It was a painful moment. The moderator at the Rotterdam Talent Week opening asked the student audience if they had a “hidden talent.” Total silence. She prodded. Nothing. She went up to one of the students and put him on the spot: “What about you? Surely you have a hidden talent?” He said sure, he could sit still for hours without moving. The audience laughed. Undeterred, she moved on, not ready to let this one go. “Surely your friend has a talent?” she asked a girl. She nodded: “Yes, she’s very sociable.” Quickly, her friend interrupted by saying that “many people are sociable, so that’s not really a talent.”

Determined to extract one confession of a talent from this crowd, the moderator asked, almost pleadingly: “Are you telling me that there’s not one talented person in this room?”. Deadly silence. Again. Her eyes focused on another student. With a measure of desperation, she told this student that she’d got into university, so that was a talent! The student dismissed it loudly, attributing it instead to “luck.”

I felt for her. Nothing short of a nightmare for a host trying her best to warm up the crowd. It got me thinking. Do people normally proclaim their talent in public? Apparently not. But why not? And what is talent anyway?

Granted, we are not contestants on the Holland’s Got Talent show.

Society sends out a schizophrenic signal to the youth of our times. On the one hand, talent is synonymous with innate giftedness. Birthing the prodigious child. Standardised tests and other early detection measures are out there to tell a parent they have someone “special.”

There has been a “war for talent” in this knowledge economy. Academics need to claim excellence to get funding. Companies have talent management teams to “invest” in the right employees. Talent is currency. It’s no wonder that study programmes have found that students labelled as “gifted” fear failure more because they believe they have a lot to lose.

On the other hand, we push teamwork across our education system. Inclusive education is today’s buzzword. Self-actualisation is key. With the right motivation and hard work, everyone can be talented. The ordinary can be extraordinary.

In short, egalitarian elitism?

No wonder that students are caught in the twilight zone, trying to stand out whilst trying to stand still.

Payal Arora is an Associate Professor at Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication