would expect, but industrialization is such a win that society can chug along (with 1-2 percent economic growth instead of 5+, but it’s not negative) with mediocre people at the helm. Reputation, and the manipulation thereof, become important in such a world.

Talent doesn’t matter in the workaday world because it’s been successfully managed out of the equation. An adept manager doesn’t bet his company on the intermittent availability of top talent. He tries to find a way to make sure the trains will still run with mediocre people driving them. This is a disturbing realization for me, but my existence on a job site means that, from a cost-cutting MBA’s perspective, someone fucked up. A more capable executive would find a way to replace the expensive, ornery high-talent person with a plug-and-play mediocrity.

Does this mean that society doesn’t need talent? Exactly that, at least in the short term. It should want talent– mediocrities are never going to cure cancer, nor are they going to fix global warming (although, with only mediocrities, we wouldn’t have global warming in the first place)– but that’s a separate discussion. The world benefits from top talent. Do individual hiring managers trying to protect their positions, within workaday corporations that would rather standardize mediocre processes than take a risk on excellence, get what they want from people like me? No. It’s a disturbing realization, but high-talent people need to be aware of it. Google and Facebook are advertising companies, not AI or social-engineering companies. They need a few high-talent people, no doubt, but the fewer of them these companies truly need, the better their executives are doing.

Our society might have want for high talent but it doesn’t really have much economic demand for it. In light of the collapsing demand for top talent, reputation and social manipulation become more important than ever. Which means that the 85th, 95th, and possibly 99th percentiles are forced to live on their reputations, like talentless hacks. People who could once work with their talents are now forced to fall back on their reputations. Why? Because corporate management, on its own terms, works. The system runs well enough on mediocre inputs. To be talented enough to be above the reputation trap got harder. There might soon be no level of talent that escapes it. That’s a scary notion.

Over the past 30 years, while we weren’t looking, reputation became something more malevolent and far more powerful. There are no fresh starts. The only way to reinvent oneself and try again is to break the last rule in a workplace world that has no real honor left, and to lie, and not just to lie but to support the lie with false social proof that can be bought, like any other commodity, on the Internet. I won’t take a position either way on whether it’s right for people to lie on their CVs or in job interviews. I’ll only note that most people have few other defenses against a more powerful adversary that can manipulate reputation against individual interests. It’s ideal not to have to lie to get jobs, but some people have no better way to fix their reputations and I don’t especially fault them for it. We live in a superficial, stupid world where “Mr. Kim” gets jobs that “Kim” can’t.

As the Internet came online, optimists viewed it as the most important publishing tool to come about since Gutenberg– and they turned out to be right. Yet, we ignored the risks: that our corporate masters would use this tool to surveil us. We now live in a world where not having a LinkedIn profile is, like some people’s natural hair, “political”; and where most people unknowingly sign away their legal rights when they interview for a job (to sue over bad references) as well as when they take one (if their company has a binding arbitration clause). Opting out isn’t really possible. The corporate masters have won. In a split second, they can (and do) manipulate this miasma of information that comprises “reputation” and destroy anyone they want. Anyone who doesn’t think the top corporate executives, hedge-fund supercapitalists, and Sand Hill Road king-makers use the same “troll farms” that splattered barf all over the 2016 election… isn’t paying attention.

When the world needed labor, most of us (often self-anointed) “talented” people were able to outrun “the other guy”, if the not the bear. This time, the forest floor’s littered with half-eaten corpses of “other guys” and the bear’s still coming. This surveillance/reputation capitalism beast we unwittingly created, we barely understand it, and not one of us is really free of it.

So, let’s discuss Trump. First of all, there’s a perception that Trumpism is about white male “emasculation” as we move from an industrial to a service economy. I prefer not to think of it in terms of emasculation, because any humiliating thing that men should not have to put up with, women should also not have to put up with. However, surveillance/reputation capitalism is objectively humiliating. No one of any gender should have to live under it. What some people see in Trump is a man who beat a bad reputation (which, in his case, he earned) and won in spite of being despised by the upper-middle classes (whom the working classes conflate with “the rich”). By winning in spite of a negative reputation, he slew the dragon; it doesn’t matter (for some) that he’s a ghoul who leaned heavily on reputation’s perversities (e.g., the sexist assault on a woman’s character because of her husband’s failings) to win.

One can dissect Trump and his reputation in a variety of ways. His reputation is negative in the sense of this low character has been obvious for decades, but his “brand” is the only think he actually built with any competence. How negative could his reputation be, if he could turn it into such a successful brand? He exploited an obvious, degenerate trait in our society: that after the 1980s, being an asshole became a status symbol. There’s probably more to analyze here than there is time to analyze it, and Trump’s defeat of the reputation monster is an illusion. With his wealth and contacts, he never had any trouble getting inside said monster and making it do what he wanted.

Demand for talent, and therefore its market value, seems to decrease. This scares me. Taking a long-term perspective, the world still needs talent. Only one-fifth of the world has been lifted out of miserable poverty, and the planet gets hotter every year. However, the world’s running just fine on the terms of the people in charge. From their perspective, they’d probably prefer a world with less talent, so they can’t be challenged. And although there’ve been no improvements in the accuracy of this tool called reputation, it now comes with shocking (if false) precision.

Perhaps not 85 or 95, but 100, percent of us will be forced to live on our reputations, like talentless hacks. It’s hard to come up with an alternative.

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19 thoughts on “The Talent Crash

  1. Anders Ericsson, the author of Peak, based on years of his research claims that there is no such thing as talent. At least when it comes to mental abilities. I tend to agree.

  2. >> It’s hard to come up with an alternative.

    Be the buy side. In groups, that’s the hardest thing. Otherwise we’ll never beat the divide et impera system that’s setup against us.

    • Corporations don’t need talented people any more than plantations in the Deep South needed talented slaves. As long as your output was two sigmas within the mean, you’d be kept alive, not be tortured too badly, and allowed to die from malnutrition at a ripe old age of 30.

      But, I would emphasize that the American asshole is in decline. In the 80’s, we started accepting assholes – they weren’t nice, but they got the job done! In the 90’s and 2000’s, we worshiped the ground they walked on – watch Sex and the City, or how the Game community studiously copies the behavior of antisocial, psychopathic, and damaged men. Today, in the wake of the financial crisis, we have this ambiguous acceptance that assholes rule the world, but it doesn’t quite sit right with us, since we realize that the world they created is excluding more and more of us. And, as someone who lives abroad, I can assure you that the rest of the world doesn’t have any demand for our particular brand of assholery – I know some American MBA’s here who would have ruled the roost at home, but aren’t given the time of day here.

      I think a new talent-focussed business community could arise in the old one’s ashes, at least in the tech field. But, it would need to find a way to (a) monetize ethical behavior, (b) be led by genuinely talented people, and (c) be global in focus.

      (a) isn’t that hard. Customers, treated well, treated ethically, treated respectfully, respond to this with loyalty.

      (b) should be a matter of course, but isn’t, because we are still dependent on investors for livelihood. Investors almost invariably insist on infesting the companies we start with MBA’s and outdated management techniques. We need to build client-focussed businesses that can survive without investment.

      As for (c), the global economy is still largely focussed on marketing to where the money is – the US and Europe. There is a huge opportunity to build businesses focussed not on where the money is, but where the *people* are – China, India, Latin America, and Africa. Penetrating these markets is incredibly difficult – one has not only to deal with corruption and bureaucracy, but with consumers who don’t have a lot of buying power. Products need to be inexpensive, easy to use, easy to make, and easy to distribute. Why would this be beneficial? Because once people all over the world start using your stuff, there’s very little the gatekeepers in Washington, New York, Silicon Valley, or anywhere else can do to stop you, no matter how vindictive they are.

      We are in France in 1788. We have discovered new ways of producing things and making money, but we are stuck in a political and managerial regime that is aggressively trying to hold on, destroying lives and careers in the process. Only, we don’t need violence to overthrow them. People will vote with their feet, quietly.

      • “I know some American MBA’s here who would have ruled the roost at home, but aren’t given the time of day here.”

        Where do you live? This is interesting to me. My wife and I have talked about leaving the country– if Trumpism had turned out to go worse than it so far has– although quite frankly my impulse is to stay here and fight. It’s a beautiful country and someone has to.

        “[W]here the *people* are – China, India, Latin America, and Africa.”

        Excellent point. Do you follow the book industry at all? Even with language barriers, most of your buyers if you self-publish are going to be outside the US. However, the brick-and-mortar and trade-publishing infrastructure is still bound within national lines.

        I wrote a card game that has been published in print once– in Japan. I didn’t “submit” it; they contacted me out of the blue. It just happens to be a better match for Japanese tastes in games than for American ones.

        • Can’t tell you where I am – don’t want to attract the wrong attention, but it’s someplace warm. Don’t get romantic about living outside the US – there is a lot to give up:

          * Your salary won’t be anywhere near what it was.
          * There’s very little of what we’d call “professionalism” – people are paid shit, so they have to be scared into doing anything.
          * Things you expect to work (the post office, getting a drivers’ license, having things delivered), almost never do. Again, no one cares.
          * People can be extremely flaky and on occasion dishonest.
          * Leaving your family is hard.
          * Adapting to a different language is a pain.
          * If you’re an entrepeneur, the legal system treats you like a criminal.
          * People aren’t necessarily going to value the things you value (education, hard work, etc.).
          * And, if you ever want to come back, employers in the US will look askance at you (“why did you leave?? What’s wrong with you?”) Even if they don’t, HR will, so, no job for you.

          But, at the same time, to be honest, I don’t miss my life in the US. Americans are ridiculously competitive – they have to be healthier, happier, have more money – and it isolates them from one another and slowly drives them crazy. I haven’t seen anything remotely close to the psychological violence that I experienced working in an American office. The food is a lot better, and I’m healthier, mentally and phyiscally. I have lots of people I’d call true friends.

          America is still the easiest place to do business – to get clients, to sell things, to make things happen. Unfortunately, that’s really the only thing it has going for it. The America we were promised is gone and it’s never coming back.

          • Besides, as an US citizen, you’ll be paying taxes to US, no matter where you live in this world. Remember fatca.

            But yes, there are better places to live than US, not many, but there are.

  3. I don’t think talent can “trump”(a weird word that gained a new meaning) reputation. But, talent can drive reputation. Reputation can be driven from talent if talent was easily grasped by laymen and one could make living outside corporate realms. For example, visual artists and comics artists.

  4. >> An untalented person lives on his reputation.

    We all live on our reputation and that reputation is how much me made at our previous job. Take a hit in your salary by being fired and having to accept a low ball offer or even stupider, by accepting a lower salary at a startup or something *when you’re not a founder* and your reputation clock is reset back by 10 years or if you’re unlucky even more.

  5. Insightful article. In some ways you are describing what Veblen referred to as the “Machine” or the “Machine process” in the Theory of Business Enterprise. It is a fascinating read if you have not read it and it very much applies to what has happened in the world in the past 50 years. Extracting away the “talent” as you call it, is a definite goal of the Machine. ”

    “But after all qualifications have been made, the fact still is apparent that the everyday life of those classes which are engaged in business differs materially in the respect cited from the life of the classes engaged in industry proper. There is an appreciable and widening difference between the habits of life of the two classes; and this carries with it a widening difference in the discipline to which the two classes are subjected. It induces a difference in the habits of thought and the habitual grounds and methods of reasoning resorted to by each class. There results a difference in the point of view, in the facts dwelt upon, in the methods of argument, in the grounds of validity appealed to; and this difference gains in magnitude and consistency as the differentiation of occupations goes on. So that the two classes come to have an increasing difficulty in understanding one another and appreciating one another’ s convictions, ideals, capacities, and shortcomings.”

  6. Not quite on target but close for this posting:

    So only rich kids in their 20s

      • By the way Michael, you got married, congrats. Know that when you’ll make a kid you will:

        1) Quadruple your expenses. I’m not kidding. As a single guy, perhaps even married, I could work a month and save for 4. Now (with a wife and kid) I work a month and save for another half.
        2) Decimate your other source of competitive advantage for making that 4x: free time. As a single guy I had my evenings, weekends, could take days off and work on my stuff. With a wife and kid, after 9 hours of work + 2 of commute, I get home to 4x the expenses in $$$ and impossible to fend off demands to spend all the rest of my available free time on their mental well being. Mental well being, as you sure know Michael, is very important. Problem’s #1 + #2 comes at the cost of killing #3.
        3) Me. That kid that demands attention from his papa (#2), much more than he’s aware that he needs #1 in the first place. Eventually they’ll either kill me altogether or somehow I’ll drag myself to 70 like my father before me then contemplate how and why in hell I churned another doomed soul like me in this world. He’ll get no chance just like I’ve got none.

  7. Desperate times means desperate measures. If my approach were to be a non-grata, it would already had been. Consequently I’ll try to resume my links with North Korea.

  8. It’s hilarious that Trump being talented is pushing you to question the very concept of talent and if it exists at all.

  9. Someone said “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety nine percent perspiration.” I was looking for the perspiration part in your definition of talent, but it’s nowhere to be found. And yes, talent how you define it, is greatly overrated. Talent is eaten at breakfast by entrepreneurship and robustness, I am just stating the case based on observation.

    • Because every entitled snowflake wants to reap 100% of the rewards by putting in just 1% of the effort, their fucking “talent”. Of course, someone has to actually do the dirty work, the losers at the base of the corporate hierarchy.

      • It’s more the expectation to come ahead based on own beliefs. But when the belief meets the reality an adjustment takes place. People learn quickly that talent is not enough and readjust. They usually end up doing something for which they are not naturally inclined, but with practice they get better and eventually surpass the talented who manages to survive based on his “talent”.

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