Book Notes: Cowen and Gross on TALENT
A fantastic collaboration on an important topic
Full title: TALENT: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World
Authors: Tyler Cowen (Economist, George Mason University. Emergent Ventures, Conversations with Tyler, Mercatus Center, Fast Grants) and Daniel Gross (VC at Pioneer Fund, formerly co-founder Cue, partner at Y Combinator)
My rating: 10/10. Just a great book. More people should co-author books like this! They marshal a combination of anecdote, experience, scientific study, and intuition to give us great advice on the search for talent in any type of organization. They lay out the stakes, how we should think about it, and how we can apply our thoughts about talent practically in interviews and other parts of the process.
There are 10 chapters in this book, and my notes here are somewhat contiguous with those chapters, though I haven’t included all of them (I did enjoy each one). Needless to say, if the notes get you thinking, you should read the whole book!
Talent Search, Art and Science
The main lesson of this book, to me, is that talent is simultaneously in abundance and scarcity. There are billions of people in the world, and yet sometimes it can be very hard (very, very hard) to hire the right person for a role. Even in Silicon Valley, which is a major focus of the book, there are both tons of people and not nearly enough people.
When you’re dealing with rivers of data — people, in this case — you need either a formula or an anti-formula. Science is the formula, there are certain things you can really measure. Art is the anti-formula. But maybe a better word for “art” here is INTUITION.
On Peter Thiel: “We understand Peter as applying a very serious philosophical and indeed moral test to people… It is often moral judgements that call forth our deepest and most energetic intuitions.”
Michael Moritz (of Sequoia) was a longtime journalist and seems to have a knack for seeing STORIES and the people in the Valley as characters. This is also intuition.
What about science? In his book MONEYBALL, Michael Lewis covered how the Oakland A’s used math to outperform in the MLB with a very small budget. They quantified the game, found which performance metrics were being undervalued by other teams, and put together a winning team at a discount. Obviously, once the word got out, the pricing of various metrics stabilized.
Here, we find another conceptual pair to go along with ART/SCIENCE (or measurement/intuition), which is something like DISCERNMENT/DISCOVERY. In abundance, you need to be able to discern who’s really good in the pool. And in scarcity, you need to expand the pool.
Both of these modes of talent sourcing are important! Sometimes 100 people are knocking on your door and you need to let one in; sometimes you need to take a drive around the neighborhood and pick someone up that nobody else wants.
Moral quandaries when assessing talent
Talent sourcing, properly done, ultimately comes down to choosing some people over others for nontrivial reasons. You’re deciding that one person is better suited than another, and for identifiable reasons. In many cases it can feel zero-sum, and sometimes it is! Cowen and Gross try to get us to focus on what matters: “Not everyone can be a CEO, and both practically and morally, it is better to judge individuals as individuals than to rely on group stereotypes, even if that means a brutal pinpointing of a person's weaknesses. You can help the world a great deal by being a better judge of talent.” This is the right moral framing. Focus on your mission!
Here’s a straightforward intuition that’s true, but which has come under attack for various reasons: interviews matter a lot. Cowen and Gross have great advice for how to make the most of them.
The goal of an interview is to elicit personality and narrative, not facts. You want to get people talking about themselves and telling stories, not reciting facts. How?
Well, you should ask innovative questions!
“Personality is Revealed on Weekends”
This is the title of a psychology paper they cite, and the lessons of that paper is exactly what it sounds like! What we do in our free time is a rich source of data to assess people. Cowen and Gross offer their favorite interview question. It’s not about the weekend per se but it’s related.
“What are the open tabs on your browser right now?”
Why is this such a good question? “You are getting past the talk and probing for that person’s demonstrated preferences.” It gets to the question of free time. You can expect a mix of work-related stuff, passion, and hopefully skill refinement. If there’s a sense that the person doesn’t spend much free time honing his or her skills — practicing — it may be a negative signal against productive work in a very high position.
Okay, I’ll play the game. My tabs right now are as follows (you should check, too, and be honest with yourself)
Two different conservative magazine articles
Seven tabs with different recipes in the New York Times cooking section.
Four tabs between Notion, Substack, and Google docs with different writing projects (including the draft for these notes)
My Abebooks shopping cart (buying old books on turn-of-the-century homes in the US)
The Wikipedia page for the Garamond font family
The Wikiart page for Grigoriy Myasoyedov, a Russian painter
Two tabs with information on timber frame construction
The diagnosis here is that I’m constantly cooking things, reading things (books, articles, Twitter…), and writing things (for work and for myself). And I’m damn good at each of those things because I practice. At the same time, I could probably focus a bit more on some of the things I already do well and increasing the volume at which I do them rather than opening up new streams of information and hobbies. I could dream just a little bit less about the future, as well, and make sure I’m doing things really well right now.
Interview questions have a season
With time and notoriety, a once disarming and novel question can become standard, one that people prepare for. And that unfortunately defeats the purpose of the novelty!
The great example of this is Peter Thiel’s “contrarian question” — What important truth do very few people agree with you on?
That the question has now become something of a Silicon Valley cliché doesn’t mean it wasn’t a great question in the first place, but new seasons call for new questions.
What are some questions for our season? Cowen and Gross repeatedly come back to one question they’ve like recently, which is definitely in season: “in what ways is a Zoom call better than a face-to-face interaction?”
My seasonal questions would be a bit more forward. Here are some ideas:
Which autocracy would you most want to live under?
What are the biggest crimes that have gone unpunished?
How much time are you going to waste later today?
When I read the section on interview questions to get people thinking, I was reminded of this essay question from a few years ago in the application to Eton College, the prestigious boys’ boarding school in England. Keep in mind this was given to boys around age 12…
The year is 2040. There have been riots in the streets of London after Britain has run out of petrol because of an oil crisis in the Middle East. Protesters have attacked public buildings. Several policemen have died. Consequently, the Government has deployed the Army to curb the protests. After two days the protests have been stopped but twenty-five protesters have been killed by the Army. You are the Prime Minister. Write the script for a speech to be broadcast to the nation in which you explain why employing the Army against violent protesters was the only option available to you and one which was both necessary and moral.
What a fantastic question! Naturally it was blasted by the media and parts of the public… But if you think about it, it tests a lot of interesting things: ability to imagine that one’s decisions really matter, charisma, dealing with taboo, linguistic creativity, etc.
Some people have unique linguistic patterns. For any number of reasons, they just pull you in, they make you think, and they manage to avoid cliché, or even make their own!
Cowen and Gross make the great point that for a low-creativity and high-conscientiousness job, this type of idiosyncrasy might not be desirable. “But if you are looking for a founder, an entrepreneur, a maverick, or a highly productive intellectual to lead a venture to the next level, creating and commanding one’s own language may be an important positive feature. It may suggest that you have found a truly creative, charismatic, and generative individual, one of the 1 or 2 percent of people who are capable of creating something grand.”
Speaking in cliché or quotation doesn’t have to be a dealbreaker for every job, but a leader needs to be a thinker in his or her own right. This isn’t necessarily “articulateness” (plenty of people are articulate) but something else. You know it when you hear it.
Favorite Questions from the Appendix
Cowen and Gross have dozens of questions listed throughout the book, including in an appendix. Here are three of my favorites.
What have you achieved that is unusual for your peer group?
How do you think this interview is going?
If you joined and in three to six months you were no longer here, why would that be?
Intelligence and Personality
In addition to intelligence, Cowen and Gross cover personality, which I find more interesting. First they cover 5-factor personality (Agreeableness, Neuroticism, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, and Openness to Experience) and then go into the “exotic” personality descriptions they find useful, both positive and negative.
A few notes:
The smartest people tend to rate intelligence as being more important. Big shock!
Intelligence is significant, but the delta is smaller than you’d think in a lot of scenarios. You shouldn’t ignore it, but focusing on intelligence as a singular variable simply won’t work.
At the top of the IQ spectrum, conscientiousness and extraversion will serve you well and you’ll earn more money. Agreeableness will not, statistically.
Venture capitalists like positive, optimistic pitches, but those pitches actually end up worse in performance, statistically. Disagreeable but open-to-experience founders probably perform the best. In other words, they’re open to new data, but not to judgement or social pressures.
The summary here is that what we call “disability” is often just a mixup of abilities. And people with autism, Asperger’s, dyslexia, and associated conditions, can be very valuable! They can also be a mess, just like other people, and can definitely create unique issues. What you want to avoid is shutting them out entirely based on something arbitrary. You might be missing out!
Women and Minorities
Sex differences in intelligence are trivial at most
Sex differences in personality are real, and they seem to explain the majority of “disparities” in the workplace between men and women.
They list 4 findings about women and personality in the workplace that have been replicated in studies. Please remember that these are statistical statements which are literally true but which obviously have counterexamples.
Women are more averse to risk
Women are more averse to competition
Women have less confidence
Women “put themselves forward” less
Basically, my ethic here is this: men and women can and should work together to do great things. There’s neither a need for nor an advantage to sex discrimination, but there’s also no need to lie about men and women being the same in every way — they aren’t! There are some things the average man is better at; there are some things the average woman is better at. There are average men and average women. There are exceptional men and exceptional women.
And because of the different cognitive modes that men and women often occupy, combining forces can be really fruitful! One specific instance of this that Cowen and Gross describe is that it seems anecdotally true that women are better at detecting fakers and picking “bad apples.” They cite Jessica Livingston of Y Combinator as being a legendary assessor of talent in this regard. YC panels always have one woman on them.
Next, racial/ethnic minorities.
I disagree very mildly with some of the characterizations in this section, specifically the idea of “obstacles without prejudice” — especially as it relates to US-born racial minorities.
Cowen and Gross describe a confidence gap between American blacks and whites. For the record, I don't think it’s because of actual racism in academia or tech (hardly), but it’s certainly true that the perception of racism can affect people, and I don’t have any reason to doubt their observation of a confidence gap. That’s a shame, and nobody has a perfect solution, but I think looking to immigrants is an interesting frame.
Immigrants to this country are almost literally “out of place” and yet something like “immigrant audacity” has served many quite well. Let me explain with an anecdote.
I had two friends at Stanford who both worked at the same technology business one summer. One of them was American (Chinese by ethnicity) and the other was a non-Western foreigner (Arab) and very quirky. The American had gotten the job through the months-long internship application process, like normal. When the foreigner heard about this, he decided to contact the company an hour later and tell them he wanted a job. And it worked! Within just a few days, he told the American that they’d be working together. I would have paid money to see that conversation!
If my foreign friend had gone to a competitive American high school, he would probably have been public enemy no. 1 for violating taboos of competition and territory.
This story doesn’t totally address the issue of minority groups that for whatever reason feel out of place in a given sector (again: I reject the idea that it’s because of racism) but I think it may be instructive in a remedy. Be confident! If wacky immigrants can do it, surely our fellow Americans can put themselves out there, too? Just about everyone in the US wants to have a degree of diversity in the workplace that reflects our big country, even if not all of us agree with concepts like affirmative action or quotas.
And I’d go further by saying that incessant discussion of racism and race disparities makes the supposed problem worse, not better. To be clear, Cowen and Gross take a very balanced approach and don’t engage in any divisive rhetoric on this front, but we have to be honest that there are people (mostly on the left) who want to divide and increase the perception of discrimination as a political tool. That’s damaging to the naturally friendly relations that Americans of all types have with one another.
Racial disparities are not direct evidence of racial discrimination, and at the same time there is a real American virtue to opening ourselves up to new perspectives, and we should always take care to treat people equally in pursuit of our missions. In order to get the best talent and help them do their best work, you need to be OPEN.
Little things I took note of
Elon Musk personally interviewed the first 3,000 employees at SpaceX. This wasn’t a trivial use of his time. I think this is probably true of a lot of businesses, but 3,000 is a very high number. I wonder if any other CEOs have gone higher? (Please let me know!)
Sam Altman says that he has observed — anecdotally — a correlation between faster email response times and the best founders.
Marc Andreessen on ethics: “Ethics are hard to test for. But watch for any whiff of less than stellar ethics in any candidate’s background or references. And avoid, avoid, avoid. Unethical people are unethical by nature, and the odds of a metaphorical jailhouse conversion are quite low.” Well said!
A study of violinists found that it was individual practice, and not teacher-assisted practice, that was most predictive of success. So whether in work, play, or anything in between, practice matters.
Closing Thought: My Favorite Movie
At the end of my favorite movie, Ratatouille, the grumpy food critic Anton Ego delivers what I think is the very best movie monologue there is.
In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, the new needs friends. Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto: Anyone can cook. But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau’s, who is, in this critic’s opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France. I will be returning to Gusteau’s soon, hungry for more.
Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. To me, these two clauses sum up the spirit of TALENT quite well.
There are important judgements that you need to make in order to decide who is going to join you to fulfill your mission, be it in business, academia, government, or anywhere else. But you should also be open to the possibility that you need to do some looking yourself. By combining these two parts of talent sourcing — discernment and discovery — you can solve both the scarcity and abundance problem.
Cowen and Gross have given us great frameworks on which to build. And for people who assess talent professionally, the book is definitely worth a read. But after reading it, you should go further! What are your intuitions about talent? What are your metrics? What have your unexpected triumphs been, and how did you get there? What were your failures? Write them down.