Are You Amazing at What You Do?
Finding and Working with the Best. Reviewing ‘Talent’ by Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross
One of the great joys of live music is watching talented people just do their thing. My wife, Megan, and I saw Bruce Hornsby a few years back at City Winery here in Nashville. We sat right next to the stage. We could see how his feet—and sometimes whole body—kept time on the piano. We could see his gamut of facial expressions as he played accordion and then Appalachian dulcimer, singing earnestly one moment, joshing with the audience the next.
It’s the same when working with talented people. We see how they tackle problems; how they enliven the people around them; how they think about difficulties; how they contribute in meetings; how they execute their work. It’s inspiring to work alongside great people, which raises an important question: How do we get more of that in our lives?
Economist Tyler Cowen and venture capitalist Daniel Gross answer in their new book, Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World. And what do they know? Cowen has experience in talent search as director of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and his Emergent Ventures program. Gross was a partner at Y Combinator and now leads Pioneer, funding embryonic startups. They look at several aspects of talent search, based not only on personal impressions and experience, but also empirical research.
The pair begin by exploring why talent matters. “Just about everyone is on a quest to find talent in others or to show off their own,” they write. “When we speak to CEOs, nonprofit directors, or venture capitalists, lack of proper talent—and how to go about finding more of it—is an obsessive concern of theirs.”
The concern reaches well beyond business. Whether it’s athletics, academia, entertainment, or any other field, knowing how talent is valued and evaluated provides an edge. “You have to worry about talent judgments at least as much as the boss does,” they say.
How can we ferret out talent when looking at candidates for roles, investments, and so on? It begins with the job interview, which Cowen and Gross treat in two ways. First, consider the questions themselves. What makes a good query? Here are some they recommend with the rationales behind them.
“What are the open tabs on your browser right now?” Exposes the person’s intellectual habits and hobbies. If the individual doesn’t reveal sufficient curiosity or interest in personal growth, that ought to be concerning.
“What’s a story one of your references might tell me when I call them?” Forces them to think on their feet and tell stories about themselves. Same with: “How do you feel you are different from the people at your current company?”
“Who are our competitors?” Helps evaluate how well they understand your business and the environment in which it operates.
“Did you feel appreciated at your last job? What was the biggest way in which you did not feel appreciated?” Could reveal difficult emotional and personality traits worth avoiding.
“How successful do you want to be?” Or: “How ambitious are you?” Forces someone to clarify the sort of contribution they’ll make on the job, especially if you ask for specifics.
All of these questions are designed to skirt past self-promotional, canned answers—which is the second consideration in job interviews. Every good candidate will have prepared. But that means interviewers are usually attending a performance, not participating in a genuinely revealing exchange. Unanticipated, offbeat questions have the virtue of evading prep.
Another technique for getting past the prep? Change the setting. For example, go for a walk. Changing the context for the interview will make it feel less like an interview and thus heighten the odds candidates will drop their guard, go beyond their prep, and reveal something of their real character. The point, they say, is to let the candidate do most of the talking. Soliciting stories is usually a plus.
Along with this advice come counterintuitive suggestions. Cowen and Gross warn about overvaluing intelligence. Wildly intelligent people might prove inept in other areas: evaluating social context, working in teams, and so forth. “Drive, self-motivation, curiosity, and ethics” all matter more, according to Marc Andreessen, who invented the Web browser and helped fund Facebook, Stripe, Airbnb, and other successful ventures. Other traits that matter?
Playing well on a team
Adept at identifying priorities
Five-factor personality traits prove less helpful than hiring managers might think, according to Cowen and Gross. At Full Focus, where I work, we use Kolbe and StrengthsFinder to help fill out the portrait presented in an interview. But we’ve also seen various personality lenses fail to render a clear picture of the candidate.
For instance, what if someone seems risk-averse on an assessment—owing to, say, personal history or even cultural conditioning—but in the context of a specific job where they have particular knack and experience they perform brilliantly? We don’t want to inadvertently screen for upbringing and miss talent, but it can happen.
This points to a weakness in many talent searches. Most search tends toward self-reinforcement, producing more of what you’ve already got. But sameness is overrated.
The Diversity Bonus
University of Michigan professor Scott Page has written on the “diversity bonus” in a compelling book by that title. Take David Ricardo’s comparative advantage or Adam Smith’s division of labor in the context of a company: Some people have particular skills and strengths, both practical and intellectual; if employers clone-hire people like themselves, they end up overweighted in some areas and exposed in others. Since their skills and strengths have corresponding deficits and weaknesses, employers should actively recruit people unlike themselves to gain compensatory skills and strengths.
Part of the intrigue of Talent is Cowen and Gross’s encouragement to leverage the diversity bonus by scouting for talent in overlooked quarters. It’s well known that the sameness trap has historically boxed out women and minorities. Cowen and Gross advise intentionally seeking out candidates from marginalized groups and discuss easily overlooked aspects of the search.
Beyond gender and race, Cowen and Gross explore the value sometimes conferred by atypical intelligence. It’s easy to see dyslexia, autism, ADHD, and other diagnoses as detriments. Not always. “Disabilities can reflect or augment talent,” they write, discussing three mechanisms. For one, disability in one area can serve as a marker for greater skill in another because circumstances have directed the individual to develop in an alternative direction.
“[My dyslexia] helped me think big but keep our messages simple,” said Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group. “The business world often gets caught up in facts and figures—and while the details and data are important, the ability to dream, conceptualise, and innovate is what sets the successful and the unsuccessful apart.”
For another, those with atypical intelligence sometimes have heightened skills in the very areas where they are disabled—precisely because they have had to intentionally cultivate abilities that come more naturally to others. There have been several standouts in the visual arts who, for instance, suffer from aphantasia, an inability to visualize images in the mind. And people who struggle with ADHD are sometimes wildly productive. How? By attention-switching between important projects; bored with or anxious about one, they jump to another and then another. On net, they might get done more than someone slogging serially through one project at a time.1
Finally, sometimes atypical intelligence is a superpower unto itself, not a disability at all. Bestselling children’s novelist Dave Pilkey refers to his ADHD as “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Delightfulness.” Cowen and Gross list several aspects of autism that might serve a person on the job, including skills in pattern recognition; lower sunk-cost bias; and consuming and ordering vast amounts of data.
All this leads to a fascinating implication in Cowen and Gross’s view of talent search. In all our conversations about inequity, we’re mostly focused on top-down questions of redistributing wealth and opportunity. Cowen and Gross come at the question from the other direction, proposing better talent allocation as an answer to inequities.
And unlike top-down solutions, it comes with incentives: Leveraging the diversity bonus not only addresses inequity, it also improves the talent in the available pool with all the accompanying benefits—especially more effective, productive, and profitable companies.
If we want to make better music, we need better players in the band. Cowen and Gross can help anyone looking for talent or looking to share their own.
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I’ve never been formally diagnosed, but I bet some version of this has contributed to my own “production function,” as Cowen would call it.