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?

The book proceeds through a series of chapters that push towards ways of trying to get at what I am calling the “messily human,” starting with a chapter on interview questions and techniques (the most interesting chapter in the book). Some sample interview questions: “How ambitious are you?” “What is it you do to practice that is analogous to how a pianist practices scales?” “What are the the open tabs on your browser right now?” “Which of your beliefs are you most likely wrong about?” Or, how about this blood chiller: “How do you think this interview is going?” The point of the questions and techniques (i.e. go to a restaurant and observe how a person interacts with the staff and other customers) described is to get into a conversational mode and push beyond the armor of professional jargon. The evaluator is trying to get beyond testing for “prep” and to try and get to some sense of who a person really is: “The key point here is that the best interviews are not formal interviews at all.”

The rest of the book can be read in light of this initial chapter. So there are chapters on IQ and standard personality measures – suggesting that while not irrelevant, they are of limited value (CG go on to provide a set of different personality traits and skills they tend to look for – stamina, energy, literacy in cultural codes etc.). There is a chapter on the risks and benefits of online/remote interviews. There are chapters on talent and disability, and how minorities and women are still being undervalued in talent search – ways in which getting to the messily human with these candidates (which may require more effort and awareness) may reveal hidden sources of talent. And finally, chapters on scouting and recruitment.

The book should probably be stamped with a “Caution: handle with care” warning. The thing with pushing towards the messily human is that it is messy. Many of the sample interview questions CG throw out would make your standard HR department start to sweat. But, even setting that aside, talent seekers/evaluators need to ask themselves honestly how much they actually want to know. Are they actually equipped to evaluate the information they take in with a question like “What are your open browser tabs right now?” in a productive way?

I am less familiar with Daniel Gross, but I first encountered Tyler Cowen through his podcast, “Conversations with Tyler” and one of the things that stands out in his series of conversations with subjects that range from a man with no fixed address to a poet and former head of the National Endowment for the Arts to a fashion-model-turned-sociologist is Tyler’s combination of both an unusual level of openness as well as familiarity with a large breadth of topics. Tyler does not typically react in an emotionally judgmental way to his guests (to the point that when he does betray some stronger emotion it is notable – I find it tends to be with guests who are closest to his own status/group – fellow academics/economists). And, he often has at least some point of intellectual contact with what his guests share.

I guess another way to put this: how comfortable are you with weirdos? (Tyler seems very comfortable). And what is your ability to wisely evaluate how a particular person’s weirdness will fit with the thing you are trying to accomplish? Because, if you push towards trying to uncover the messily human core of anyone you will start to bump into people’s weirdness. For the exceptionally talented the weirdness may (and very likely will) be deeply entwined with their greatest strengths. If you ask the question “what do you do that is akin to a pianist practicing scales?” and the candidate goes on to describe a personal blogging project and reveals himself to be intensely committed to a religious tradition with which you aren’t particularly familiar (purely hypothetical of course): how do you evaluate that information? How much of the messy human do you actually want to know?

The number of people actually playing the game of identifying and evaluating transformational talent is quite small. But, I suspect that Talent, the book, is also playing at least one other game. It really is a book aimed at people on both sides of the interview Zoom window. Towards the end of the book CG suggest that “Raising the aspirations of other people is one of the most beneficial things you can do with your time. At critical moments, you can raise the aspirations of other people significantly, especially when they are relatively young, simply by suggesting they do something more important and ambitious than what they might have in mind.”

It would be a strangely unreflective reader who, when confronted by the question “How ambitious are you?” or “What do you do to practice that is like practicing piano scales?” did not put him or herself into the interview chair and ask: “Well, just how ambitious am I really?” “How am I improving over time?” “Am I happy with that particular set of open tabs?” “Who am I trying to impress?” “Could I be 20% more energetic than I am?” “Could I be more strategically disagreeable?” “What is the thing that is ‘wrong’ with me that I am here, in this particular position/company/role?” (and so on). In a book about hidden talent, a reader is encouraged to take a close look at his or her own (possibly hidden) talents and strengths.

Again, the caution to “handle with care” with some of these questions applies to self-reflection at least as much as it does when evaluating others. It is very easy to drift towards extremes of either delusion or self-recrimination. But, in asking readers to consider how they evaluate talent in others, CG push readers to evaluate their own talent at the same time. In its generally optimistic and positive tone, while raising aspirations is not guaranteed, it seems like a very probable outcome for many readers.

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