Cover Image: Talent


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I really tired to get into this book, but had difficulty relating to the authors. The premise is good, but may not be a good fit for people outside the "norm" of management, such as women or people of color

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I was initially drawn to this book as I am a manager at an insurance brokerage and I am constantly needing to evaluate current and potential talent in the office. Finding talented individuals is an art and not always easy to see or come by. This book provided some valuable insights into what to look for and how to cultivate talent.

As a manger I am always looking to improve my skills and reading books such as this one definitely accomplishes that goal.

The book isn’t particular long and is an easy read that I found I was able to read and absorb quickly. I would certainly recommend this to any HR or management professionals.

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I thoroughly enjoyed this deep dive into talent acquisition. The discussion went far beyond black and white interview questions by explaining how to analyze answers. This look into the psychology of discussion went well beyond both standard interview techniques and my expectations.

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Thank you for sharing this book!
I loved learning How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World--
I am very high energy and learned so much from this book.

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This book is essential reading for anyone in management, human capital, or just anyone interested in learning more about organizational psychology.

Many thanks to the authors, publisher, and NetGalley for sharing this book with me. All thoughts are my own.

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Economist Tyler Cowen and entrepreneur Daniel Gross take a combined approach in examining the art and science of hiring talent – and their two angles work well together, with theory balanced by practicality. I found myself highlighting so many sections of this book, with tips on good interview questions as well as what to actually look for, and there were a lot of surprises along the way. My only complaint would be that the book lost steam as it went – I found the earliest chapters the most compelling, where the final chapters felt like they needed to flesh out a longer book rather than being something the authors had a lot of evidence to back up or were passionate about. I would still highly recommend this to anyone who leads a team.

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This book provided new ideas for interviews, asking probing general questions versus the typical questions candidates are prepared to answer. There were some sections I scanned through that weren't interesting as the authors talked about more famous talent rather than presenting unique case studies.

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Talent is a tricky quantity to define. The way the term is used in this book, it stands in for “self-directed ability” or “productivity” as much as unique skill or excellence. Every time you’re looking to fill a role, you’re looking for talent: in a spouse, that talent may be an ability to cooperate with you and entertain you in conversation; in a research assistant, that talent may be in processing data and writing up findings. In most of the examples given in the book, and certainly in Tyler and Daniel’s experiences running venture funding programs, the identification of talent means finding people who will invent technologies, create companies, and conceive new ideas, in an independent and mostly self-directed fashion. There’s a distinction to be made between finding talent who will work with you directly (hiring an employee who reports to you) and finding talent who you’ll invest in with occasional input, or who you’ll watch from the sidelines. Someone investing $20,000 apiece in seven people can take a looser, or riskier, approach to identifying talent – and can reasonably claim victory if five of those seven turn out to be successful - while someone hiring a single employee at $140,000 has less tolerance for taking a chance on someone who doesn’t perform well.

Do I trust Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross to advise me on how to identify talented people to hire or invest in? Tyler is a uniquely interesting, insightful, and productive scholar, researcher, interviewer, and writer; like many others, I’m a fan of his blog and his podcast. Although I think his strengths are in the breadth and depth of his reading, his ability to succinctly identify and frame interesting ideas, and his formal and well-informed interviewing style, but if he thinks talent identification is one of his primary strengths, I believe him. I’d never heard of Daniel Gross or his venture firm Pioneer before seeing this book, and I’m not familiar with any companies Pioneer has invested in.

The first recommendation Tyler and Daniel have is to ask offbeat questions during an interview, and to not be afraid to get personal, ask meta-questions (“how did you prepare for this interview? How do you think this interview is going?”) and ask for more examples than a candidate could reasonably have prepared. These tactics are meant to uncover a candidate’s personality, their unrehearsed ways of storytelling and thinking on their feet, and the ways in which their hobbies and personal interests may reinforce their relevant work habits. Every review I’ve read of TALENT has taken advantage of the “what are your open browser tabs” question to report the reviewer’s own browser tabs; as someone who uses open browser tabs as a bookmarking system, I have 2,045 open tabs on Chrome alone and have downloaded a special extension to be able to see and organize them, so I’ll just tell you the first fifteen: two Gmail accounts (work and personal), an Outlook account (work), three Slack workspaces, Google calendar (work), Google Drive (work), a contest announcement on the Effective Altruism forum, an announcement of the incoming director of ARPA-H, a podcast episode, an AEI article on the relationship between housing costs and wages, an article in Labor Economics relating college enrollment to lifetime earnings expectations, Vitalik Buterin’s recent article on soul tokens, and a Guardian article on a study linking mutations in hematopoietic stem cells to changes in blood composition in the elderly. This is fairly representative of my recent interests, though it isn’t even half of the tabs I opened in the past day, and I suppose both the sheer number of tabs and the number of work-related tabs indicates something about my preferences for doing a lot of things at once.

Should you hire me based on these tabs? Of course not, but one or two of them could spark an interesting conversation. As with many of the more creative interview questions suggested in TALENT, the point of this question is to find something to talk about that the interviewee is interested in, which will give the interviewer a chance to see how she thinks, expresses herself, and attempts to engage someone else; useful proxies for a variety of upper-level work skills. To that end, almost any non-standard interview question will do, including “icebreaker” questions used at orientations or on dates; some of the questions suggested in the book (e.g., “what is the farthest you’ve ever been from another human being?”) remind me strongly of typical dating-app prompts or icebreaker questions. A question I used to use when my grad-school lab was interviewing postdoc candidates is “if you could be any animal, what animal would you be” – to engage with the question, you have to think about what your preferences are in a life; would you want a special skill, like speed or flight? Do you want to be the type of animal that lives solitary or in a pod or pack? A predator or prey? An animal with a very long lifespan, or unfamiliar body (an octopus, or a snake) or a substantially different experience of the world (what is it like to be a jellyfish?) The only candidate who “failed” this question, to me (though he did end up being hired at my lab) would only choose “a human” despite repeated prompting, insisting that he wouldn’t want to be any other animal. This still taught me a lot about him, but as someone who highly values animals, it didn’t endear me to the way his mind works.

An unspoken assumption in suggesting these “quirky” interview questions is that, despite a later chapter arguing that IQ is overrated (in the sense of being highly selected for in the hiring process), the types of jobs the reader will be interviewing people for are “intellectual” jobs. If I’m looking to hire a plumber, I don’t—and can’t think of a very convincing argument that I should--care what his open browser tabs are.

Tyler does put his money where his mouth is, in terms of using these types of questions to evaluate applicants to his talent-funding stream, Emergent Ventures. Two of the three prompts in the initial application are (paraphrasing) “Tell us about yourself (we probably don’t care much about your formal education, credentials, or awards)”, and “What is one consensus view you absolutely agree with?” Tyler mentions this one in the book as a response to the popularity of Peter Thiel’s go-to question asking for a contrarian view.

I find these questions a little irritating to answer in a way that, as is pointed out in the book, is part of the process of answering them: one frames one’s answer both in terms of what the question is actually asking, and in terms of what one assumes the reviewer is looking for. There are a lot of consensus views I agree with – ice cream is tasty, puppies are cute, roses smell good – but the question is implicitly asking for a consensus view that also reveals something unique and positive about me, that would make me a good candidate for investment. If I’m applying to Emergent Ventures with a startup idea about dishwashers, I should probably answer with a consensus view that has something to do with cleaning. Overall, the exercise reminds me of the college essay – framing the response itself has come to be more important than the content of the response. Students gravitate toward similar topics (volunteering, trips abroad, time spent with extended family) and styles (e.g., the in media res description of a fraught or touching moment with a grandparent or on a Habitat for Humanity trip that then expands in scope to explain how the student’s horizons were broadened while their core moral values were reinforced). Any instinct to answer in a way that humorously subverts the expectations of the question has probably already been done many times before; one of the most successful of this type of answer, the “but I have not yet gone to college” essay (“I sleep once a week; when I do sleep, I sleep in a chair. While on vacation in Canada, I successfully negotiated with a group of terrorists who had seized a small bakery. The laws of physics do not apply to me”) was reprinted so often and circulated so widely that even its style was, for a time, frequently imitated.

In the next sections of TALENT, Tyler and Daniel explain the benefits and drawbacks of online interviewing (Zoom interviews do a poor job of transmitting personality, status, and social cues), their contention that IQ is overrated in the job market (they cite studies showing that increases in IQ are associated with minimal increases in salary, above a certain threshold, which might also indicate that higher IQs are associated with non-monetary reward functions), and that important personality traits are a commitment to self-improvement (including deliberate practice), consistency (producing work regularly, and ideally every day), and dynamism (the ability to get other people excited about something you’re doing or thinking about). I think all of these are true and interesting points, but again are associated with a particular kind of work that not all employees are aiming for (I do care that my plumber wants to get better at plumbing; I probably care a little, but far less than he presumably does, about whether he does a plumbing job every single day; I don’t care at all whether he can get other people interested in solving plumbing problems).

Tyler and Daniel highlight the “insecure overachiever” personality, an archetype I’ve heard referenced over and over in communities I’ve been part of (my high school IB program; orchestra; debate; MIT; grad school; McKinsey). The personality type is inherently correlated with other indicators of status (grades, awards, formal education, competition, rankings), and so may be more useful at explaining the behaviors and hang-ups of highly accomplished people than in finding those people – just look for the kids with good grades and science fair or spelling bee trophies – certainly the personality type isn’t “underrated” in the sense that Tyler and Daniel are aiming to delineate.

A couple of the more awkward sections of the book, though some of the first that include any examples of talented women, are the sections on not dismissing the disabled, autistic, dyslexic, blind, or schizophrenic, and on being careful to identify and mitigate one’s own cultural, racial, and gender biases. This is perennial and useful advice, but very familiar to anyone who’s been involved with hiring over the past fifteen years. In some cases, HR-directed measures to protect against the introduction of these biases in the hiring process could work against the advice of the first section; in interview processes where I’ve been told to ask the same standardized questions of every candidate, it was to “avoid bias” (whether that is a successful strategy or not is debatable). Interestingly to me, this section explores the underrated but useful skills of autistic people; Tyler’s personality strikes me as having some neurodivergent qualities (I don’t know how he would categorize himself) and I have heard second-hand that Tyler was up for a job years ago, as the director of a research institution, which he didn’t get – despite being one of the final candidates in the interview process – because the hiring committee was worried that his personality wouldn’t lend itself well to donor relations and the type of implicit fundraising for which this sort of position is responsible. I have no way of knowing whether the hiring committee made the right choice, but if their primary goal was to hire someone who would appeal to the type of donor that this organization attracts, they may have, despite Tyler’s obvious talent. I would be interested to hear how Tyler would describe that talent search and whether its outcome was justified.

Although it isn’t tied to this section in particular, because I brought it up earlier, I want to mention that I found most of the examples Tyler and Daniel used of talented people to be disappointingly mainstream – the Beatles, Taylor Swift, Elon Musk, Greta Thunberg, Steve Jobs, Steph Curry, Michael Jordan. Because one of the tenets of the book is that underrated talent can be identified by a crafty seeker, I was hoping to hear stories of talented people who I haven’t heard of – and therefore who I personally underrate – or stories of people whose talents, once identified, turned out to be particularly suited to a specialized niche - or a particular type of mentorship and cultivation - without which they could have easily languished. A talent that is recognized near-globally is probably not a talent that was difficult to find, however serendipitous their initial breakthrough may seem; it’s just hard for me to imagine that a single careful talent-seeker is all that stood between the world and its all-time best-selling artists and inventors. I do, on the other hand, believe that the world was in danger of not appropriately recognizing and utilizing the talent of someone like Arthur Allen, the Coast Guard oceanographer who developed a model that has been successful at finding people lost at sea, and that examples like his are more likely to be useful to those of us who aren’t in a position to offer a Universal record deal or sign a UN climate accord.

This objection – that world-shaking talent is in fact very likely to be found – may be a fundamental difference in the way I view talent and the way Tyler and Daniel view it. One question raised by this book is whether the hard problem of talent is finding it or mentoring it – will a talented person succeed no matter what, or is the difficulty in talent-finding identifying the type of person who will particularly succeed as your employee, in your organization, or with your mentorship? And is the type of underrated or undervalued talent that Tyler and Daniel are interested in helping you find more likely to be the former type (the type that succeeds no matter what, the dandelion that will bloom in any soil as long as it’s watered) or the latter (the hothouse orchid that will only succeed under the particular conditions and treatment that you offer)? These questions are interdependent with your goals as a talent-seeker; if you want only to invest in companies that are going to the moon, maybe you prefer to try and find people who are going to succeed no matter what, and to find them as early as possible, even as teenagers; if you want to find a research collaborator, maybe you want to find someone whose best work is the result of the unique collaborative relationship developed with you – both because that person is unlikely to leave for greener pastures or richer funders, and because that type of relationship is often bidirectionally beneficial as well. To go back to one of Tyler and Daniel’s examples, it’s possible both that Jimi Hendrix is a more talented guitarist than Paul McCartney and that a Lennon-Hendrix collaboration would not have been nearly as good as Lennon-McCartney was.

This distinction in types of success is relevant in the last few sections of TALENT, on the scouting model versus the measurement model and on the importance of networks. Scouting is often used when attempting to identify broadly dispersed talent of a physical type – the examples given are baseball and modeling, where young prospects with the right mostly genetic abilities and qualities could be found anywhere, and scouts are used to be able to cover a lot of ground simultaneously. Measurement – the examples given are video game competitions and chess competitions – can be used instead, when a given activity inherently attracts participants and can be easily centralized. Neither measurement nor scouting work well for jobs that are less obvious choices to the novice job seeker – would one scout for a really talented wastewater treatment plant manager? Is the process of finding a plumber considered scouting or measurement, relying as it usually does on some combination of assessed reputation (which may not be a true or direct measurement of performance) and availability? – but the methods eventually collapse down to the usual way of finding candidates – looking for people who are doing a good job at the same or similar job somewhere else, which could be a way of describing a productive software engineer, or a varsity high school baseball player, or a Starcraft champion, and bringing them in for a chat.

The idea of scouting can be generalized, and in the section of networks, is generalized (Tyler and Daniel suggest letting one good hire essentially serve as a scout to find more people like himself or herself); college admissions staff are scouts, high school guidance counselors are scouts, casting directors are scouts, and professors hiring grad students and postdocs are scouts (particularly when they recruit candidates from conferences and symposia). Scouts seem to be most useful in contexts where many prospects can be evaluated – or even hired for a short term – quickly and cheaply. Baseball talent scouting works because the contracts offered to players in the “feeder” leagues are quite small, and are often written such that anyone who doesn’t play well for a season can be let go; model talent scouting and scouting for actors works because the work is relatively simple, the contracts are short and often cheap, and the industry thrives on a regular infusion of new faces. Whether any of these processes truly measures talent depends on how compelling the activity is and how likely talent at that activity is to be uncovered. Similar to the example in an earlier section of chess in the USSR going from something every child does to something that only those with a particular interest will do, there may be untapped talent in the population of people for whom the alternatives to the activity are too compelling. I’m thinking particularly of acting – known to be a business that is low-paying except at the very highest levels and difficult to break in to even at lower levels, I would suspect that many people who would be very talented actors never give it a chance. A truly excellent scout would be able to identify those people – and perhaps the industry will not achieve its full potential until they are incentivized to do so. VC scouts are much better incentivized to find people who would be good entrepreneurs but have never tried, and from what I hear, they often do.

After reading TALENT, I am more likely to ask off-the-wall interview questions when I next have to hire a research assistant, and to consider how I might scout for talented research assistants who wouldn’t apply without scout-like encouragement (another parting piece of advice in TALENT is that encouraging people to aim higher can have tremendous payoff). I’m also interested in thinking more about finding talented people who are uniquely suited to working in my organization, or working directly with me – what are the combinations of talents and personality traits that make a person underrated but uniquely well-suited specifically for the types of positions I’m looking to fill? I suspect the answer has something to do with better understanding my own talents and personality traits, and identifying which are best complemented by similar or opposing qualities, ultimately much like finding a good life partner – the most valuable talent.

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TALENT by Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross is like no other business book I've ever read: funny, creative, adept with the toughest problems leaders and organizations face in attracting, building, and supporting the best individuals for their enterprise. Their hard-won expertise is deep, broad, and draws in the best, the brights, most aware leaders to comment on what they've done, both what's worked and what has not. Early in the book, the authors encourage us to look at the entire world through the lens of talent, not simply assigning it a box in the sphere of work. As writer, as creative marketer, and student of business, I applaud this result of a fascinating, complex partnership of deep thinkers and eminently practical men. I received an advance copy of this book and these opinions are my own unbiased thoughts.

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I wasn't sure what to expect from this book but found some very useful insights and suggestions on how to assess talent for hiring. Although its subtitle is "How to Identify Energizers, Creatives and Winners Around the World" there are sample interview questions and techniques that could work for roles beyond the C-suite. I particularly appreciated the chapters on being open to hiring people with disabilities and understanding how our personal biases get in the way when we are interviewing and selecting people with disabilities, women and people of color. These chapters were worth their weight in gold since so little is written about awareness of our own preconceived notions. I also appreciated their deep analysis of using personality profiles (five factor analysis and others) and the strengths and barriers to using this information in interviewing and selection. This is a good book for those who are interviewing for a job themselves or for leaders searching for great talent for their organizations. Thank you to Netgalley and St. Martin's Press for an ARC for my honest review.

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The authors give off arrogance in their writing. It seems the target audience is their fellow white men. Not planning to recommend.

Thanks to NetGalley and St. Martin's Press for the ARC.

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This book gave me two things — a list of better, unique and more conversational interview questions, as well as as reminder of how one’s personality and drive is revealed by how one spends their weekends. This matters because the very top performers don’t stop for long in constantly refining and perfecting their skill set.

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