Talent (or, how ambitious is this blog post?)

We focus on a very specific kind of talent in this book—namely, talent with a creative spark … In referring to the creative spark, we mean people who generate new ideas, start new institutions, develop new methods for executing on known products, lead intellectual or charitable movements, or inspire others by their very presence, leadership, and charisma, regardless of the context. Those are all people who have the gift of improving the world by reimagining the future as a different and better place.

Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World – Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross

As someone who has sat on both sides of the interview table (or Zoom window, as the case might be) in recent months I found Talent by Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross (CG) to be an optimistic and engaging exploration on the topic of talent search and evaluation. It’s a book that prompts generative questions more than delivering easily digestible answers, but that’s no surprise when the topic is how to identify and evaluate hidden sources of transformative talent (it is by definition a project that resists formulaic approaches).

When faced with the question of how to best find high end talent, one might expect that an economist (Cowen) and a Silicon Valley investor (Gross) would focus on quantitative metrics, measurability, and structure – a focus on the “science” side of the “art and science” of talent search. Instead, CG suggest that those on the lookout for sparks of hidden talent need to push past the easily measurable (an IQ score, rating the response to a set of standard questions) towards the more complicated and messy realities of the human person. Finding transformative talent is about finding particular people rather than evaluating particular test scores. It’s more art than science, “… a creative skill, akin to music or art appreciation.”

A more structured approach may establish a floor for lower level roles, a minimum bar to be cleared, but when looking for (unexpected, undiscovered, hidden) candidates who can raise the ceiling of an organization/endeavor, low-level bar clearing exercises don’t provide the information a talent evaluator is seeking (and on the downside may actually trip up candidates with unconventional backgrounds). The whole point of looking for an exceptional candidate is to identify the exceptions to standard “perfectly fine” or even “very good” candidates. In turn, a key skill for talent evaluators is evaluating not just a particular set of candidates but also the context they are selecting them for. What is the game you want this person to play (and win)? Is perfectly fine actually going to be perfectly fine for that data analyst role you’re trying to fill?

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Get Back

The repetition, the repetition is a killer. When watching Get Back in fits and starts over the past month, that’s what I kept thinking. A take, another take, and yet another take. Some tea and toast and tedium. The viewer gets to see the vibrancy of rock-and-roll pulverized under the weight of needing to get this chord progression just right, or adjusting that vocal line, or pointing those microphones in a different direction. You can see it wearing on everyone. Even Paul, who is really the engine keeping things moving in the weeks covered by the film, periodically drifts into a glassy dead-eyed stare.

How much of being an artist is just a willingness to keep going: to repeat and repeat and repeat?

Following up on my last post extolling hard work and dedication to artistic craft with a month of silence here on the blog I wish I could say that I started a first draft of a novel offline, or like a really excellent cycle of sonnets or something. But, alas. The days have been full – the “deluge of life” as I describe it – and there has been very little time to spend writing. Very little time, and yet I found time to watch the eight hour Get Back documentary off and on over the past month, usually in 15-20 minute chunks or so. I’m not even that much of a Beatles fan (the best thing I read on it by someone who actually knows about the Beatles was this Ian Leslie post).

Repetition is a foundational element in all sorts of endeavors – especially creative ones. Or rather, the importance of repetition is more easily identifiable in creative, performative endeavors. The office worker has to find the courage to open up the email inbox day after day, but whether the routine is leading anywhere, whether it is driving any sort of improvement or is headed any particular direction, is usually unclear. A final artistic product, the finished song at the end of all the practice, seems to place all the repetition into context, to make it worthwhile. Musicians seem to be especially at risk when it comes to the grind of repetition. The performative aspect of the art form basically enshrines it- come up with a hit song (or hit song formula) and you’ll be playing it forever if everything goes well. And the Beatles, with their unusual ability to reinvent their sound over and over again, seemed especially allergic to getting stuck on repeat.

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This is Let It Be! You are the first people on earth to hear this song!

There is a great scene in the 2019 movie Yesterday when Jack plays “Let It Be” for his parents (the poster tagline for the movie tells you more or less what you need to know: “Everyone in the world has forgotten the Beatles. Everyone except Jack.”):

Yesterday was one of my favorite movies from the past few years even though I’m not a huge Beatles fan. I found myself repeatedly bursting into laughter, but probably laughed longest and loudest at this scene. It is just so painfully recognizable (although I, like many, would love to possess even a single ounce of Himesh Patel’s charisma). Anyone who has ever made anything creative and put it out there knows exactly this sort of feeling – a collision between earnest, heartfelt passion (“This is like watching Da Vinci paint the Mona Lisa right in front of your bloody eyes!”) and the general boredom and indifference of an early audience.

I was thinking of this scene again after the economist Tyler Cowen shared Cass Sunstein’s paper on the Beatles’ path to becoming “The Beatles” (i.e. successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams). In the paper Sunstein suggests Yesterday puts forward the hypothesis that “the Beatles were surpassingly great, and their sheer greatness was, and is, a guarantee of spectacular popularity, wherever and however their music emerged.” Sunstein goes on to explore recent social science research on cultural success and failure, including the importance of informational cascade and network effects, and also points out some of the straightforward good luck the Beatles ultimately enjoyed. While recognizing the importance of these different effects, Sunstein concludes the paper (“with fear and trembling”) by suggesting that while these contextual factors were important, ultimately the quality of the Beatles’ songs meant that they would have found a way to be successful.

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I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn

What I think I’m doing here: A foray into fiction (in an early draft, messing around mode). Also, I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn.

My friend said that I needed a LinkedIn profile. Made it sound like I might as well take my resume and set it on fire and flush the ashes down the toilet. This act of immolation being, in fact, as effective as submitting job applications without a LinkedIn profile. It is the first thing they’ll check, he said. I need to go hop on a call, he said.

My friend has a job at a large company that pays well (I do not). He owns a house (I do not). He has, I suspect, more of a plan for retirement than my own, which is, more or less, death. I decide to set aside my novel and create a LinkedIn profile.

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Finding Livelihood

Frederick Buechner, in his book, Wishful Thinking (1973), says, “The place God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” This must be the most quoted definition of vocation in contemporary literature on calling and work, the only problem being that it isn’t really true. It’s a good line, and it sounds good when you’re 19 (it did to me), but easy acceptance of this phrase is quickly challenged by the question of “what happens when the world’s hunger requires something of me I am not glad to give?” A glance at scripture, at history, at your own life and the lives of those around you, reveals that it is a matter of when, not if, you will be asked to give something that hurts rather than provides gladness if you are to follow God’s calling in a broken world. When you’re 19 this reality is perhaps less clear (and not particularly welcome as you plot your glorious plan for your life).

Since I love Buechner, I should note that less frequently referenced is his “Memoir of Vocation,” Now and Then (1983), a book that offers a more nuanced exploration of calling and the lived experience of work. In Now and Then Buechner doesn’t describe the easy convergence of personal gladness and worldly need, but instead describes a journey of wrong turns, of frustration, of set backs, of confusion, of minor victories, in the pursuit of his calling. The most famous quote of that book suggests that in listening to our life the “boredom and pain” of life is no less holy, no less a gift of grace, than its “gladness.” And many find as they grow older that boredom and pain may be the defining features of their working lives, rather than deep gladness.

Nancy Nordenson’s Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure speaks to this reality as she explores what meaning can be drawn from the “shadow side” of work, its boredom and frustrations, of trying to navigate the “tension of your planned life and your given life.” It’s less about finding work that will fulfill our deepest desires and more a meditation on searching for “signs of transcendent reality and participating in that reality, even when work fails to satisfy.” It is a book about work and vocation “for grown-ups, “as the promotional copy puts it, for “who but a very small minority” Nordenson asks “can find the exact intersection [of deep gladness and deep hunger] and feed a family? Or at that sweet spot sustain their position for a lifetime?”

In a series of “lyric” essays, Nordenson enters into the details of a working life (she earns her living as a freelance medical writer) that often get glossed over in more abstract and theoretical descriptions of work: meeting deadlines, the pain of being laid off, the frustrations of the job search, of doing work that seems disconnected from “my calling,” of the bills that show up in the mailbox every month and the alarm clock that rings every day. The figures Nordenson references are not the latest productivity gurus, nor the latest behavioral economics studies, but figures like Simone Weil, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Josef Pieper.

This is not a how-to guide, or a book stuffed with answers to the dilemmas many (most, if the statistics concerning work satisfaction are any guide) people face with regard to work. The lyric style Nordenson uses relies on a “nonlinear structure, white space, metaphor and a slant-angle perspective. It is a way of exploring, not a way of explaining.” It requires and rewards patience, and leaves the reader with plenty of work to do on her own. It is this style that lets Nordenson explore some areas of work that other more “explanatory” books do not, even if my one complaint with the book is that I did feel as though some of the essays lost a certain amount of momentum and direction. My favorite essays were likely the “Summa Laborum” chapters, modeled on the rhetorical structure of Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. The structure of those particular chapters gives shape to Nordenson’s reflections as she starts with questions like “Should money be excluded from a discussion about the meaning of work?” and works through reasons to answer yes, or no.

Finding Livelihood is a vulnerable book, a book that displays its doubts and bewilderment in a way theological reflections are not often willing to risk. It is a book that is honest about the wrestling that occurs as we try and find our way in the world of work with its many kinds: “the work of earning a living, creating, serving; the work of looking for work. The work of marriage. Raising children. … The work of play. The work of the church. Laundry. The preparing of food. What should we call the work happening inside of us?” A reader who is living in the “tension between passion and need, between aspiration and limits, between the planned life and the given life” may find Nordenson’s contemplative essays a welcome companion along the way.

Freelancing, “Office Occupations” and the Writing Life

Writing for the press cannot be recommended as a permanent resource to anyone qualified to accomplish anything in the higher departments of literature or thought: not only on account of the uncertainty of this means of livelihood, especially if the writer has a conscience, and will not consent to serve any opinions except his own; but also because the writings by which one can live are not the writings which themselves live, and are never those in which the writer does his best. Books destined to form future thinkers take too much time to write, and when written come, in general, too slowly into notice and repute, to be relied on for subsistence. Those who have to support themselves by their pen must depend on literary drudgery, or at best on writings addressed to the multitude; and can employ in the pursuits of their own choice, only such time as they can spare from those of necessity; which is generally less than the leisure allowed by office occupations, while the effect on the mind is far more enervating and fatiguing. For my own part I have, through life, found office duties an actual rest from the other mental occupations which I have carried on simultaneously with them. They were sufficiently intellectual not to be a distasteful drudgery, without being such as to cause any strain upon the mental powers of a person used to abstract thought, or to the labour of careful literary composition.

The Autobiography of John Stuart Mill – courtesy of Alan Jacobs’ Pinboard. Some alternative titles for this post, (for me at least): “Be careful what you wish for,” “Get on with it already,” and “But, maybe you’re simply delusional.”