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Spotting Talent

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books and culture

Spotting Talent

A new book offers surprising insights into the traits of outstanding people. May 20, 2022
Arts and Culture

Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World, by Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross (St. Martin’s Press, 288 pp., $29)

An article about the social psychologist Robert Cialdini. An interview with Matthew Weiner, creator of the television series Mad Men. A Science article titled “The question of animal emotions.” Google Scholar. This was my answer to economist Tyler Cowen and tech entrepreneur Daniel Gross’s current favorite interview question from their new book Talent: “What are the open tabs in your browser right now?” The authors contend that this question captures a person’s intellectual habits, level of curiosity, and how he or she spends her free time, all at once. In other words, the answer provides a direct insight into a person’s demonstrated preferences.

Talent presents new insights into the process of hiring. The book is thorough yet breezy, providing useful tips for how to develop a talent-spotting mindset with insights from psychometrics, management, economics, and sociology, among other disciplines.

Talent search, of course, is not just about hiring for jobs. It also involves decisions about who should get scholarships, auditions, athletic positions, and co-authorships. The authors note that the challenge of talent search isn’t relevant only for the selectors but also for those who hope to be selected. Just about everyone is involved, either hoping to identify talent in others or show off their own. If you hope to be “chosen,” then it’s useful to learn what others are thinking about talent in order to exhibit the desired qualities.

The ability to pinpoint talent is more important than ever. Cowen and Gross note that in the U.S., from 1980 to 2000, the main cause of income inequality was whether a person graduated from college. But from 2000 to 2017, income inequality primarily existed within educational groupings. In other words, talent appears to be more responsible than education for economic returns.

Cowen and Gross each describe how often they reject proposals, and they conclude that “talent and not money is the truly scarce variable.” But where does it come from? They acknowledge that talent can differ between individuals, but they also stress the importance of practice. Indeed, those with the potential to cultivate serious talent sometimes practice to the point of obsession. Discussing which attributes predict eminence in a field, psychology professor David Lubinski has said that passion for work is key, and that highly creative people tend to be “almost myopically” fixated on work.

Relatedly, Cowen and Gross observe, “If you are hiring a writer, look for signs that the person is writing literally every day. If you are hiring an executive, try to discern what they are doing all the time to improve networking, decision-making, and knowledge of the sectors they work in.” Developing the habit of practice and self-discipline—the authors describe it as “sturdiness”—is critical for talent acquisition. “Sturdiness is the quality of getting work done every day, with extreme regularity and without long streaks of non-achievement,” they write. “If you are a writer, sturdiness is a very powerful virtue, even if you do not always feel you are being extremely productive.”

Accordingly, the book cites research indicating that perseverance is a stronger predictor than passion for success. When it comes to achievement, persistence pays off more than pure passion.

The authors’ favorite interview question about browser tabs is meant to tap into this question about whether a person spends his or her free time practicing. What the book describes as “downtime revealed preferences” are more interesting than “stories about your prior jobs.” For instance, asking what newsletters or subreddits a person reads is often more illuminating than asking what a person did at their previous job.

The book is very much about identifying high performers, as opposed to average workers. This is particularly true of its interview section, which gives guidance on unstructured, as opposed to structured, interviews. Most research indicates that interviews are more effective for higher-level jobs.

Talent provides several fascinating questions designed to yield interesting answers. How did you prepare for this interview? What’s a story one of your references might tell me when I call them? Which of your beliefs are you most likely wrong about? Whether the candidate can draw on intellectual and emotional resources to answer is a sign of broader stores of intellect and energy that he or she will bring to the job. The authors suggest that interviewers should not be afraid to let a question hang in the air after asking it; better to hold the tension to make clear you expect an answer.

The authors suggest using challenging and unusual questions to identify those with more style than substance. As they put it, “Beware of verbally adept storytellers.” Most of us have a bias toward well-spoken and articulate individuals. Bear this in mind, for it can lead you to hire what the authors describe as “glib but unsubstantial people.” They conclude this line of advice with, “Do not overestimate the importance of a person’s articulateness.”

Similarly, the statistician and philosopher Nassim Taleb has suggested that charisma and appearance should be held against an individual when weighing merits. In his bestselling book Skin in the Game, Taleb contrasts two successful surgeons who hold a similar rank in a hospital: a well-groomed doctor with an Ivy League diploma, and another who “looks like a butcher,” with an unkempt appearance and uncouth speech.

Who should you choose as your surgeon? Taleb suggests the latter. This is because a successful surgeon who does not look like a surgeon but manages to attain a high rank indicates that he had more to overcome. In contrast, someone who looks and speaks the part may be held to lower standards when it comes to ability.

A useful example of this happens in season 6 of the television series Mad Men. Dr. Arnold Rosen, a relatively plain man, tells the tall and handsome protagonist, Don Draper, “If I looked like you and talked like that, I wouldn’t have had to go to medical school.” Don, who didn’t graduate from college, responds with a restrained smile.

This is perhaps why training for prestigious professions has become so burdensome: so that even those who could get by on looks alone must undergo an arduous process designed to weed out the undedicated. “Many high-status professions, such as medicine, law, and academia, put younger performers through brutal stamina tests in the early years of their career . . . if we meet an individual who exhibits stamina, we immediately upgrade the chance of that person having a major impact,” Cowen and Gross write.

High-status occupations are often extremely demanding, in part to select against people who are more interested in prestige than in the profession itself. The authors note that those who tend to do especially well in their careers prioritize improving their craft above other motives, such as the pursuit of prestige. In one of many unique insights throughout the book, Cowen and Gross provide a “quick window” into whether a person is more interested in ideas or obtaining social status. They state that in a group setting, “status-seekers focus on maximizing attention from the perceived elite. Idea-seekers, on the other hand, want to advance knowledge and stimulate curiosity.”

Another way of measuring time allocation and actual behavior is “speed of response.” The authors state that highly ambitious and successful people tend to be very responsive to emails. This picks up on “how much the individual is focused on being connected to the world and responding to plausibly important queries.”

What other traits lead to success? The authors dedicate a chapter to personality and its relationship with talent. They write, “Personality and conscientiousness matter most at the bottom of the distribution . . . in the bottom tenth of earners, non-cognitive skills—which include, for instance, features of personality—matters two and a half to four times more than do cognitive skills.” In other words, hard work is more important for unskilled workers than for skilled workers, suggesting that cultivating a work ethic may in some cases be more important than trying to boost academic ability.

Conscientiousness—a personality trait marked by a concern with order and a willingness to work hard—is also a predictor of occupational success. For instance, a one-standard-deviation increase in conscientiousness is associated with a 7.2 percent wage boost.

Neuroticism—a personality trait encompassing a proneness to anxiety, depression, and irritability—often has the opposite effect. A one-standard-deviation increase in neuroticism is associated with 3.6 percent lower wages. People high in this trait are often unhappy with their occupational positions, the authors say. “There is an entire class of highly credentialed, fairly talented individuals who spend their whole lives hopping from one job to another, restless, never happy, and never able to put down any roots . . . most of the time you should avoid them.” But neuroticism can be useful in some instances. As Cowen and Gross note, “If you are looking to hire a crusader on behalf of a social justice cause, someone who will notice injustices and then complain about them, neuroticism might be a desirable trait.”

The book also indicates that the same traits that make people unpleasant also lead them to make breakthrough discoveries. For example, “eminent scientists are more likely to be dominant, arrogant, hostile, and self-confident compared to scientists as a whole. They are also more flexible in thought and behavior than scientists of lesser laurels.”

Still, using personality as a predictor of success has its limitations. Psychologists can’t necessarily forecast when and in what circumstances certain personality traits will be expressed. The authors offer the example of novelist Vikram Seth, who stated that he wrote his masterpiece A Suitable Boy because he did not have enough conscientiousness to finish his economics Ph.D. at Stanford.

Later in the book, Cowen and Gross step outside the confines of academic research on intelligence and personality theory and offer more speculative suggestions for spotting talent. For instance, “Does the person have an obsession with continual self-improvement?” Focus on whether the person is growing in dynamism, maturity, stamina, intellect, and so on. The amount and rate of change will tell the interviewer whether the individual is worth taking a chance on.

Another indicator of potential talent is knowing “how to perceive and climb the right hierarchies,” which the authors call “one of the most stringent but also most universal tests available.” Additionally, one should pay attention to the number of conceptual frameworks or mental models a person has at his or her disposal. How good a person is at understanding different cultural and intellectual frameworks and applying them to different contexts often signals a wellspring of talent. In fact, the ability to collect mental frameworks in itself is useful for spotting and managing talent, as it enables you to pinpoint special qualities that others overlook.

The book contains chapters on how to spot talent among those with disabilities, as well as women and ethnic minorities. For instance, the authors suggest that some of what appears to be discrimination against women is actually discrimination against individuals with relatively lower confidence. Men are more prone than women to project self-assuredness, which may account for some of the earnings differences in higher job positions. Regarding ADHD, the authors highlight how “a pretty high proportion of successful individuals seem to be ADHD in some manner” and that such individuals “have learned to redirect their cognitive impatience as a force that propels them through an enormous amount of work and learning.”

This section, however, was the most undercooked. Cowen and Gross claim that theirs is “also a book about how to fight for social justice.” They seem to believe that the reason inequality has increased is that the tools for pinpointing talent have been inadequate. It’s not obvious, though, that as such talent-spotting tools improve, inequality will decline. The authors note early on that much of the growth of U.S. economic output since 1960 owes to the better allocation of talent as more rights have been extended to formerly mistreated groups. Yet, during that same period, inequality has soared, even as poverty has declined (poverty and inequality tend to be inversely correlated). Given this fact, improving talent search might further worsen inequality, a key preoccupation of those concerned with social justice.

Still, Talent should be read by anyone interested in obtaining unique insights and methods for finding capable people. Near the end, the authors sound a call to action to those in a position to offer encouragement. “Raising the aspirations of other people,” they write, “is one of the most beneficial things you can do with your time. . . . Don’t underestimate how little people think of themselves. There is an ongoing crisis of confidence in many human beings.” For every untalented and overconfident person we encounter, someone is out there brimming with potential but reluctant to display it. Encouragement from a prominent person can go a long way.

In an era of information overload, Cowen and Gross have provided a useful book to remind us that if talent is rare, as it surely is, the ability to spot it may be equally exceptional.

Photo by David Lees/Getty Images

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