Harry Potter writer J.K. Rowling was rejected 12 times before she landed her first book contract, and the Beatles were passed over by a record executive at Decca before going on to become the world’s greatest pop band under rival label EMI.
Talent, in other words, is often in the eye of the beholder, especially when in the chrysalis stage of development. Innate brilliance rarely is enough to get an exceptional individual noticed.
According to George Anders, author of The Rare Find, talent often depends on other people, themselves gifted in being able to recognize greatness before anyone else, in order to grow wings.
“Spotting tomorrow’s pop music stars – or actors or authors – at the dawn of their careers is devilishly hard,” says Mr. Anders, a former reporter with The Wall Street Journal whose book came out in 2011. “These performers haven’t fully shown yet what they can do. Even the successful finders will acknowledge, in their more humble moments, that they weren’t totally sure how things would play out. They just saw enough to tip the scales toward yes.”
Mr. Anders spent some time researching how legends such as Garth Brooks, J.K. Rowling, Elvis Presley and Taylor Swift were “discovered.”
“In most of those cases, it came down to who was willing to take a chance on someone new and unproven,” he says. “That willingness to ask what can go right … is a very important part of talent scouting. Grow too suspicious, and you run a great risk of slamming the door on someone who might be a once-in-a-decade discovery.”
Being open to new discoveries is the mandate of The Catalysts talent search contest at The Globe and Mail, where a panel of experts, all with proven track records for spotting the next great thing within their respective fields, is already busy poring over nominations from readers across Canada.
Panelist David Lee, the award-winning chef behind the Nota Bene restaurant in Toronto, says he looks for passion when taking a chance on someone new and unproven.
“I can tell a lot by the way a person moves,” Mr. Lee elaborates. “Does he or she move like a chef, feel like a chef, touch like a chef? Does he or she love food? That might sound funny to say, but a chef’s got to be passionate about food and it’s got to show in everything he or she does, right down to the presentation on the plate.”
But even passion can have a shelf life. Longevity, often the byproduct of tenacity and hard work, is what sustains talent’s flight above the heads of others.
“In this business,” Mr. Lee continues, “you can be talented one day and untalented the next. So how do you judge talent, then? It often comes down to what an individual has done for others.”
Having an influence is part and parcel of talent’s measure. The Beatles, for instance, are great not just because they were superb songwriters and musicians who created a new sound, but because they inspired many other artists to follow their lead.
It’s what George Yabu, one half of the internationally acclaimed design firm Yabu Pushelberg, calls the talent tree.
“Talent does beget talent,” says Mr. Yabu, a native of Toronto with offices in Canada and the United States. “It’s like a tree in that it grows and is rooted in strength. The more you prod it, the more it comes back at you.”
Early in his career. Mr. Yabu and his partner Glen Pushelberg were encouraged by others, including Hudson’s Bay Co. president and Catalysts panelist Bonnie Brooks, who saw their potential and continually hired them.
Mr. Yabu acknowledges the debt he owes to others who took a risk on him by repaying it in kind, nurturing young talent himself.
“I search far and wide from around the world to hire young people for our New York office and our Toronto office,” relates Mr. Yabu, adding that the relationship is mutually beneficial. “When you’re looking for new talent it sort of motivates yourself, pushing your creative abilities much further. I’m at a stage in my career where it’s easy to get too comfortable so I surround myself with a lot of young talent. It keeps me on my toes.”
Jeffrey Remedios, co-founder of record label Arts & Crafts and another of The Catalysts panelists, has profited from acts of creative reciprocity as his 10-year-old business has grown.
“We have artists who’ve gone on to bring other artists to our attention whom we’ve also signed to the label,” he says, giving the example of a senior artist such as Leslie Feist actively supporting new band Cold Specks, which is led by Al Spx, the powerful 24-year-old female singer-songwriter from Toronto. “It’s nice,” Mr. Remedios continues, “because magical things happen because of this willingness of artists wanting to support each other.”
Jason Collett joined the Arts & Crafts label following his membership in the band Broken Social Scene, encouraged by fellow musician and label co-founder Kevin Drew.
“He roped me in,” Mr. Collett says during a recent concert tour break. “After Broken Social Scene, I ended up being the second artist signed to the new label. That was largely Kevin’s doing.”
In short order, the Toronto-based singer-songwriter became his own success story. Since 2001, he has produced six solo albums, including Reckon in 2012, and has appeared as an actor in a recent Toronto revival of the Patti Smith-Sam Shepard authored play, The Cowboy Mouth.
Like Mr. Yabu, Mr. Collett believes in giving back as a way of nurturing talent, his own and others. He is responsible for helping launch the careers of Bahamas and Zeus, groups which grew out of Paso Mino, Mr. Collett’s original backup band.
“I never considered myself a great purveyor of talent, but there was no hiding these guys,” Mr. Collett says. “Paso Mino was young and innately talented, and the members of that band went on to form other great bands. It was inevitable. And the end result was they could no longer be my band.”
But Mr. Collett didn’t have a problem with that. “There are two ways you can approach a situation like this, as a threat or as a bonus,” he says.
“Luckily for me, I had already had that initial experience with Broken Social Scene and had reaped the benefits of that spirit of collaboration. It had clearly rubbed off on me. So now I have good relations with all of them, and those relations continue to be reciprocal.”