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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 30-Dec-11


Friday 30-December-11

National treasures

My wife and I were driving north this week on a 'visit the relatives' trip recently when there was a radio programme about 'National Treasures'. These are person who are perceived as such, being 'treasured' by the nation as a whole.

Who in the UK may be classified as being national treasures? People on the show talked about Judy Dench, David Attenborough, JK Rowling, Robert Winston, Allan Bennett, Joanna Lumley, Sister Wendy and Mary Beard.We also thought of Doctor Who, Stephen Fry, the two Ronnies, Morcambe and Wise, Tommy Cooper, Terry Pratchett, the Queen, Terry Wogan. There are probably many more. Notably on our own list, there were several comedians. Maybe we became anchored by the subject.

We talked about the subject and came up with three defining criteria. So, if you want to be a treasure, this is all you need to be and do.

Unique individuality

National treasures are unique. They are scarce. They are one-offs which make them irreplaceable and valued. They do not fit into neat categories and are never described as being like other people. In fact they are so unique others are seldom described as being like them, at least with some qualification.

Intelligence and ability help. Treasures are often uniquely talented, with abilities that we can only marvel at. They often specialize in one area, although they may be multi-talented polymaths. What kills likeability is unpleasantness. All it takes is one incident of nastiness and you can be struck off the treasure list. Vulnerabilities and weaknesses are acceptably human. Unkindness to others is not.

There's an ontology of treasurehood. This is about the state of being, of who they are as a person. They should have a credible integrity, not a projected image.. They should not be too self-conscious or seekers of accolades and admiration. This excludes many 'celebrities' and admits those who may be considered eccentrics, for whom social desirability is not a goal.

Universal likeability

To be a national treasure, they must be widely liked and treasured by many people. This excludes many who appeal to local or more specialist groups. In practice no national treasures will be liked by everyone, they do need a wide appeal across groups, geographies and demographies.

Likeability is related to a sunny disposition and a sense of fun. Treasures laugh at themselves and avoid imposing their troubles on others. Maybe this is one reason why comedians have a better shot at becoming national treasures. Maybe also treasurable people are more likely to end up in comedy.

Likeability is also related to modesty. We like people who do not push themselves forward. We like people who seem to like other people (and hence, perhaps, us).

One of the ways likeability is gained, at least in the UK, is in overcoming hardship. Treasures often have tragedy and misfortune in their past, which they have overcome with patience, persistence and good character. Hardship is good for exposing those who are self-focused and those with weaker character.

Ubiquitous exposure

To become national treasures, people need a steady visibility to a wide range of people that persists over a longer period that inveigles them into the national consciousness. A person may gain fame from brief, intense exposure. Treasurehood more likely takes a lifetime.

Public exposure does things to people. Some become vain. Others shun it. Treasures grenerally accept it and are unchanged by it. What you see is what you get. They are relaxed in front of the camera, content in their own individuality and all the more likeable for it.

An interesting comparison is Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, who were once a comedy double act. Both have achived fame and fortune, but only Stephen Fry seems a national treasure. The problem is that while both are multi-talented and likeable, Hugh Laurie's exposure has been largely overseas, playing an American in the TV medical drama, 'House'. Stephen Fry has also overcome a period of deep personal depression.

National heroes are not the same as national treasures. Heroes are defined by individual acts. Treasures evolve and prove themselves, often over a lifetime. It is possible to be both (historically Lord Nelson is a classic example).

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