Book Note: Talent by Tyler Cowen & Daniel Gross

I recently read Talent, by Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross.

Tyler is a groundbreaking economist who has a widely read blog (Marginal Revolution) and podcast (Conversation with Tyler). Although I rarely read the blog, I have enjoyed many of his podcast episodes, including the one with Marc Andreessen, Daniel Gross (talking about this book!), Stewart Brand, Ray Dalio, Sam Altman, and Peter Thiel.

Equally impressive is the second author, Daniel Gross, who was one of the youngest executives at Apple and a Partner at Y Combinator. He is currently building Pioneer, a unique startup accelerator where founders join a tournament before getting funded. I have watched Daniel talk and listened to podcast episodes of him and I couldn't find that many people who are sharper and more energetic than him.

As someone who founded three startups relating to talent and recruiting, I find the book contains fresh ideas and some unconventional wisdom to be a great spotter & nurturer of talent. This post contains mostly verbatim highlights from the book. I write it to be a reference when I want to revisit the ideas without having to read the book again. Some of the paragraphs might not be coherent to each other, but even taken out of context I feel those are still useful.

1. Why Talent Matters

Daniel stressed the importance of hobbyists and “weirdos,” noting that many major mainstream internet revolutions started with products that appeared to be niche. It is the people who work intently on pleasing a narrow fan base, but pleasing them intensely, who end up with the skills and networks to market the product to broader audiences. So very often, if you are looking for a start-up that will hit it big, do something counterintuitive by seeking out people aiming, at least at first, to please smaller and weirder audiences.

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.

One of his blog commentators, Alastair, described him as follows: “Tyler is contrarian in method. His superfast reading speed, various professional roles, constant podcasting and networking, obsessive learning, perpetual travel, and sheer stamina enable him to take in many more and different inputs, which allows him to have many more and different outputs. But it’s what’s in between where he shines. He sees the world as an economist, philosopher, psychologist, sociologist, anthropologist, liberal and conservative, globalist and nationalist, foreigner and native, art critic and artist, employer/administrator and employee, grant provider and grant recipient, interviewer and interviewee, teacher and student. There is almost no one who views the world like Tyler because almost no one has a comparable number or variety of inputs or mental models. Even if his conclusions were conventional, his reasoning and perspectives wouldn’t be.”

Still, we share a stubborn curiosity, a love for ideas, and the willingness to persist in hacking away at tough problems.

Status-seekers focus on maximizing attention from the perceived elite. Idea-seekers, on the other hand, want to advance knowledge and stimulate curiosity, speaking to the entire room and holding the attention of the group.

Intrigue is their reserve currency, and conjectures are often framed as questions, not statements.

Elon Musk personally interviewed the first three thousand employees at SpaceX because he wanted to make sure the company was hiring the right people.

Just about everyone is on a quest to find talent in others or to show off their own. Surely you care about how talented your boss and co-workers are, as you want to work with the most talented people possible, especially if they are your bosses. That is one good way to grow more talented yourself. The decision to take a job or pursue an opportunity is almost always a decision about other people—namely, those you will be working with and answering to, no matter what your place in the hierarchy.

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

Everyone talks about being impressed by a candidate. But in venture, one odd emotion Daniel focuses on is fear—specifically those moments when a founder launches their pitch and Daniel begins to feel a subtle fear, brought on by the person’s brazen ambition and drive, that they will do anything to succeed. It’s not that the founder is trying to scare him; rather, they ooze ambition, and Daniel picks up on that. If Daniel feels subtly afraid of them, he will pay attention. The twenty-first-century founder is akin to the pirate of the sixteenth century—an outsider overflowing with energy and brazen charisma. Sometimes Daniel anchors his investment conviction in the market: it was easy to see how Opendoor could become a large business. But sometimes he anchors it in the founder: Instacart, Cruise, and Embark come to mind as extremely profitable investments with non-obvious paths to profitability but very fearsome founders.

For all the importance of talent, we find it striking that there is not a single go-to book on talent search akin to, say, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People for sales, Andy Grove’s High Output Management for CEOs, or Robert Cialdini’s Influence for marketing and personal relationships.

In our many conversations, we have come to see the world’s inability to find and mobilize enough talent as one of the most significant failures of our time, and so this is also a book about how to fight for social justice.

The most famous and successful talent spotters process a phenomenal amount of data, but they also inject their intuition into the process. Peter Thiel found and helped to mobilize the talents of Elon Musk, Reid Hoffman, Max Levchin, Mark Zuckerberg, and others, including Steve Chen, Chad Hurley, and Jawed Karim (all behind YouTube), and Jeremy Stoppelman and Russell Simmons (behind Yelp).

Michael Moritz is another remarkable judge of talent. From Stripe to Google to PayPal, Mike has had a remarkable eye for talent and is regarded by many in the industry as the best. Prior to joining Sequoia Capital, he spent his whole career as a journalist, and we believe this helps him suss out who has talent and who does not.

Whereas we understand Thiel’s mind to be more philosophical, Moritz seeks a story of authentic, raw energy in the individual, and his art is in spotting such backgrounds.

We are both “fallibilists,” to use a term that has been revived by Irish tech entrepreneur and Stripe CEO Patrick Collison. That means we’re also going to tell you about things you might think you know but that aren’t true. For instance, for a large swath of jobs, intelligence and IQ are far less important than many smart people believe. Discarding faulty knowledge and being open to surprise are two of the most important things you can do to discover previously unknown talent.

You can help the world a great deal by being a better judge of talent.

Any move to become a better appreciator of the talents and virtues of others probably also will improve your skills at ruthlessly identifying the causes of human failure. Such is the burden of knowledge.

2. How to Interview and Ask Questions

These days, our very favorite interview question is this one: “What are the open tabs on your browser right now?”

We both find during interviews that “downtime-revealed preferences” are more interesting than “stories about your prior jobs.”

So for instance, “What subreddits or blogs do you read?” usually is better than “What did you do at your previous job?” We very much like the title of the research paper by Mohammed Khwaja and Aleksandar Matic, “Personality Is Revealed During Weekends,” and in that piece the researchers attempt to measure how people use their smartphones outside of work hours. If someone truly is creative and inspiring, it will show up in how they allocate their spare time.

COWEN: Why is being quick and decisive such an important personality trait in a founder?

ALTMAN: That is a great question. I have thought a lot about this because the correlation is clear, that one of the most fun things about YC is that, I think, we have more data points on what successful founders and bad founders look like than any other organization has had in the history of the world. We have that all in our heads, and that’s great. So I can say, with a high degree of confidence, that this correlation is true. Being a fast mover and being decisive—it is very hard to be successful and not have those traits as a founder. Why that is, I’m not perfectly clear on, but I think it is something … about the only advantage that start-ups have or the biggest advantage that start-ups have over large companies is agility, speed, willing to make non-consensus, concentrated bets, incredible focus. That’s really how you get to beat a big company.

COWEN: How quickly should someone answer your email to count as quick and decisive?

ALTMAN: You know, years ago I wrote a little program to look at this, like how quickly our best founders—the founders that run billion-dollar-plus companies—answer my emails versus our bad founders. I don’t remember the exact data, but it was mind-blowingly different. It was a difference of minutes versus days on average response times. In essence, this quality of speed of response is picking up on how much the individual is focused on being connected to the world and responding to plausibly important queries. If your queries are not a priority for the person, then perhaps that individual is not the right match. And no matter what your level, give further thought to responding more quickly to at least some of your interlocutors, especially if you wish to continue your dialogues with them.

Get Candidates Telling Stories About Themselves Rather than Reciting Facts or Canned Answers

A simple question designed to elicit a story, such as “What did you do this morning?,” is a good way to begin to get to know a person without being threatening.

It is hard to fake an entire story on the fly, so when you ask for a story, maybe some relevant details are being censored, but you are likely to hear some version of the truth.

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 on 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?”

This insistence on an answer is one strategy that makes many interviewers feel uncomfortable or even a little mean.

There is a logic to his argument, and Peter communicates that logic with the utmost conviction; the audience correctly senses a coherent underlying worldview, involving themes of lost dynamism, pessimism, and the all too human desire to copy other people and their habits.

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.

Be Specific and Use Forcing Questions

Here are a few somewhat more unusual questions we recommend—again, depending on context—with more questions coming in the section on how to get “meta”:

  • “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?” Or ask the same question about five years down the line as well and see how the two answers differ.
  • “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?”

One of Daniel’s strongest initial bonds with Tyler—which boosted the prospects for our collaboration on this book—was discovering we both had a love of Orson Scott Card’s science fiction novel Ender’s Game, which is in fact about a series of talent competitions for young children. As we discussed it, we found that we appreciated the same things: its directness, its engagement with questions of meritocracy, and its sense of just how early talent can blossom or be revealed. The book embodies precisely the right mix of competitiveness, playfulness, empathy, gamification, and the stakes really mattering, which is what a great book about talent search should offer.

Going Meta: The Best Ways

Rather than trying to go small with your questions (e.g., “How many ping-pong balls fit into a Volkswagen?”), it is often more useful to look for the larger picture. For instance, how well do your applicants understand themselves and their place in the world? Toward that end, how about these questions?

  • “Which of your beliefs are you least rational about?”
  • “What views do you hold almost irrationally?”

A related and decent interview question is:

  • “Which of your beliefs are you most likely wrong about?”

The most brutal of all the meta questions is:

  • “How do you think this interview is going?”

Finally, here is another useful question used by Peter Thiel:

  • “How successful do you want to be?”

Or this variant favored by Tyler:

  • “How ambitious are you?”

The degree of a person’s ambition is pretty valuable to know, and it gives you a clear sense of their potential upside. It also offers you a sense of a person’s self-knowledge and of how they present and defend that self-knowledge when they are in an unexpected situation. We have found that hardly anyone is expecting this question. It is somehow too direct, too probing, and it touches too deeply upon a person’s inner thoughts. Most people are used to settings where the default is to fake some mix of ambition, lack of ambition, or both, and where everyone else goes along with the faux presentation.

Another set of meta questions reverses the tables. 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.

Finally, we are struck by these three questions for interviewing that Stripe CEO Patrick Collison presented to Reid Hoffman in their public interview from 2019. Patrick doesn’t seem to have intended these as “for references only questions,” but nonetheless we find them useful in that context. Here goes:

  • Is this person so good that you would happily work for them?
  • Can this person get you where you need to be way faster than any reasonable person could?
  • When this person disagrees with you, do you think it will be as likely you are wrong as they are wrong?

3. How to engage with people online

With all that in mind, one possible strategy for online interviewing is to try asking a question or two that evokes a sense of confession. Don’t make this a challenging or sharp question; rather, present it passively and openly, as if you are there to listen, not to judge.

How about this?

  • “We have all committed mistakes in the workplace, as have I. What is an example of a mistake you have committed but did not come to regret for a long time?”

Or try this one:

  • “In the context of the workplace, what does the concept of deliberate sin really mean? And how does it differ from a mere mistake? Can you illustrate this from the experience of one of your co-workers?”

Note that the invocation of the co-worker makes the inquiry less threatening and is more likely to induce an honest response.

If you wish to go direct, you might try:

  • “When have you experienced great regret in the workplace and why? How much were you at fault in that interaction?”

4. What is intelligence good for?

Consider the words of Vladimir Akopian, the brilliant Armenian chess player who never worked very hard at the game and thus never rose to the top: “I believe there are many talented chess players. When I play, sometimes I see players who are very talented. And by talent, many players can be compared easily; it’s not something special. But hard work is very important. And not only hard work but also a player’s weakness in character or some psychological instability can make a difference. Chess is very complicated and all of this counts. Purely in terms of talent, I believe, not only me but many others even maybe surpass these top players. It’s possible. But when you consider all things together—not only talent but the willingness to work hard, to sacrifice everything else, to be psychologically strong—not many have it in them to make it to the very top … there are many factors that need to be in place for a player to reach the world’s elite.” And outside of the very top of the game of chess, where the champions are indeed very smart, the evidence does not support a very strong link between chess achievement and intelligence.

The value of pursuing intelligence also is relatively high when you are the first one on the scene and there is no general competition to hire that same talent. That means intelligence is a better indicator of promise for the very young, for individuals from remote or economically underexplored areas, and for individuals being brought into networks for the very first time. In contrast, intelligence is a worse indicator of hire quality if you are considering a sixty-year-old individual with an established track record.

In what might seem like a paradox, it can be hard to spot intelligence, drive, and other positive qualities at the very, very top. Why? Well, the very, very top of the market usually is underexplored territory, virtually by definition. The most talented people usually are doing something extraordinary and fairly new, and often they are so unbelievably talented that most of us just don’t have the ability to appreciate their talents, at least not until their final achievements are on full display. If a young Gustav Mahler sat down in front of you and hummed one of his melodies, you probably wouldn’t have the talent required to see his potential to become one of the greatest Romantic composers of all time.

In other words, the super-talented are best at spotting other super-talented individuals, and there aren’t many of those super-talented talent 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.

So if you have a buddy in the start-up world (Tyler’s friend here is Daniel, and Tyler wrote this particular paragraph) and he or she is working with very, very smart people … well, you don’t have to feel jealous. Instead, you can go to bed at night knowing that something has gone right with our world.

No company has succeeded simply by putting out its shingle for intelligent individuals or by asking hires to solve difficult logic puzzles. While intelligence is, of course, a good thing, Marc Andreessen argues that, all other factors equal, the more important qualities in a hire are drive, self-motivation, curiosity, and ethics.

Intelligence Is Often Priced into the Market.

Another reason not to obsess over intelligence per se is that often it is priced into the market. Most people value some kind of smarts, so if you just go running after the people who are obviously smart, you may find you are paying full price for them. The obviously smart people are not always the obvious bargains. Consider an analogy from finance. What if someone told you to “buy up the stock of companies full of really smart people”? That is not good advice. You can believe in the importance of smarts all you want, but quality companies also tend to have expensive share prices, and that will be true of these companies full of smart people too, at least insofar as those smarts really matter. Economists have known for a long time there are no extra gains to be had from investing by running after positive qualities but neglecting price. The key instead is to find undervalued companies, and that means companies with hidden virtues. The importance of hidden virtues holds for quality hires as well, whether the dimension in question is smarts or something else.

5. What is personality good for? Part one: the basic traits

Commonly, the very top venture capitalists, when seeking a hitherto undiscovered founder, will look for high disagreeableness and also high openness.

Our main enterprise is prediction of talent, and in that sense we can learn something from correlations without always understanding the underlying causal processes.

Another problem is that personality traits are difficult to measure. One sorry truth about personality psychology is just how much the key variables usually are measured simply by asking people about themselves. A variable such as conscientiousness, for instance, actually is referring to how conscientious a person claims to be when asked on a questionnaire. In that sense, a great deal of personality psychology is built on relatively thin foundations. Very often there is no better way to proceed, as the researchers will tell you, but this gives additional reason to take the results of personality psychology with a grain of salt.

Personality, such as the traits specified by Five Factor theory, probably matters most when you consider founders and entrepreneurs, individuals tasked with creating an enterprise and seeing it through to some level of maturity. The stakes are higher in the first place, and the high rates of start-up failure suggest that not everybody is good at these jobs. Those individuals must show initiative and daring, and they must wish to impose their will on the world in some way. At the same time, they will be called upon to perform many different duties and take on many different roles, often with no advance warning. They must be flexible and resourceful at a very deep level, open in some critical ways, yet stubborn and unyielding too, with high levels of discipline when needed.

So don’t be too swayed by agreeableness, because very often it doesn’t deliver on its promises. The disagreeable founders, who will tell you that you have it all wrong and that the world is badly screwed up and on the wrong track, may end up doing better.

Neuroticism harms earnings in part because the more neurotic individuals seem to have a tougher time staying with the same job long enough to acquire seniority and climb the ladder.

Finally, before moving on, we would like to stress one very basic point about the importance of good ethics and honesty. We can go back to Marc Andreessen, who offers one of the best and least contingent good pieces of hiring advice you can find: 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.

The main scenario in which hiring an unethical person makes sense is when you yourself have a fundamentally unethical business model. But then we don’t really wish to give you advice at all.

It is a sorry truth that work responsibilities and family responsibilities may conflict. Arguably many performers at the very top neglect their families or are somewhat estranged from them. As a boss or talent selector, what exactly are you looking for? We can’t presume to offer up the correct ethical judgment here, but conscientiousness does not always operate in your commercial favor, and it does not always boost extreme talent at the very top levels of performance.

We find it useful to contrast the concepts of conscientiousness, grit, and what we call stamina. We see stamina as one of the great underrated concepts for talent search, especially when you are looking for top performers and leaders and major achievers.

On stamina, economist Robin Hanson wrote: “It wasn’t until my mid-30s that I finally got to see some very successful people up close for long enough to notice a strong pattern: the most successful have a lot more energy and stamina than do others.… I think this helps explain many cases of ‘why didn’t this brilliant young prodigy succeed?’ Often they didn’t have the stamina, or the will, to apply it. I’ve known many such people.”

Successful politicians are another group who seem to exhibit very high stamina levels—many of them seem to never tire of shaking hands, meeting new people, and promoting their candidacies. So if we meet an individual who exhibits stamina, we immediately upgrade the chance of that person having a major impact, and that the individual will be able to invest in compound returns to learning and improvement over time.

Or consider John le Carré, the spy thriller author. Washington Post reporter John Leen spent two weeks with him in Miami, investigating the local crime scene with le Carré’s assistance. At the end of that temporary partnership he wrote: “I was astonished by his energy, his drive, his ability to go out there every day and trundle through the hours of interviews, lunches, dinners. I was a little more than half his age and I was exhausted. He never appeared tired, never was less than sharp and penetrating. He already had half a dozen No. 1 bestsellers and more money than he could ever spend. Why did he want or need another one? What kept him out there, what was the engine that drove it all?”

Sometimes the literature speaks of “grit,” but we find “stamina” to be a more accurate term. Grit is sometimes defined as “passion and perseverance for long-term goals of personal significance,” but that involves two dimensions, the passion and the perseverance. Furthermore, it turns out that grit is strongly correlated with conscientiousness. The one feature of grit that still seems to matter statistically, after adjusting for conscientiousness, is perseverance of effort, not passion. That result is close to what we are calling stamina, and so the stamina concept seems to transcend conscientiousness and to be the more relevant portion of grit. Ideally, what you want is a kind of conscientiousness directed at the kind of focused practice and thus compound learning that will boost intelligence on the job.

A judgment of stamina in particular may require observation over longer periods of time, and so your skills as an interviewer need to be multifaceted and directed toward the references as well.

6. What is personality good for? Part two: some more exotic concepts?

Many researchers have criticized or tried to revise the Five Factor model. For instance, it has been argued that there is a sixth and culturally specific factor that is of relevance to East Asia and especially China: a tradition factor. Furthermore, there are numerous variants on the theory, some including as many as sixteen basic personality factors; of course, the more factors you add to your basic theory, the more different cases you can cover and the more explanatory power you can generate.

Consistent with the import of stamina, as discussed in the previous chapter, look to see if a person shows signs of improvement each time you meet with them. Does the person have an obsession with continual self-improvement? Let’s turn again to the words of venture capitalist Sam Altman: It’s easiest if you get to meet people in person, several times. If you meet someone three times in three months, and notice detectable improvement each time, pay attention to that. The rate of improvement is often more important than the current absolute ability (in particular, younger founders can sometimes improve extremely quickly).

One of your most significant skills as a talent evaluator is to develop a sense of when people are moving along a compound returns curve or not. So much of personality theory focuses on observing levels or absolute degrees of personality traits. You should instead focus on whether the person is experiencing positive rates of change for dynamism, intellect, maturity, ambition, stamina, and other relevant features.

Again, don’t just think in terms of levels of current ability, because over time, rates of change very often prove to be more important. Think in terms of trajectories. When it comes to a job or fellowship candidate, think about the person’s developmental curve and whether the candidate is truly committed to consistent, perpetual self-improvement, as you might expect from a top athlete or musician.

As mentioned in the introduction, one question that Tyler likes to ask people is “What is it you do to practice that is analogous to how a pianist practices scales?” Tyler likes to think of many jobs in a way that a professional musician or athlete would find natural. By asking this question, you learn what the person is doing to achieve ongoing improvement, and again, as noted earlier, you might learn some tricks yourself. You also learn how the person thinks about continual self-improvement, above and beyond whatever particular practices they engage in. If a person doesn’t seem to think much about self-improvement, they still might be a good hire, but then you had better be pretty content with their currently demonstrated level of expertise. In response to this question, a few good answers might be: “I give practice talks to my friends to hone my speaking abilities,” “I practice on obscure programming problems with no practical applications just to keep my skills fresh,” or “I am building up my knowledge in a very small corner of science just to figure out what it means to learn something really well and thoroughly.” A bad answer is simply “I don’t know.”

One trait we would draw your attention to as especially important is the ability to perceive, understand, and climb complex hierarchies. This is another way of saying that a person is keen to understand and master what it takes to reach the top.

Tyler, for instance, is struck by many of the chess players he met as a teen. Many of them were smart, indeed brilliant, and they also had the ability to work on their own. Of course, they understood the idea of winning and losing, and winning and losing rating points, but it was hard for many of them to look outside the chess hierarchy and see that they weren’t really headed anywhere fruitful. They saw only what was right before their faces. Chess gave them short-term positive feedback and a set of chess friends, and so they continued to pursue it locally, but too often they ended up at age forty-three with no real job, no health insurance benefits, and a future of steady decline. In contrast, Ken Rogoff was a great chess player but at some point left the game to become a Harvard professor and world-class economist—for much higher rewards, of course.

Or consider the world of early bloggers, inhabited by quite a few very smart and hardworking people. Some of them are still sitting in sweatpants in their parents’ basement and writing some intriguing posts. But Ezra Klein saw that the sector was evolving, and so he helped found the website Vox, aspiring to a higher station by creating a start-up and later moving to The New York Times. Henry Farrell, of the blog Crooked Timber, helped found the blog The Monkey Cage, which continues to be published by The Washington Post and exercises great influence. Megan McArdle worked her way into being a columnist for The Daily Beast, Bloomberg, and then The Washington Post. Those are among the individuals who understood the hierarchies before them and developed strategies for climbing toward the top. Were they smarter than their bloggy competitors? Maybe. But what really set them apart was their ability to figure out new ways to climb the totem pole of achievement and to move from a narrower to a broader vision of what that totem pole really

If they meet a famous founder, they are more likely to ask “How did you find and hire your first five employees?” and less likely to inquire about their attitudes toward meditation or Yuval Harari.

When it comes to team leadership, there is a lot to be said for independent-thinking contrarians who are tough but also fine diplomats when that is called for.

This is a kind of curiosity, but it goes beyond mere curiosity of the sort that leads you to turn over unturned stones. This curiosity is about models, frameworks, cultural understandings, disciplines, and methods of thought, the kinds of traits that made John Stuart Mill such a great thinker and writer. A more recent example is Patrick Collison, CEO and co-founder of Stripe (and also an active writer). His content can draw from economics, science, history, Irish culture, tech, and many other areas and influences.

The productivity of conceptual frameworks is a neglected point. Silicon Valley has been successful for many reasons, but one reason is how many people there have mastered the framework of thinking that the future can truly be very different indeed. These people bring together their different visions to work the workable elements of common ground, which then get turned into companies.

It is different if you are from the middle or bottom tiers of your sector. In that case, not everyone will want to work with you, and perhaps most people won’t want to work with you, as they will be hoping for something better, whether realistically or not. If you are in this position, as many of us are, you need to think especially carefully about what is wrong with the people you are trying to hire. (Sometimes this is called the Groucho Marx effect, as Groucho once stated that he wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have him as a member.) Some of them will look great, and they also will do very well in the interview and by other metrics you use. But in that case, you need to start getting nervous. If they want to work with you, maybe there is something wrong with them you haven’t seen yet. Why aren’t they already working somewhere much better? Why are they talking to you at all? Maybe they are totally lacking in self-confidence, or their personalities will turn out to be poison, or they plan on leaving after a year and they are just using you in the meantime.

To be sure, confronting these possibilities is a little uncomfortable, because it raises the question of what is wrong with you too, and most people don’t like to face that question too directly. Still, if a candidate looks too good to be true, maybe he or she is too good to be true. You then need to figure out why that candidate wants to work with you and not with your industry’s equivalent of Apple or Google. And that means being self-aware about your own weaknesses as an institution, having an understanding of who is “gettable” for you and who isn’t, and knowing why there are sometimes positive exceptions to that.

7. Disability and talent

To structure the discussion, let’s begin by noting that disabilities can reflect or augment talent through at least three mechanisms: 1. Different focus and redirection of effort 2. Compensation and adaptation, or making up for an initial problem 3. “Superpowers,” or ways in which people with disabilities also can have superior abilities We’ll consider each in turn.

Richard Branson, British billionaire and the founder of Virgin Group, explained how his own dyslexia helped him in his career: “[My dyslexia] helped me think big but keep our messages simple. The business world often gets caught up in facts and figures—and while the details and data are important, the ability to dream, conceptualise, and innovate is what sets the successful and the unsuccessful apart.” In other words, an inability to focus on all of the details can, for some people, reallocate their attention toward a more important bigger picture.

All this ties back to human disabilities. If you have a disability of some kind, you may need to work all the harder in that area and make a big adjustment. While that is a burden, and it will hinder or discourage many individuals, others will ultimately end up with superior performance. Just remember how Darcey Steinke’s stutter made her more aware of words and thus a better writer, as discussed earlier.

8. Why talented women and minorities are still undervalued

When Tyler thinks back to his video interview with Clementine, he was impressed by a few things. First, she had the vision of building Recidiviz with highly talented individuals only, rather than relying on a series of bureaucratized roles filled from the typical nonprofit pool of employees. Instead she drew upon her friends in the tech world. Second, she seemed determined and willing to do something “weird” (it seems less weird now that it has succeeded), even though it meant a big cut in pay and unclear future job prospects, or perhaps the lack of any future job trajectory whatsoever. She really believed in the project, and she was taking the plunge with no obvious parachute, usually a good sign.

Thus, there is a strong case for believing that much more can be done to elevate the prospects of women in society and in the workplace.

That said, confidence gaps to some extent are self-fulfilling prophecies. As younger women see that there are relatively few female role models in a particular area, that may lower their confidence all the more. A self-perpetuating cycle is set in motion, and that cycle can be hard for a society to break.

Maybe you were not born into such an environment, but at the very least, you should consider traveling to countries that would count as unusual relative to your native culture, as that can help you unlock and better understand the wide range of cultural variations. So instead of taking your next vacation on the North Carolina shore, try India or Tanzania (conditions permitting).

More generally, making such trips will mean you will be caught less unaware when you are assessing and interviewing people from other cultures. Working off these principles, do send your kids to study abroad, or to live for a while in another country, if at all possible and affordable. If nothing else, you contribute to their long-term success as a manager and talent selector. It usually doesn’t suffice on its own, but reading books is another way to broaden your horizons. When it comes to reading on race issues, we do have some very specific pieces of advice (again, keep in mind this is written from the perspective of two white guys).

9. The search for talent in beauty, sports, and gaming, or how to make scouts work for you

Ben Casnocha, one of the founders of Village Global, expressed his scouting philosophy as follows: “There’s an explosion of software-driven, diverse entrepreneurship around the world and across almost every industry. We believe this explosion of opportunity requires a fundamentally different approach to sourcing, selecting, and supporting. We believe a wide sensor network (i.e., a network of dozens of scouts) is more likely to discover a talented founder on day zero.”

In particular, the scouts may be risk-averse, afraid to recommend the truly weird or outside-the-box options for fear of looking silly and losing their jobs. The old saying was “No one was ever fired for buying IBM.” The new saying is perhaps “No scout was ever fired for recommending the future Rhodes scholar.” Nothing against Rhodes scholars, who have a distinguished record of accomplishment, but the world is going to find and recruit them in any case. That is probably not the direction you want your scout to be looking, as those individuals already are on their Rhodes scholar track, and probably they are not so keen to join your new and risky enterprise.

Investing in Your Network— Perhaps the Biggest Lesson One final point is this. For all the resources you put into scouting, interviewing, and trying to suss out the better candidates, there is no real substitute for having a good or great pool of candidates.

If you believe that talent is the greatest asset of your institution, you also ought to believe that your soft network is one of the greatest assets of your institution. Because that is how you will attract your talent in the future; furthermore, those subsequent hires will help you retain your current talent by making your institution more successful and a more attractive and prestigious place to be.

Most likely, your set of filters should be part of an integrated strategy. Whom are your filters bringing through the door? And which strengths and drawbacks are those individuals likely to have? Your talent search and interviewing techniques never start from a totally blank slate; they should start from an understanding of where your institution stands in the broader scheme of things, and what are the main problems you face when trying to attract talent.

10. How to convince talent to join your cause

The key theme here is to raise personal and career and creative trajectories—in other words, to boost the entire slope of possible future achievement. Those interventions offer by far the highest potential boost. You can think of them as you, on a modest scale, trying to create the next Florence, Venice, or Vienna.

There is an old saying (with many variants): “Give a man a fish, and feed him for a meal; teach him how to fish, and feed him for a lifetime.” We think that is remarkably unambitious! The value of learning how to fish is not that high, as reflected by the only so-so wages earned by fisherfolk. Furthermore, knowing how to fish still doesn’t, on its own, get you a job with the most successful and highest-paying fishing ventures. We say instead: “Boost the rate of productivity growth in that person’s fishing company.” Or better yet: “Teach a person how to start a fishing company that will feed millions. Teach a person how to hire talented people to make a better fishing company.” Those are increases in trajectory, and along the way they will teach many thousands of employees how to fish or how to contribute to the fishing process. Always look to take it one step higher and to teach other people how to do the same.

You might wonder: If the benefits from a higher slope are so great, why isn’t the higher, steeper slope chosen in the first place? Arguably this is one of the mysteries of human nature, but we think it springs from the nature of choice. When making decisions, people do not usually have a complete map of the options and their probabilities before them. In fact, many of the options can be difficult to imagine. For instance, a talented young person may not take seriously the notion that he or she someday could be a major CEO. That person has heard of CEOs, and maybe has not actively dismissed the possibility of being one. But if it’s going to influence the young person’s behavior, that possibility needs to be brought to mind as a live, vivid alternative. Once the alternative is properly, mentally real and alive in the person’s mind, then perhaps it will raise ambition and in some cases lead to a trajectory that culminates in a CEO position. The default has been shifted for that option to move from unconsidered to being on the table, whether or not it ultimately happens.

If you are going to raise the aspirations of others, they should view their affiliation with you as a matter of pride. They should feel selected in some manner. They should feel like they have gone through trials and tribulations to get to their current point. They should feel like members of some exclusive club where they can look around and feel good about their affiliations with the other club members. The easiest way to create these feelings is to have them be true. Create institutions and designations that reward those you consider to be talented. This can be a venture capital firm, a named scholarship series, a prize, or many other things. Focus on the substance, but also understand that the substance is working in part because of the theater surrounding it. You will then do a better job of raising the aspirations of those you consider to be talented, and you will be a partial co-creator in their rise to the top.

One of the seminal cultural takes on mentorship is the 2014 movie Whiplash, about a drumming teacher who pushes his students as far as they can go. Daniel has been struck by how many of the people he has interviewed at Pioneer cite this film as an influence. Perhaps the film is appealing because it describes the pursuit of excellence and validation through hard work. Great people want to be great. They want to be pushed to become the best version of themselves.

If you see “someone like you”—which can be defined in various ways—doing something, that something then has a greater chance of becoming a live, vivid alternative, and it is in turn more likely to be chosen.

So you, as a talent scout, employer, mentor, friend, or role model, can have a staggering amount of influence. You can open doors for other people at relatively low cost (perhaps zero cost) to yourself just by making some options more vivid to them. You can do that through your writing, your YouTube presence, your friendship and mentoring, and just meeting people and being yourself. You embody something, and that something will stir some others into action. Use those powers wisely!

This mentorship effect has been measured, by the way, and it seems to be powerful. In 2019 Tyler had a podcast interview with Abhijit Banerjee, co-winner of that year’s Nobel Prize in economics. Banerjee and co-authors (including his wife and co-laureate, Esther Duflo) published a 2015 paper that showed very high returns to making cash transfers to the very poor when those transfers were combined with coaching.

Once again, help others dare to think in terms of higher career trajectories.

Given those realities, one way to invest in talent is to find highly promising young individuals and expose them to a higher level of achievement than what they have seen to date. Send them somewhere, and if you can, arrange meetings for them. Not everyone can get to meet with Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates, but do the best you can. Show them a higher level of talent, achievement, and aspiration than they have experienced previously in their lives. If they have real ambition, that will be not merely a one-time gain but a more fundamental steepening of their entire trajectory of future achievement.