Re-Enter Billy Elliot Stage Left, Exit Britain Stage Right

Meta-effectiveness, or developing oneself with practical and factual knowledge resources, is challenging enough. (Witness Cognitive Productivity.) But (how) can we, and should we develop ourselves with the art of others?


Even if we manage to right the obliquities of a work of art, to point them in the direction(s) in which its creator was heading, there’s no guarantee the direction is helpful. But we are not limited by the creator’s direction.

When very deep art is presented to us, we, its processors (its so called “consumers”) need to dig deeply to reach its potent seams. Otherwise, the art remains at best a pleasant memory, a brief distraction from our concerns; and that is not always enough.

As with knowledge-based meta-effectiveness, the process of transforming ourselves with art starts by recognizing the caliber, utility and potency of profound art. This in turn requires that we grasp the problems and themes with which it wrestles, and then connect them to our concerns, concepts, beliefs, and theories. Truly potent art does not merely affirm our current views. It challenges our understanding and provides us with an opportunity to grow.

Great art presents a profound personal challenge. The greater the challenge, the fewer stand up to it. I suppose success can be measured by the depth of change, the extent of mental growth. But measuring growth is a major problem in itself. I will set it aside for now while noting that some personal development is better than none, and that great art gives back proportionally to the effort one puts in.

The Billy Elliot musical, which is currently running at the Vancouver Arts Club, stands out as a particularly potent resource. I assume you are familiar with the story, so I won’t summarize it here. The emotions generated by Billy Elliot can motivate and sustain reflection on its many themes. In this short post, I can only respond to some of its invitations for reflections, and superficially at that.

Solidarity Astray in Billy Elliot and Brexit

I recently used Brexit as an example of failure of knowledge-based meta-effectiveness. Is it also a failure of benefiting from political art? Songs of Bruce Springsteen come to my mind. But I think Billy Elliot is particularly germane. It’s impossible not to oversimplify in this post; the Wikipedia article on the strike weighs 19,000 words… But clearly in both Billy Elliot and Brexit, many politicians, unions, communities, business owners and ordinary people caught up in the events worked against their own and each others’ interests. Stigmatization of minorities, as usual in these circumstances, becomes more pronounced.

One of the most striking themes in Billy Elliot and Brexit is the problem of solidarity. Solidarity with whom? For what purposes? And in what way? There’s a scene in the downright psychedelic Solidarity song where police officers and strikers exchange headgear via the children, depicting the yin and yang of conflicting (real world) actors. Neither of the many major sets of players, in Brexit or Elliot, adopt a rational, progressive strategy.

Cultural Context of Behavior

Cognitive scientists tend to focus on the individual: the virtual machines inside that run our brains, bodies and worlds. We cognitive scientists may not like cultural explanations of behavior any more than biologists value AI. However, a musical like Billy Elliot forces us to consider the cultural context of behavior. The challenge is not merely to pay lip service to them but to find ways of describing the interfaces and interactions between these levels. Here, I will merely point to the work of Merlin Donald (author of A mind so rare) who has worked very hard in this direction in his research on consciousness.


Billy Elliot is very much about grief. I’m sure I was like many who have lost a close relative in being moved to tears by Billy’s maternal orphanhood. There is an exchange of letters between Billy, his mother and his teacher (Mrs. Wilkinson). Billy yells to his dad that his mother would let him dance. His still grieving dad (who would later sing “Once I loved a woman, she meant the world to me”) replies “Your mother’s dead”. Ouch! You would think the most patent grief is Billy’s. But Billy displays the most serene and emotionally moving acceptance I’ve ever seen on stage. Mrs. Wikinson: “She must have been a very special woman, your mother.” Billy: “No. She was just me mum”.

We are for the most part led to feel antipathetically towards Billy’s brother, Tony, who attempts to stunt Billy’s artistic development, while taking a violent stance in his union. However, one eventually realizes that not only is Tony responding to the police and government, he is also responding to the loss of his mother. This character’s development and so many other themes in this musical present us a mettā opportunity… a mettā challenge

Flow, Effectance and Electricity

Billy Elliot is an opportunity to think about talent and its development. The simplest way of reading the story is that Billy has talent, and Mrs. Wilkinson knows it.

The song Electricity points to the simple joy of dancing. But why would one feel such joy, whereas someone else would not. Is it just an innate taste? Is it a way to cope with or respond to grief? To escape the stressful circumstances of the environment?

And what are the relative contributions of talent and hard work in this hypothetical character, or in any of us? Grandma explains to Billy that she and her husband used to love to dance on Saturday nights. Other things being equal, that points to inheritance. But inheritance of what? Of talent? Of enjoyment of dance? Of enjoying dancing competently? Of performing? Perhaps there is something else, which Aaron Sloman calls “architecture based motivation”. In this case one is driven to develop, not because it is pleasant, nor because this serves a conscious or even unconscious need, but because of prior causal factors (genetic and environmental) that have bent one’s mind to develop in a certain direction. (I described this in Cognitive Productivity as it is a major component of meta-effectiveness.)

Billy Elliot depicts the important role of perceived self-efficacy, and how teachers can help students engage in what Timothy J. Wilson calls story editing, “which is a set of techniques designed to redirect people’s narratives about themselves and the social world in a way that leads to lasting changes in behavior.” Billy tells Mrs. Wilkson he can’t do. She says he’s not trying. Maybe he internalizes (or one would internalize) that he needs to work harder, smarter. That’s one of the most important lessons one can learn. All the talent in the world will not compensate for low perceived self-efficacy. In Born to Boogie Mrs. Wilkinson lectures the boy that we are born to dance. Incorporating these nativist memes into one’s personal narrative can redirect one’s life.

(I discuss these aspects of the development of competence in chapters 1 and 3 of Cognitive Productivity.)

And what about the powerful theory of social signalling? According to this theory our behavior is significantly determined by our desire to form positive impressions on people. The theory can cope with cases like Billy Elliot, i.e., with culturally divergent expertise. Attempting to show this is an instructive exercise.

Art does not directly answer the questions I’ve posed. However, it normally represents true possibilities. These possibilities allow us to test our theories, and our understanding of our theories, if we spend the time trying explicitly to articulate them to ourselves and communicate them to each other. Art like Billy Elliot invites us also to invent counter-factual possibilities. We can run mental fan fiction simulations. What-if scenarios that fork the original in alternative fictions. And that is what cognitive scientists (should) do.

Angry Dance

I like all of the songs on the Billy Elliot soundtrack. But the one that stands out the most in the realm of motivation, in my mind, is Angry Dance. It represents anyone’s anger at irrational thwarting forces outside of one’s control. This song is now on several of my exercise playlists. And that is a very direct way in which we can use art to transform ourselves: to help us to treat obstacles as motivators to do the work required to succeed.

The key though is to proceed like the Billy Elliot character, and to use this motivation to pursue excellence, without shooting ourselves in the foot (e.g., breaking solidarity with our metaphorical Europe) in the process.

References and Related Readings

Beaudoin, L. P. (2015), Cognitive Productivity: Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective. BC: CogZest.

Donald, M. (2001). A mind so rare: The evolution of human consciousness. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Hall, L., John, E. (2005). Billy Elliot — The Musical.

Sloman, A. (2009b). Architecture-based motivation vs reward-based motivation. Retrieved from:

Wilson, T. D. (2011). Redirect. Little, Brown.

Published by

Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity books. Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University. Why, Where, and What I Write. See About Me for more information.

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