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Monday 27 May 2013

James Hunt: open talent champion

I was eating cornflakes when I heard the radio commentary of James Hunt winning the 1976 Formula 1 championship from the other side of the world, a mysterious rainy Japan. In the mind of a shy seven year old struggling to fit into the school system, James Hunt’s victory took on a magical escapologist quality. Beyond the corners of my Bedfordshire breakfast table, all things seemed suddenly possible.  

I recall this not just because, 20 years since the death of James Hunt, 2013 will see the launch of a new film about his life.  As unlikely as it might sound to some, the memory of James Hunt has been something quite influential to me in developing the thinking behind the Foyer Federation’s Open Talent approach to working with young people. While much is made of Hunt’s flamboyant personality, there are two simple lessons from his story that help to illustrate how we can best equip young people with the tools they need to create a positive future.

The first of these lies in Hunt’s character and charisma. Hyperactive, rebellious, sensitive, single-minded, prone to tantrums and depressions, Hunt was cut out to be ‘a problem child’.   In a different setting, he would no doubt have been sent to remedial classes and excluded for not conforming. Hunt was lucky enough to have wealthy parents.  They paid for a public school education, an environment where his early love of animals and ability in sports were encouraged.  The young James Hunt was able to thrive by following his instincts. Indeed, what made him a champion in 1976 was exactly the same set of ingredients that made him potentially difficult as a young child. Hunt’s ability to drive a car at the edge of performance depended on a volatile set of personality traits. The ‘disadvantages’ of character became the ‘advantages’ of charisma, with the added ingredient of steely determination. Perhaps a by-product of his parent’s discipline, part of his own competitive nature, and no doubt influenced from the self-confidence gained in public school, the determination to succeed gave Hunt a winning hand.  Without it, the flamboyant Hunt of fame would never have been able to hold down two jobs, working day and night just to afford the parts he needed for his first racing car. 

Encouraging young people to follow what they are good at, and giving them the confidence and work ethic to make a go of things, are the secrets behind Hunt’s success.  It shouldn’t need a privileged education for us to focus on empowering people to make use of their natural traits and to follow their dreams.  It’s a basic approach that is fundamental to any service or relationship striving to better the lives of young people from challenging backgrounds.  How many James Hunts do we miss out on, because we don’t know how to look for them?

The second lesson is the one which ignites Hunt’s career. A chance visit to Silverstone on his 18th birthday gave Hunt a new purpose to aim for – what he described as ‘instant commitment’.  A key threshold had been passed. Watching the race, Hunt discovered the one thing he could invest his energy and passion on.  Plans to become a doctor were quickly abandoned as Hunt set out on a haphazard journey through early adulthood that would lead him to the pinnacle of the world.  What can’t be underestimated here is the importance of that random visit to the race track.  Hunt was not born wearing a motor racing helmet; he discovered his crown by chance.  How many of us feel the same when we look back at the connections in our life and realise how important it has been to be immersed in different experiences and contexts. Yet, despite knowing this truth, few services make such experiences a key part of their curriculum. In the south east, there are commissioners who believe young people should be taught how to assemble flat-packed furniture as a key life skill instead.  What contribution would that have made to James Hunt?  There is a dreadful gap in aspirations here. Young people who haven’t been to public school can also find their ‘instant commitment’ by trying out the world around them.  Experience doesn’t come from following instructions for flat-packed furniture; it’s discovered by allowing the heart and mind to wonder.

If you put these two lessons together, you end up realising that it is important to ‘personalise’ and ‘tailor’ how we equip young people to make a positive transition into adulthood that exceeds expectations. James Hunt will be remembered for certain things in life that would make many people query why he should be seen as a potential role model for opening the talents of young people today.  But that would be to miss the significance of his story. Beneath the overalls of the legend lies some simple, magical truths, we shouldn’t be in a 'rush' not to dwell on.   Above all else, Hunt was an authentic rule breaker.  The charity sector urgently needs to follow suit.

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