American Idol, the Delusion of Talent, and Our Responsibility to Those We Love

American Idol season 432 (or somewhere thereabouts) started recently. I’m sure six of you knew this and the rest of you thought it just ran year round. We have all seen those hilariously awkward episodes when theatrically intense “singers” slaughter various pop tunes in the hopes of impressing the judges only to be turned away. It is these people’s reactions that serves as the icing on this cake; their incredulity at being told they aren’t good. GASP! The effrontery, the insult, the sheer audacity of a professional musician to tell me I am not one!

I have gotten some good chuckles out of these interactions, but the more I watched the more they made me think. How do people get this way? What makes a person so unaware that they sound more like a cat in heat than like Harry Connick Jr.?

I used to work in acquisitions for a publisher. My job was to bring in new authors, review manuscripts and book proposals, and determine which books were the right one to publish. I saw quite a few proposals from writers, and a significant number of them shared this same inability to see themselves accurately. The number of them who described their work as “a combination of Donald Miller, Tim Keller, C.S. Lewis, and John Steinbeck” was shocking considering each of those authors is one-of-a-kind.

In general, over-confidence and excessively high views of one’s own talent are rampant. Where does this delusion come from? How do people get like this? More importantly and more personally, how do I avoid this and help my children not be like this?

We need to find that balance between the rubbish of “you can do anything you set your mind to”, a recipe for crushed dreams, and being harshly critical dream crushers all by ourselves. I need to be a filter for my children, my wife, and those close to me to help them see what they are bad at AND those things at which they excel.

There are few greater disservices than allowing or encouraging someone to believe they excel at something at which they don’t. In doing so we are contributing to wasted time and effort, and, at the very worst, a wasted life. There are few greater services than clear, pointed encouragement to pursue something at which someone is good or has the potential to be good.

When I see clips of those early-season American Idol tryouts, my thoughts go immediately to the family and friends of those horrendous failures. It is those family and friends who hold the greatest responsibility in their embarrassment and failure. We too hold great responsibility for the successes and failures of those close to us. What direction are we encouraging them? Are we willing to give a small criticism now to avoid a colossal disappointment later? Do we know them well enough to say precisely what they would be great at and encourage them that direction?

I live in the Nashville area and spend my days helping churches with leadership development. My nights are spent writing and rooting for Minnesota sports teams. I also podcast a bit. I'm the author of The Pastor's Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity, Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt is Not the Enemy of Faith, and The Curious Christian: How Discovering Wonder Enriches Every Part of Life