The art and science of talent how to spot, assess, woo, and retain highly talented people.
How do you find talent with a creative spark? To what extent can you predict human creativity, or is human creativity something irreducible before our eyes, perhaps to be spotted or glimpsed by intuition, but unique each time it appears?
Obsessed with these questions, renowned economist Tyler Cowen and venture capitalist and entrepreneur Daniel Gross set out to study the art and science of finding talent at the highest the people with the creativity, drive, and insight to transform an organization and make everyone around them better.
Cowen and Gross guide the reader through the major scientific research areas relevant for talent search, including how to conduct an interview, how much to weight intelligence, how to judge personality and match personality traits to jobs, how to evaluate talent in online interactions such as Zoom calls, why talented women are still undervalued and how to spot them, how to understand the special talents in people who have disabilities or supposed disabilities, and how to use delegated scouts to find talent. Talent appreciation is an art, but it is an art you can improve through study and experience.
Identifying underrated, brilliant individuals is one of the simplest ways to give yourself an organizational edge, and this is the book that will show you how to do that. Talent is both for people searching for talent and for those who wish to be searched for, found, and discovered.
Tyler Cowen (born January 21, 1962) occupies the Holbert C. Harris Chair of economics as a professor at George Mason University and is co-author, with Alex Tabarrok, of the popular economics blog Marginal Revolution. He currently writes the "Economic Scene" column for the New York Times and writes for such magazines as The New Republic and The Wilson Quarterly.
Cowen's primary research interest is the economics of culture. He has written books on fame (What Price Fame?), art (In Praise of Commercial Culture), and cultural trade (Creative Destruction: How Globalization is Changing the World's Cultures). In Markets and Cultural Voices, he relays how globalization is changing the world of three Mexican amate painters. Cowen argues that free markets change culture for the better, allowing them to evolve into something more people want. Other books include Public Goods and Market Failures, The Theory of Market Failure, Explorations in the New Monetary Economics, Risk and Business Cycles, Economic Welfare, and New Theories of Market Failure.
I got into an Ivy League school this summer. I read this book as sort of therapy to justify not going. It (mostly) worked.
So a bit of indulgence here. I went to a high school (two actually) that has since been shut down amidst lawsuits related to child abuse. I tried to go to college and dropped out at 19 deciding my time was better spent self medicating and avoiding thinking about what I had been through. Moved across the country, worked a wide variety of jobs from car salesman to carpenter, got sober, and finally with Covid as a justification, went back to get a degree at the local Community College. I tried a lot of hats on during this time. Student Government, engineering, crypto, the honors program. All while working to support myself, dealing with processing trauma (see reference above, that’s a callback folks, there are THEMES to this review), and generally trying to be a human being.
I had a professor encourage me to apply to some ambitious programs for non-traditional students like myself. One of them was the General Studies program at Columbia. I figured it was a long shot, but I put together what I hoped was a competitive application and sent it off.
I got in. Bit of a shock really, and I’m sure it was more than a little lucky break. Record low enrollment combined with the $20 bill I taped to my essay.
Not to completely undersell myself, in the past decade, I’ve worked on national legislation that’s been presented in Congress. I taught myself to code, and went on to come in third at a hackathon using Algorand to represent a blockchain native bond contract. At this point, I think my Goodreads has crossed over 1000 books read, mostly in the past 5 years since I got sober, and it sure isn’t for the status because God knows there’s about three of you who consistently like my reviews. (Love you)
So while I might lump myself (optimistically perhaps) into a sort of talented bucket, I really don’t see myself as the type of person who goes to Columbia. I’ve been finding it’s really difficult to disentangle the emotions and the status associated with something like this. I’ve been an Instacart driver for the past couple years as a reliable source of income while in school. I’ve had a half dozen widely different roles across start ups and industries. And despite usually doing well in whatever role I find myself in, I’ve always had this chip on my shoulder that whatever I do, it’s not good enough. I’ve been arrested more times than is prudent to admit, I’m several years sober for good reasons, if I was a car there would be some dents in the bumper and a weird noise when you shift out of third. And a lot of it boils down to a fear that somehow I’m intrinsically damaged in a way that the world will never understand. Thanks trauma.
I promise I’m going to talk about the book eventually, but there’s probably 40 or 50 reviews speaking better to the merits of the text. You’re getting a narrative here.
So at this point, the initial shock of getting accepted has worn off. When I found out in June, I was on cloud nine. But as June turned into July and July into August. I realized I couldn’t afford to move to NYC overnight. Tuition, without scholarships, is around 60k. I received about 50% of that in scholarships, but coming from living outskirts of Austin while attending community college, to living in the heart of New York. Well that’s like trying to shift into sixth gear from first.
So I deferred for a semester. I got a job in sales, and am working on making as much money as possible for the next few months. Now the unfortunate part of all of this, is it’s looking more like I won’t really ever be able to financially afford it. Or rather. I can’t bring myself to justify the $120,000 worth of debt that it would take to finish merely my bachelors degree. And while, with my checkered past, it’s easy to see attending an Ivy as a sort of purification, an atonement for the mistakes I’ve made. Is that feeling worth the larger part of a house? Do I need that? Plenty of people have talked about the crippling effects of debt, and the merits of education is a handy badminton shuttlecock for the modern culture war. But is there anything worth spending that money on that I couldn’t get on my own? Is the delta from the intangibles, network, opportunity, etc, worth the very real cost?
And that is an incredibly roundabout way to say that I brought a fair amount of baggage to this book. We all project our own experiences onto what we read. But I think I came to this book with maybe an outsized chunk of desperation. I regularly look to lit and nonfiction for answers. With this I was looking for part information, part therapy session to assuage the fact that I’m going to likely pass on one of the largest opportunities I’ve had come my way. Would I still be ok? Because as much as I would like at times to be entirely self sufficient, we are a hyper social species who really only survive through the lessons and help we give each other.
I’ve always valued Tyler for his unique way of structuring ideas and interacting with questions, rather than his analytical rigor. This book wholeheartedly delivers on the former, if at times, I felt like it was lacking the latter.
It’s a really fascinating view into potential. And it’s the sort of topic that isn’t limited to just hiring someone. I hear a lot of fantasy football podcasts talk about who’s up and coming and who’s due for regression. Fundamentally they’re wrestling with the same problem. As are college admissions boards, and all number of gatekeepers to the world of status, wealth, and fame. This problem permeates all areas of life.
I think the most interesting part of this book, I found myself flip-flopping from an introspective to an external perspective. As someone who hires and as someone who is hired. As someone evaluated, and who at times evaluates. It’s written from the perspective of the evaluator, but I don’t know how anyone can read this without trying to see how you measure up. And the personal takeaway is a nice bump in the direction of pursuing more directed fun. Going back to a coding project and despite it not having practical application because it builds that skill over time. I thought it was a really valuable reminder how a habit of working on improving something is more valuable than a sprint into a new topic. I am reminded of the phrase from Bill Gates, “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.”
I think the majority of the book is good. Or rather, it’s what I would ask for from a Tyler Cowan book. Full of anecdotes and intelligent ways to interact with the world. Tyler is never been one of these big data, hyper analytically driven Econ guys as long as I have followed him, but he does usually have heuristics that make me say “Hmmmm.”
And this book is a continuation of that. Reminiscent more of his book about eating well than Average is Over or The Complacent Class. I feel more comfortable now with my growing conviction around passing on Columbia than I did before, not because of any one thing, but because the message is there is no one thing that can make or break you. Life is about a series of actions, it’s long, there are many opportunities. Titles, degrees, Forbes lists, they all are part of a mosaic that make up a life. You fit with some and not others. Sure, it’s probably easier if you have a nice stamp on your transcript. If you can meet and study with other people who will likely go off on their own adventures in various fields. But it's not an end all be all. I was (mostly) ok before and I will be (mostly) ok after.
So for that, 5 stars. All the way up. Ticker tape and flashing lights all around. Pop the champagne, light the candles, we’re all going to be ok. Phew………
However, I wouldn’t be doing my storied and important job as an anonymous internet reviewer if I couldn’t remove my own experiences from the overall merits of the book.
Where this book fall short is that it fails to account for just how much networks and environment impacts people. It’s mentioned, but only in passing. And having lived for the last couple years below the poverty line as a student, it’s almost impossible to overstate just how much of an impact your financial security has on the quality of your thinking. I took out some very small student loans last year to help me through a rough spot. and I felt like my ability to reason and problem solve improved by a magnitude of 10 once I wasn’t spending every waking moment thinking about paying my bills. And there are other aspects to environmental factors in under recognized ways here, if you’re working with a new employee who has sensory sensitivities, their environment is going to naturally have a large impact on their quality of work.
I’ll add a related tag. The people you surround yourselves with also have a huge impact. It was kind of touched on with some of the city networks and things, but it seemed like a really abrupt discussion to something that has huge effects. Having mentors, high quality peers, and similar high quality groups is huge in a lot of these scenarios.
More generally I can’t help but be skeptical with some of these concepts that claim to pattern match. And while I think this book mostly stays on the right side of it. I do think there is some level of survivorship bias that permeates every single example within. I always have my defenses up when people start talking this way because it’s really easy to slip from correlated traits, and talking about them with respect, and assuming that they all of a sudden have causative effects. Like neuroticism doesn’t have to be a trait for artists to have success, it could just be that it isn’t actively selected out or that it’s tolerated in those domains better than something else. You can’t tell me, Tom Brady, isn’t neurotic as hell. Aaron Rogers. Now it’s easy to say that is what makes them great, their unceasing internal critic. But I’m reluctant to take that at face value, especially when trying to form some sort of structural belief. It smacks of Moneyball talent scouts who like a baseball player cuz he has a hot girlfriend.
Last thing that I am a bit skeptical of, is the overall coherence of all of these points. Some of them feel inherently contradictory. I agree that the best we can do at times is pattern match, but I can’t help but think it’s a really opaque method of making decisions. At the end of the day, it’s not the bias you’re aware of that gets you, its the ones you’re not aware of. And this book is mostly Tyler and Daniel sharing their best practices and musings around the topic. Without accounting how much luck or randomness is playing into the scenario, how can you really evaluate your process? It’s great to ask someone directly how ambitious they are as a gauge of their drive. But I don’t think that the signal you get from some of the answers is valuable enough to warrant the inherently disqualifying structure that this presents for women and people from alternative cultures. And I think ultimately, that’s what this book is trying to get out.
And that’s the crux of the question this book asks, removed from my own baggage and nonsense, how do you pick out signal from the noise of the world where people are actually incentivized to mislead you? And the sort of irony of this book is by sharing some of their shortcuts. They become less useful.
I think Tyler hit the nail on the head in that flipping the funnel is one of the more effective ways to do this in the modern world. And to me, that takeaway is probably worth 10x what the book is worth (and for pointing it out, you can Venmo my tuition fund). I read this book, I put energy into this review, because Tyler has a following and a reputation I value. The same book of the same quality written by someone I’ve never heard of, I’d probably roll my eyes at it and pass over it in favor of some other drivel. So if you are looking to attract the best talent, I think the answer is in part through expensive and difficult to fake signaling. This book is a decent starting place for that.
Yet another book that is gaining a lot of publicity these days.
I have to admit my initial impression was positive - I haven't made that many notes (while reading a book) for quite a long time. But the problem with "Talent: How to ..." is that it's primarily supposed to inspire, so frequently the author gets a bit "detached from reality".
I understand the criticism of behavioral methods - regardless of many successful companies openly admitting it's a foundation of their method. But "what have you been doing today in the morning?" and other questions like that are really ridiculous in real-life situations (unless you want to become a meme). I had a feeling Cowen spend a lot of time on methods that "could work" (based on his knowledge, etc.), but he has never validated them in practice.
There are some really interesting thoughts about traits - e.g. grit VS stamina, the role of intelligence, etc. There's also an interesting mental model ("five factor model" or sthng like that) aimed to classify talents.
There's ofc a "woke" chapter, but I found it relatively reasonable. The last chapter ("how to convince talent") is by far the worse and pretty much useless.
In the end - 3.75 stars. Solid book that won't rock you world, but its content can enrich your own personal mental models that you use to shape your approach to searching for talent.
"Talent" accurately satirises the pomposity of today's experts. The anonymous author takes on the persona of "Tyler Cowen", a highly intelligent and praised modern intellectual, known for genuinely smart economics analysis, who finds acolytes hanging on his every word on any issue, regardless of Tyler's knowledge. What begins as a supposedly straightforward discussion about identifying talent becomes a masterful exposition of Cowen's complete lack of self-awareness, highlighting society's over-reliance on Internet "experts" and the vacuity of venture capitalists.
Cowen is revealed to have astonishing high self-regard. Tyler not only works constantly, even after travelling, but, unlike mere mortals, his "feats of fecundity" are achieved without needing caffeine. A modern miracle! Cowen doesn't just obsess about Paul McCartney, but is "highly motivated to seek out Indian classical music concerts", and listens to a French radio station that plays Jamaican dub. His tastes are finely-tuned to an unbelievable level, with Cowen's Zoom background carefully chosen to show a "David Burliuk sketch of books on a table" and "some classic Haitian art". Cultural status symbols have rarely appeared so transparent.
Sometimes the author overdoes it. A long section on Tyler's open browser windows is a clunky list of pseudo-intellectual obsessions among today's Internet expert class. Two e-mail systems? An article on in-migration to Poland? Articles on programming bug and quantum computing? Why just play chess, when you can take it further and listen to chess podcasts.
A joint author, Daniel Gross, is introduced as a barely believable foil to highlight Cowen's pomposity. When they first meet at a San Francisco restaurant, Cowen notices Gross's "now-iconic tote bag", and Sherlock Holmes's that Gross as "whimsical, down-to-earth, and nontraditional" rather than just someone with a tote bag. That Gross is merely a less successful version of Cowen is highlighted by his sporadic appearances, and lack of cultural references. While Cowen is a modern Da Vinci, in tune with today's trendiest cultural references, Gross's interests are reduced to plodding physical activity in the form of marathon running.
Cowen is used to highlight the immense pomposity of modern experts. He is so desperate to bolster his credentials that in the first few pages he includes a risible half-page paean to his excellence written by a random blog commentator called Alastair who adores Cowen's "obsessive learning, perpetual travel, and sheer stamina... There is almost no one who views the world like Tyler... Even if his conclusions were conventional, his reasoning and perspectives wouldn't be". This laughable lack of self-awareness is mirrored at the end of the book, when Tony Kalesa is quoted gushing that Cowen's website "is famous for his eclectic and highly-cerebral content" which is a "magnet for people who become public intellectuals in some manner".
Of course, beneath it all, Cowen is intensely insecure, being so thin-skinned he can't turn down an opportunity to grouse about people mistakenly attributing a popular interview question to Peter Thiel without realising that Cowen came up with it in a 2006 blog post.
The advice Cowen gives on talent management suggests his self-regard is not matched by any real insight. Generic pages on the value of IQ tests provide a standard and dull introduction that can be found in many similar works. He complains that Zoom meetings mean he is unable to assess prospective talent based on how interviewees smell. His advice on avoiding race bias is a list of hopelessly impractical suggestions that do nothing to address bias in interviews - learn a different language! Visit Finland! Read some autobiographies! For a supposed intellectual, Cowen relies far too much on anecdotal waffle, fails to examine the relevance of lab experiments to real life, and avoids vital questions in talent identification of survivor bias.
"Talent" works as a satire because the economist "Tyler Cowen" is very smart in his particular field. Seriously, seriously smart. Much as you can hear bamboo growing, you can feel your intelligence rising as you read Cowen and his "Marginal Revolution" blog. He has an impressive range of knowledge and writes clearly. His podcast interviews with other intelligent thinkers are genuinely challenging. It is just that he's written a barely adequate book that reveals him to be yet another self-appointed Internet polymath, dropping the same names as everyone else, while having no awareness that he is a monumental ass.
The thesis of this book is that the world can and should do better to find talent, and failing to identify talent has large but mostly silent costs (analogous to restrictions on immigration, or some kinds of discrimination). I found that really compelling.
I enjoyed the unusual interview question ideas. Paraphrasing some:
What is it you do to train that is comparable to a pianist practicing scales?
I was highly skeptical of this book, but after reading it, I legitimately think it needs to be mandatory reading for anyone involved in hiring. Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross wrote a book that is about as close to perfect as you can get destroying conventional wisdom about hiring. As someone who has been lower-middle-class my whole life, but I work my ass off, I’ve always hated the mindless process of how applications and interviews go. Too often employers won’t even consider you if you don’t check certain boxes on an application, but Cowen and Gross are looking to change that.
The book dives into so many different nuances about hiring people and finding the right people. Because people are complex, and there’s much more under the surface (Crazy, right?!). Cowen and Gross give tips for better interviews and what to look for in candidates as well as identifying potential. They also dive into various pros and cons of different personalities and even have a section about interviewing online or over the phone.
By far, the best parts of this book are toward the end when they discuss hiring people with “disabilities”. The authors hate even using the word “disability” because they recognize that people with different brains excel in certain areas. They mainly dive into people on the autism spectrum, but they also touch on some other mental “illnesses” like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. As a recovering drug addict who has been diagnosed with depression and anxiety, I’ve been a huge advocate for mental health and try to educate people about this as well. So, I’m glad they took the time to dive into this as well as a chapter on women, minorities, and the biases that play into the hiring process.
If I had a gun to my head and had to give a criticism, it’s one that I have with most books when the target audience is the corporate world; it’s mainly anecdotal evidence. It’s not bad anecdotal evidence, and they actually touch on more studies than most books in this realm, but I wish there were more. They could probably do a completely different book really diving into the research mentioned throughout the book.
So, if you’re a hiring manager, recruiter, work in HR, or are even hiring freelancers, get this book. So many people need to read this book, and I really hope it gets a ton of attention so we can shift the hiring culture to provide more people with great opportunities.
This book is very informative and it should appeal to everyone who wants to learn more about the status quo of talent market. I’ve written the book review on my column on a Taiwanese online media. Please have a look if you’re interested. It’s in Mandarin, but I’ve tried translated on ChatGPT or even Google translate and it’s pretty good! AI is disrupting everything and it seems logical to read a lot more AI books this year. Hopefully I could find more time to read. Reading calms anxiety and it’s really a haven for such a hectic world. My mind is almost disrupted by the advancement of technology😂
I have to admit I approached this book with some level of hesitation. But this isn’t my fault. Books in the business/entrepreneurship/MBA space to tend to be repetitious, overstated and somewhat obvious in my experience. However, as a fan of Tyler Cowen’s “Conversations with Tyler” podcast, I appreciated Tyler’s unique ability to draw on disparate fields of science, psychology and economics to wrestle with complex ideas, so had to pick this up.
In Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World, Cowen and Gross synthesize, based on a plethora of data from behavioral psychology, genetics and their own experiences to give a typically suggestive, intelligent way to finding talented founders and employees.
Some of this book consists of what the authors have seen in their own experiences, and give some useful interview questions for employers to help them navigate the challenges of hiring new talent. Some of the interview questions I am a bit skeptical of (e.g, what is one mainstream view you adamantly disagree with - which always struck me as a bit of a bizarre question given the plethora of heterodoxies you can find online). Otherwise, I think this part of the book was the most practical for readers. For example, Cowen and Gross suggest trying to get an understanding of an applicant by asking what they do on weekends, or what tabs they have open in their browser.
Other examples are also helpful - e.g the distinction between "grit" and "stamina". While grit is widely believed to be a necessary prerequisite for success, stamina is what ensures continued performance over many years and is thus correlated with an increased likelihood of success.
I was also impressed with Talent’s balanced overview of the Five-Factor Model and behavioral genetics, while acknowledging its incompleteness as a framework to evaluate any one person. Going beyond IQ or personality models is necessary - but these models can be helpful in their own right. Although one consistent emphasis in this book is that ultimately, identifying talent is more art than science - which seems reasonable. Similarly, I appreciated the emphasis on understanding how ones own implicit biases can overlook talent, e.g when a male interviewer is hiring a female employee, communicating via zoom and how socioeconomic differences can dictate dynamics between people. All these perspectives are nicely balanced and helpful.
Altogether, I’d recommend this short, highly readable book. Although it does come across as a bit hand-wavey, I think most novice entrepreneurs or hiring managers will appreciate the breadth of work covered in Talent.
This was an enjoyable, quick, and conversation-starting book. I would send it to someone who is new to Silicon Valley culture in the same way that Zero To One is a reasonable window into this world for an outsider -- but maybe not a lot of novel content for people already in the VC / startup scene.
Regardless, there were still many parts of Talent that I found insightful.
For instance I think there were some good tips of evaluating talent from cultures beyond one's own. (I think this is the strongest case for travel and living abroad -- it truly makes you more empathetic, relatable, and able to rapidly establish trust with people unlike you). I liked many of the secondary personality attributes that Cowen and Gross talk about, e.g. various forms of persistence. Littered throughout there were good discrete interview question ideas.
Probably the only way to truly get a handle on talent spotting is by interviewing lots of people and testing out types of questions. This is partly why I like to recommend people join fast-growing companies out of school. Big ancillary benefit in having to interview 100s-1000s of people and build this muscle.
I don't know if Talent is quite distilled enough to be an "evergreen" business book in the same way High Output Management is. But it's solid.
Talent was an excellent read in that it well outlined how to find and search for talent, where to search for talent, as well as strategies and techniques right down to possible interview questions to ask, which would likely be at least semi-useful for people involved in business or hiring if it weren't written in such a stereotypical venture capitalist #entrepeneur4life type of way. It also seems as though it pushes on the idea that you have to have some sort of creative or out-of-the-box way of finding and identifying talent in order to be truly good at it, which, at least in my opinion, is not at all the case.
The premise is that obviously talented people are priced fairly and so its the people who are overlooked because of stereotyping, unconscious bias, poor communication skills etc. who you can get a good deal on when building a project team. Little in this book will blow your mimd, but it's useful to think about this stuff for founders, managers or anyone else who can leverage undervalued talent.
How should we think about Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross's Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World?
At first glance, this is a book about finding and hiring talent aimed primarily at start up entrepreneurs. In this sense, entrepreneurs and people on hiring committees seem like a better audience for this book than I am.
More broadly, Cowen and Gross seek to chip away at the bureaucratized HR style search for workers. If everyone knows "tell me about a weakness of yours," is that question revealing a lot about the candidate or only that they're well prepared. Sometimes, preparation counts for a lot, but not always, Cowen and Gross argue.
More broadly still, Cowen and Gross are chipping away at the aspect of the culture that is aiming to make everyone "good enough." This phrase could include a lot of things, ranging from public school to credentialism. A "good enough" ethos aims to raise the floor, even if it's at the expense of raising the ceiling. A "good enough" ethos is probably a bit skeptical of many conventional meritocratic arguments that excuse income inequality. A "good enough" applicant might wish to become a professor to publish some journal articles and get tenure, but to Cowen this would be a waste of space. We should organize society so that people feel incentivized to set the loftiest of goals and we should do this not only for individuals but also for our communities.
For Cowen, and presumably Gross, material equality is less important than productivity. In Stubborn Attachments, Cowen argues that almost everything we care about correlates with strong economic growth and so growth should be a moral imperative. In other words, we should always be trying to improve our productivity. I doubt anyone thinks of HR (or any bureaucracy) as a bastion of productivity, so surely we can squeeze some economic efficiency by cracking that nut. In other words, because our one size fits all bureaucratized hiring system so often fails to identify extreme talent, it is violating Cowen's greatest moral imperative.
I didn't always enjoy reading Talent. It adopts too much of what I view as a flaky Silicon Valley writing style for my taste, sorry. I kept thinking of that part of The Circle when Emma Watson is asked to summarize her views on Lennon vs McCartney in an interview process. I also don't love the idea of being asked to show an interviewer the tabs on my computer browser or the expectation that I should be at all times obsessing about my work. (I think I already probably spend too much time thinking about my work.)
But there are some interesting ideas here. My favorite chapter was the second one on personality, "What is Personality Good For? Part Two: Some More Exotic Concepts." And if you are in a position to hire others, I would certainly recommend Talent to you.
Between his role in making GMU a destination for brilliant non-mainstream economists, building the Mercatus Institute, and his latest work with the Emergent Ventures grant program, Tyler Cowen is, among other things, a prolific talent scout and I see Talent as his attempt summarize his philosophy and process for talent identification.
His advice in Talent is characteristically non-standard. The basic message I take from the book is that a good leader needs to look beyond known quantities. Some people are safe bets. They have trod well-worn paths intended to signal high-ability. There is some opportunity to outperform the market by knowing which of these "safe bets" might fail to pay off, but there are also massive gains to be had from identifying talent undervalued by the market for whatever reason. Much of the book aims to outline a philosophy and a set of tools to identify these talent arbitrage opportunities.
According to Cowen and Gross, traditional interviewing, education credentials, and even intelligence (in some cases) are overrated, while (some) personality traits and demographic groups are underrated. They also stress the importance of understanding the needs of your organization and its relative position in the marketplace as preconditions for effective talent search.
I'm not sure if it is an artifact of coauthorship, but compared to other Cowen books I've read, Talent is less direct. Not necessarily in the sense of being straightforward to interpret; as a self-proclaimed Straussian, Tyler has always been a bit esoteric. But just a bit more "fluffy." For example, there are so many disclaimers and caveats offered before any opinion, or even fact, that might be construed as controversial. It becomes annoying. I get it, you're not speaking about all cases and don't want to be seen as making stereotypes. But come on, let's get on with it!
Still, Talent is an excellent book for leaders seeking to identify high-caliber talent, but equally useful if you are looking to identify ways to set yourself apart in a job search or other talent identification pipeline.
An excellent book both for general audience (anyone who might have a job or hire for a job...) but also for startup founders specifically, as they're often very focused on organizational design. It's not perfect, but does inspire, and has some good ways to create your own processes and models for evaluating talent.
Tyler Cowen is one of my favorite mainstream-libertarian economists who also runs an investment/exploration fund. Daniel Gross is a former YC founder, then partner, Apple employee, and AI worker who now runs a very early stage investment fund (Pioneer). Both have extensive experience with finding talent, and both have rigorously analyzed how they conduct the search for talent, sharing it in this book.
Mostly, it's about discovering systems. It doesn't really provide too many concrete procedures running the talent search, but does include a lot of heuristics which can be part of it, and things to consider. The first few chapters were probably the best, with some examples of good interview questions and the types of questions which can't be trivially rehearsed in advance; the middle/end of the book focused a lot on biases and underutilized sources of talent and maybe an excessive degree of focus there. Weakest part was probably the "video assessments/zoom" chapter -- the real takeaway should be "just do audio-only", rather than wasting a bunch of pages on how video doesn't work well in various ways.
Overall, one of the better talent pipeline books out there, and a great audiobook. Sadly not comprehensive enough to cover the whole topic, but a good foundation.
This book presents different ways of thinking about professional talent, including understanding how different personality types match different roles, the importance of intelligence, interview techniques, and ways of spotting talent. I like the idea of thinking about identifying and recruiting talent as a "Moneyball" type of scheme. It was the first time I had thought about this topic in a structured way, so I appreciate the book for that alone. It was also very easy to read.
My complaints about the book are as follows: I have no idea why they decided to write the book alternating between first and third person ("Tyler thinks that...," "We would generally recommend..."). This was pretty annoying and comes off almost as self-obsessed. They also have this odd balance of wanting to be really scientifically/academically rooted but also wanting to theorize when there are no studies to draw upon. It's totally natural to want to do both of those things, but the way they executed it was by sometimes spending more time qualifying certain results or their conjectures than the actual statements of their arguments.
Caveat: I like the authors’ previous work and had _very_ high expectations, so maybe my review is too harsh.
TL;DR: 1. Finding the right people for the right problem doesn’t not only drive the world forward, but also it levels the playing field as a lot of talent isn’t discovered or in the “main field” (like at a prestigious institution). 2. Looking at the talent in new ways, in new places, or “new kinds of people” has a massive arbitrage as most institutions' value is priced in; everyone loves hiring from top institutions, and therefore you are competing with everyone else. 3. The book has a wonderful chapter on interview questions. In short, avoid the standard questions, but ask questions that “get people out of character and into themselves” so you get to see the real person. 4. Good interview questions are either “random”/“surprising,” like asking about culture when you are hiring for engineers, but also “meta-questions” like “How do you think this interview is going?” Bad questions are the ones you can give canned & prepared answers.
This was easily the best book I’ve ever read on talent and hiring. Not surprising, as it was written by Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross - two people obsessed with identifying and interviewing talent, and also unafraid to go beyond platitudes and uncover some contrarian takes.
Also, this book is going to be more useful for scrappy startup founders than it will be corporate Google recruiters. It’s obviously the case that easily identifiable talent has already been “priced in,” thus your only choice is to pay top rate - which Google can do, but you, a scrappy startup, cannot. So the point of the book is learning how you may be able to find untapped and underrated talent, which is arguably the most important thing a startup leader can do. I’m now obsessed with this pursuit as well, so this book hit me at a great time.
Talent is an excellent read for those interested in learning how to spot and nurture #talent, and by extension, those who want to be spotted.
Written by Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross, folks whose job (or at least an aspect of their jobs) is the book's subject.
They started with arguments for why talent matters and then hopped around various topics such as how to engage people online, how to interview and ask questions, personality psychology, the impact of various disabilities on talent, and a host of others. It’s quite an eclectic list.
I initially picked up the book because I wagered it will potentially improve my work for a grant program, but the book happens to be more valuable to me well beyond that. It turned out to be a great bet.
Talent explores how to find ambitious, creative people for leadership roles. Cowen and Gross take the stance that personality matters in whether someone will be successful (whether they have innate drive and curiosity, are willing to work hard) and that this personality can be revealed relative quickly through a specific interview style (get the candidate telling stories, use specific, forcing questions). "Personality is revealed on weekends," and you want to get an accurate view into the candidate's "weekend."
I see the book as having a few different purposes. While framed as a guide for people making people decisions, specifically those looking to hire for non-rote positions, it's also a guide for job-seekers. The ideal candidates described in this book are curious (possibly obsessed), ambitious, confident, and competent. They have strong networks and have reputable people vouching for them. They've gone against the grain in ways where they think the orthodox way isn't the best way.
My favorite insight from the book is nestled at the end: "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."
My main criticism of the book is that nothing is definitive; it's not a playbook. There is a lot of nuance in all people decisions, and something as simple as good grades could suggest "intelligent" it could also suggest "conformist" or "cheater." And even if they are a cheater, does that imply bad morals, or only the realization that the education system is flawed and an ambitious student should spend minimal time on grades on maximum time on learnings? This book pushes you to appreciate the nuance, ask deeper questions, and really try to understand someone's mentality and potential rather than just "can they do the job."
I imagine other critiques of this book would include that this method invites bias, and is far from the structured hiring approach currently touted as a best practice. While somewhat justified, I think the admission is that the job description of a founder, entrepreneur, or dynamic leader isn't exact, and isn't just a set of competencies. Cowen and Gross examine their biases, try to find where they could be flawed, and then make the best decisions they can with the information available.
It's hard to find great talent. Be aware of the talent level you need; what skills, competencies, and personality traits will be effective in the role. If you aren't a top-tier institution, don't expect top-tier talent. If you think you have found top-tier talent, question why they'd want to work for you.
In terms of Five Factor personality traits, which is of limited usefulness, you likely want a high openness and low agreeableness founder. This will allow them to go against the grain and take in new information, while remaining confident in themselves.
Stamina is an important trait for founders. Can they work in the industry for decades?
Does the candidate use conceptual frameworks? Do they ask good and interesting questions about why the world is the way it is?
Pattern match not just to people you've met, but to fictional people as well. Leave error bars for unrealistic characters, no one is as perfect as fictional heroes.
Certain "disabilities" may be an advantage in certain settings. The intensity and focus associated with autism is the main example here, among others.
It's likely women and other groups are undervalued in today's market due to stereotypes. That can be an arbitrage opportunity for employers.
Building a big network is a huge benefit for finding talent. You can either use a scouting method (looking for talent / referrals) or a gaming method (hold a competition). Depending if the skill is measurable or visible in a structured competitive setting is helpful in knowing which to use.
This book is an interesting collaboration between the economist Tyler Cowen and the startup accelerator Daniel Gross. This is important context because much of this book is not about how to hire a “typical” worker, but an exceptional worker who you are expecting to drive innovation. A lot of it is uncovering “hidden” talent that others might have missed. Two things I wanted to get from this book were some good types of interview questions (whether verbatim questions or the types of questions to think about) and what to prioritize when it comes to talent. I jotted down a few of the questions that were most interesting to me, but also some of the other topics they covered. While I did enjoy the interview questions, I thought some of the most interesting chapters were on personality types and how characteristics can be perceived differently in men and women.
The first section talked about why talent matters. One of the first ideas they talked about that I thought was interesting was asking about what a person is doing to help improve themselves. “Daniel recalls that he first learned from Tyler this question for prospective hires: ‘What is it you do to practice that is analogous to how a pianist practices scales?’ You learn what the person is doing to achieve ongoing improvement, and perhaps you can judge its efficacy or even learn something from it. You also learn how the person thinks about continual self-improvement, above and beyond their particular habits. If a person doesn’t practice much, they still might be a good hire, but then you are much more in the world of ‘what you see is what you get,’ which is valuable information on its own. If the person does engage in daily, intensive self-improvement, perhaps eschewing more typical and more social pursuits, there is a greater chance they are the kind of creative obsessive who can make a big difference.” (2) This is an important question to ask for many types of roles if you are expecting the person to continue to grow. A side comment they made really resonated from the first section regarding credentials. “Does a worker in law enforcement or construction management really need to have a master’s degree, as is currently a trend? Another way of asking the question: By requiring a master’s degree for those positions, are we potentially overlooking people with more relevant skills and talents who might be better for the job? Credentialism plays an important role in helping us narrow down who is best for the job. But when it misses the mark, it hurts the candidate and employer, limits the economic and social mobility of those who can’t afford an advanced degree, and encourages overinvestment in formal education. If we wish to combat excess credentialism and restore America as a land of true opportunity, we have to get better at talent search.” (12) As the book is talking a lot about “hidden” talent, one edge you can get in recruiting is being willing to hire someone who does not have a certification or credential that might not actually be that applicable to the role.
The second part talks about asking questions. Again, a lot of these are not necessarily technical questions, but bigger picture questions about how a person thinks about things. For that purpose, they are probably relatively useful: “Here are some questions that not only will elicit stories but also might yield relatively interesting answers: -How did you spend your morning today? -What’s the farthest you’ve ever been from another human? -What’s something weird or unusual you did early in life? -What’s a story one of your references might tell me when I call them? -If I was the perfect Netflix, what type of movies would I recommend for you and why? -How do you feel you are different from the people at your current company? -What views do you hold religiously, almost irrationally? -How did you prepare for this interview? -What subreddits, blogs, or online communities do you enjoy? -What is something esoteric you do?” (31) One thing I did like is the coaching on what to focus on. What is it that we actually care about? “Do not overestimate the importance of a person’s articulateness. Focus instead on the substance and quality of the answers to your questions. Many very qualified candidates are not that quick on their feet, nor do they speak off the cuff in well-formulated, smooth-sounding sentences, but if they have good content, notice it. Perhaps you have seen how come Americans are impressed by the accents of British people. Well, nothing against hiring British people, but in the workplace the accent probably isn’t worth much, just as what Americans might consider a ‘clumsy’ German accent or ‘effete’ French accent should not be used as stand-ins for particular assessments of personality or intelligence. We too often correlate accent with linguistic fluency, or sometimes intelligence.” (33) I’ve interviewed a lot of people who were polished with no substance, and the opposite as well. It can be tricky when it’s a team that is hiring and different people are weighting different qualities differently. I think it can be important to agree ahead of time on what is important and make sure and seek out a person that can do those things. “Here are a few somewhat more unusual questions…: -What are ten words your spouse or partner or friend would use to describe you? -What’s the most courageous thing you’ve done? -If you joined us and then in three to six months you were no longer here, why would that be? -What did you like to do as a child? (This gets at what they really like to do, because it harks back to a time before the world started bossing them around.) -Did you feel appreciated at your last job? What was the biggest way in which you did not feel appreciated?” (39) Another interesting tact is to use repetition, and ways to get them to dig deeper beyond what they prepared for. “The first time you ask this question [about a time you went above and beyond the call of duty at work], most candidates will draw upon their preparation. Sustained repetition, however, will get the person out of prep sooner or later, usually sooner. The previously cached answers will be exhausted, leaving time for the real meat. You will then see the depth of the candidate’s intellectual resources and emotional resilience. How does the person respond when being challenged continually? How many instances can the person come up with?” (42) I always like hearing the other person’s views as well. “Try this one: ‘What criteria would you use for hiring?’ Again, you are testing an individual’s understanding of the job, of him- or herself, and of the interview process itself.” (52)
The third chapter covered how to engage with people online. I thought this did a good job of explaining some of the differences with how this unfolds, like not being able to read people quite as well so you might not say or do more daring things. “So all other things being equal, online trust will be lower. Consequently, edgy interview questions are harder to pull off in these settings. As an interviewer, you are more likely to appear obnoxious, or overly pushy, or simply ‘off,’ and in any case your intentions will be harder to read. So you may be forced to use fewer such questions or to blunt their hard edges. That is one reason online interviews tend to be less informative, and it is also a factor you need to respect when choosing your angle of approach…It’s likely that the interviewee will find it harder to take risks in the online setting. When interviewed, often we start an anecdote or story and rely on implicit visual feedback to encourage or discourage us from proceeding further.” (59) Also, it can negate some dominant powers that people have in person like their height or other things about their physical presence, so people can be on an equal level. “Another notable feature of online interaction is that it drains away many of the traditional markers of status. Think of how many aspects of status relations are blurred or obliterated by the online setting. For instance, at a business meeting or interview there is typically a seating order of some kind, whether it is planned in advance or has arisen spontaneously. The boss or decision-maker is not usually pushed into the corner, for one thing. But with online calls, other than having a designated host who may ‘control the dials,’ those status markers are largely absent. Furthermore, the person in control of the dials on the call often is a technical assistant, not the actual boss. Many women have remarked on Twitter that they feel on more equal footing on a Zoom call. The (usually male) boss is not dominating the center of the room; he cannot so easily employ ‘me first’ body language; it is harder to interrupt people; and the rotation of turns to speak is often more symmetric…A lot of people used to be coming across as high-status and charismatic in person will feel a bit lost through the screen. Witty repartee also can be hard to pull off over an internet call, and that too may diminish the stature of those individuals who are accustomed to using clever banter to command a room.” (63) They also went into other ways an impression online might differ from in person. “Most interviewers consider a person’s gait, microexpressions, and interactions with third parties when judging how trustworthy that person really is, whether those judgments are fair or not. And we don’t know how accurate those signals really are. So if the online interview equalizes those signals across candidates somewhat, you may end up making a better decision. You may have to look more closely at what person has done…” (77) Overall, it doesn’t necessarily frame them as good or bad, but just highlights that you can get a different impression from someone whether they are in person or on video, which might make it so you miss important details, but might make it so you overlook unimportant features as well.
The next section talked about whether intelligence was important or not. Overall, they seemed to be talking about intelligence as a necessary but not sufficient condition for a lot of things. In the very upper echelon of jobs, you often see very intelligent people, but the most successful people often have other skills besides raw intelligence. “Arguably many top talents are well described what is called the multiplicative model of success. In the multiplicative model, final success requires a fairly tight combination of several traits – variables expressing the strength of particular traits are in some manner multiplied together to achieve a powerful final effect. For instance, to be a top-tier classical music composer, you might need great work habits, musical genius, ability to play the piano, skill in orchestrating, persistence, and to have come from a major musical center in or near central Europe…But if you are missing just one of those traits, perhaps you fail altogether.” (84) Additionally, it can be helpful to have talented people recruiting and interviewing for other talented people, as they might be best suited to distinguish between higher levels of talent and ability. “In other words, the super-talented are best at spotting other super-talented individuals, and there aren’t many of those super-talented spotters to go around. So if you are yourself a super-talented spotter of super-talented talent, you will find many instances of undervalued intelligence, undervalued positive work habits, undervalued drive, and so on. Those qualities will (correctly) appear to you undervalued because few other individuals will notice them.” (87) (continued in comments)
Really really like the first quarter or first third, and liked the overall philosophy/approach/thinking behind it. Feel like could’ve been structured more cleanly or more obviously, but maybe I’m not talented enough and need it served up on a platter
Thank you to St. Martin's Press for an advanced reader copy of this book.
I really enjoyed this guide on talent identification. My favorite chapters were on disabilities and women/minorities. I gained a lot of insight into interviewing strategies. I am very glad I read this guide and I highly recommend it!
An important subject, and there are some interesting insights in here from two smart people. Much more venture capital / Silicon Valley tech startup oriented than the introductory material and marketing lets on. That preoccupation sharply limits how generalizable the findings are. Some interesting points but also a good bit of anecdotal fluff.
"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?"
Today’s Book of the Day is TALENT, written by Daniel Gross and Tyler Cowen in 2022 and published by St. Martin’s Press.
Daniel Gross is a technology venture capitalist/angel investor and entrepreneur who co-founded Cue (formerly Greplin) and later founded the startup accelerator Pioneer, which helps founders who do not own capital to start their businesses. Gross is also a contributor to the technology news site TechCrunch.
Tyler Cowen is an American renowned economist, academic, and writer. He occupies the Holbert L. Harris Chair of Economics, as a professor at George Mason University.
I have chosen this book because I often talk with customers, potential employers, and businesses about the fundamental relevance of choosing the most valuable assets for an organization: their talents.
The key idea of the book is to give the readers the knowledge and tools to spot, assess, woo, and retain highly talented people for an organization.
Too often we see companies unable to achieve their full potential just because they have not found the right talents, or because they have them but they do not foster and trust them, or even because, even if they hired some, they were not smart enough to keep them.
The authors ask, in various ways along its pages, what really matters when looking for the right person to hire? What makes that specific person a talent, able to give your organization the special combination of ideas, creativity, knowledge, and skills that will provide lots of value?
The goal, for any hiring organization, is not just to trick talented people into their business so they will not work for a competitor. The search and interviewing process should aim at creating trust, by finding common values the two parties can agree and work on.
The core hypothesis behind the search process is that organizations should look for good deals when they hire talents so as to make good investments with high expected returns. That means finding people who:
Will improve over time, and improve at enhancing themselves and your organization. Spend time every day, working on reading, studying, learning, and improving. Have clear signs of being extraordinary in what they do, even in many do not understand them as they find them too brainy, isolated, strange or off-putting. Have self-drive, self-motivation, curiosity, and ethics. They are also strategic thinkers, and ambitious. Are tough to find, fulfil, and involve. Have something weird and unusual (that you can handle). Accept working for or with you, even for unusual reasons. Are idea-seekers and trend-setters rather than status-seekers and trend-followers Are holistically good fits and are not afraid of telling you what to do to let them work better. Have the right ‘five factor’ personality values. As you see, these suggestions, and I just pointed out a few of the many listed in the book, identify those pure talents that are like gems, who will shine in the right environment, when their organization will not ask them to conform to the bureaucracy, hierarchy, or management bias.
Cowen and Gross guide the reader through the significant scientific research areas relevant to talent search, including how to conduct an interview both in presence or remotely, how much to weigh intelligence, how to judge the different personalities and match them to the right jobs, how to hire talented women, how to understand the special talents in people who have disabilities or supposed disabilities.
Talent scouting is an art you can learn and improve through study and experience.
I definitely recommend this book to every manager who has no idea about how to mange a talent.