Three of those lessons are that
1. just like in the parable where the talents were given by the master, talent comes from God
2. to make the talent bear fruit and multiply, one needs to work. What distinguished the first two workers from the one who buried his talent was not what they received, but the work they put in
3. talent is for the benefit of people other than one’s self – in this case it was for the master, and in a socially conscious society, talent is for the service of others. Remember King David, for example, whose musical skills were for soothing King Saul, or Dorcas who had made garments for people in the community. If we serve the people, we serve God as well. Remember what Jesus said – those who will enter the kingdom are those who feed the hungry, heal the sick and visit those in prison.
So from the parable, one can say that there’s no such thing as “talent development.” And everyone has a talent. Some have several different talents, while others may have fewer which they use to make a great impact. So what matters is that one is in a context where the talent becomes evident, and usually that context involves a collective project at church, in a class or elsewhere. Usually, we get to find out our talents from how people respond to the work we do.
The idea of “talent development” is therefore misleading. It probably came from politicians who want to promise prosperity in the midst of rising unemployment in order to get our vote. And as typical politicians, they are taking credit for what they have not done, because no human being can “develop” talent. Talent is God-given.
What human beings can develop is skills and a work ethic. Without skills, and without a work ethic, one basically buries their talent in the sand, like the worker in the parable. The relationship between talent and skills is the same as that between fuel and a car. Without fuel, the car cannot move. But fuel without a car is just petrol in a jerrican. It won’t take you from point A to point B. But also, the vehicle cannot move without someone to drive the car. And that driver is called work.
I have indicated below my thoughts on what young people and parents should consider when it comes to education, arts and talent. They are based on what I’ve seen of parents and their children who consult with us when making decisions about pursuing a career in the arts. I hope these thoughts are useful for thinking through your education and the career you want to take - it doesn't have to be in the arts.
For the youth
These days it is very flattering to hold a music instrument and produce a tune that everyone likes, or design a dress that everyone wants to wear, or play football in AC Milan or the English Premier league. And for most of you, your parents want to encourage you in your talent. They boast about you when you do well. And also, you’re probably getting a lot of praise from your friends, and a number of offers from companies for their events.
You need to be aware that all this celebration can get to your head, and that it is temporary, and so you need a long term plan of how you want to continuing using your talent. That’s what two workers did in the parable. They planned what to do with the talents they were given. Planning is necessary because while you’re 18 or 19, companies will be dying to sponsor you to perform at their gigs, partly because you are part of the youth to whom they are marketing their products. But 6 years later, you will be old news (yet you’ll be only 24) and the next fresh 18-year old will be capturing everyone’s attention. And so you must learn to shut out the noise and deliberately do the not-so-exciting work behind talent, which includes the following
•Conviction and consistency: decide what you want to be known for, and be consistent. If you’re a singer, for example, you should be planning on zeroing in on a particular style of music that you do best.
• Getting to know the big names and artists in the field you have chosen: you do this as a way of surrounding yourself with the art that will inspire your own art, but also so that you can know how to market yourself, who is the core audience for the kind of talent you have, and which sponsors would be interested in the stuff you do.
• Read widely: take advantage of the internet (and Wikipedia) and read up on the international shakers in the area you’re interested in, so that you know the challenges, journeys and strategies in their career towards becoming a great artist. If you’re a jazz artist and you know, for example, that one of Aaron Rimbui’s first concerts was to an audience of nine, and mainly of his family, you will feel more confident to ignore the discouragement in the first days of your career. Another reason for knowing the greats of your particular field (be it fiction writing, play writing, singing, playing instruments, dancing, acting, information technology, architecture, engineering etc) is that you will often be invited to talk about your work, and a common question that comes up is “Who inspires you?” If you struggle to name just five people who inspire you, or with whom you benchmark yourself, and the audience recognizes none of the names you give, your audience will not be impressed. Part of being talented is respecting the people you expect to buy or appreciate your work.
• Get mentors who can hold you accountable for the brand you’ve set for yourself.
• Learn to be disciplined and do the hard work behind the scenes that often does not get recognized.
• Most of all – get an education. Having a degree – even if it’s in wildlife management – will usually give more confidence to potential partners because it broadens your mind and gives you talking points in conversations with people across cultures. Imagine, for example, you attend an environmental event and you mention something profound about wildlife. Next time the wildlife conservationists need someone to help promote their cause, they’ll call you. But remember: don't get the degree for the certificate. Or for others. Get it for the sake of your own character and mind.
What is the value of studying the arts in university?
I often tell students that our job is not to give students talent; it is to help them gain access to all the networks, information and exposure possible so that their talent can shine. The university is a good place for you to become part of the universe – either through the classes you will take or the people you meet. You can manage to do all the items I’ve mentioned above without going to the university, but if you do have the opportunity to attend one, take it. Don’t dismiss education in the name of talent. There are a lot of talented people in the world, but only those with discipline and foresight live to a ripe old age without destroying themselves. And that discipline comes from education, love for God and respect for people.
For the parents
So the concern of parents, social institutions – and I wish politicians – should be to figure out how to equip young people with the skills and the work ethic, so that young people’s talent can not only thrive, but can also help other people to the glory of God. And that’s where institutions of learning come in. I often tell students that our department does not give people talent – it gives them the skills through which to express that talent. We also try to instil a work ethic, but by the time students are in the university, it is usually very hard to start developing a work ethic in them if the seeds had not been planted already. And that’s where parents come in.
I suspect that the lack of understanding of these three elements, talent, skills and work, is what has led to parents’ different experiences with their children who choose to be artists. Unfortunately, I’ve seen a number of families whose kids do not want to continue with school, and they try to brush the parents off by saying they want to do music. The parents concede because they know that the child needs a degree, but when the children finally get into the music program, they do not attend class. Other parents later on get saddened to see that their child, whose talent they encouraged, turned into an unproductive or even self-destructive adult, and blame the child’s fate on the arts.
I don’t have a proven solution to this problem, but I would suggest that one way to protect your child who is interested in the arts is to insist on work, and using their talent to add value to the lives of others around them. Do not settle for your child dancing on stage and saying that your child is talented. Challenge yourself and the child to think of ways in which that dancing can benefit others. Your child could teach younger children, for example. Or teach a gym class during the holidays. Or they could put up a show that raises money not for their own costumes – but for other less fortunate children. Or they could visit the sick or old people and dance there.
The work ethic will also come with you insisting that they complete the task they set out to do. For instance, if they are putting up a fund-raiser, they will have to take care of logistics like arranging the venue, making tickets and arranging ushers, meals or whatever else. The experience will teach them the value of focus and of seeing a task through to the end. And the work doesn't have to be directly related to the talent. Have your children complete chores around the house before they are allowed to read a book, play piano or play football.
Another thing parents could do is to encourage their children to learn from diverse artists. Don’t let your child just try to sing like Beyonce. Encourage them to be exposed to different genres of music by, for instance, taking them for a classical concert, or for a Kenyan cultural festival. Buy them music which they are unlikely to upload on their phones themselves, and negotiate with them to listen and perform those tunes. If they like painting, take them to galleries and museums. Have them meet artists. If they like sports, allow them to go for practice and go watch tournaments with them. Have them find out who are the greatest players of the games they play. And when you hear the children admire a particular artist, make them do research on that artist’s background, training and heritage.
The reason I say this is because we have students who come claiming they are talented in hip hop, but won’t read a poetry book, or singers of jazz who’ve never heard of Hugh Masekela or Daudi Kabaka, because there’s a misconception that if one has talent, there’s nothing to learn. On the contrary, all great artists have learned from someone else, be it as an apprentice – which was how arts and knowledge were taught in traditional African societies, or in school.
Finally, do not judge your child’s career interests by the “job prospects." The era of “prestigious” or “secure” jobs – typically accounting, engineering, medicine and law – when one went to school, got a job and stayed there till they retired and got a pension, is long gone. The reality is that the world of work changes so rapidly. As the Posta people rudely discovered, one day people need landlines, the next day everyone has mobile phones. When we were young, if we wanted to telephone Nakuru from Nairobi, we had to book a call with the operator, and that’s if the people we were calling were lucky enough to have a phone in the first place. So anyone who was told that being a telephone technician was a secure job must have gotten a rude shock.
A good education is not about the profession one chooses. It’s about the skills one acquires, which experts have called the 4 C’s:
• communication – the ability to clearly explain both the technical and the ordinary stuff
• critical thinking and ability to solve problems
• creativity: ability to think of innovative solutions
• collaboration: ability to work with others and to think beyond one’s self.
As long as your child has these skills, they will be able to excel in whatever profession they enter, and grow into another profession when they need to. And these skills are acquired through talent, whether the child is a scientist or an artist.
Ultimately, talent comes from God, skill comes from education, and a work ethic comes from discipline and guidance. Rather than attempt to develop the youth’s talent, I suggest that parents and churches develop first and foremost the young people’s values and work ethic and secondly their skills (if that isn't done in school). And then our children’s God-given talent will shine and brighten the world.