How to Identify Talent
I’m blessed with a large and growing network of people with extremely high levels of talent. This explains how I identify them. My current endeavor is an experiment with six such people, and I must say it’s working extremely well.
In 2009, Paul Graham (aka PG) wrote an essay called The Anatomy of Determination. The essay was republished in the book Hackers and Painters. Like pretty much all of PG’s essays, this one is extremely thought-provoking. Before reading on, you should go read it if you haven’t already done so.
I love this essay, and I frequently cite it in conversation. There are, however, a few statements in it that I would respond to.
In most domains, talent is overrated compared to determination—partly because it makes a better story, partly because it gives onlookers an excuse for being lazy, and partly because after a while determination starts to look like talent.
PG’s point is well-taken, but I don’t think the italicized bit is necessarily a part of the reason.
It’s not that “determination starts to look like talent”, but rather that talent is not commonly observable. Everyone knows that talent exists, but to most it’s an invisible hand that contributes to a person’s observable outcomes.
Some people are extremely good at identifying talent intuitively (PG himself comes to mind, as do folks like Brad Feld, Steve Jobs, and Bill “Coach” Campbell). But how do we solve this problem for everyone else?
I have some idea of how we might.
Something that everyone can observe is Effectiveness, which is obviously related to Talent. I believe the relationship between Effort and Talent looks like this:
Effectiveness = Effort * Talent
And it makes sense for Effectiveness to get mistaken for Talent, because the two are directly related.
Even if the ability to detect Talent is rare, everyone on earth can observe Effectiveness and Effort. So in theory, it should be possible for anyone to deduce a person’s level of Talent by observing the other two.
To re-frame PG’s point in this framework, we would need to rewrite the relationship like this:
Effectiveness = EffortX * TalentY
This certainly helps explain my little corner of the world. Over the last decade, I’ve noticed that many of (in my estimation) the smartest and most talented people I know didn’t get the best grades in school. About 90% of them earned a B or lower GPA in college. However, they barely had to do any work to get those grades. Their Effort was very low compared to their Effectiveness — a phenomenon that could only be explained by high Talent.
I believe if you could take people like that, and then somehow inspire them to produce high levels of Effort, their Effectiveness would be off the charts.
On the other hand, people with insanely high Effectiveness must also have high Talent, because Effort can only explain so much, and has a clear ceiling — with the exception of Hermione Grainger, we’re each stuck with the limits of 7 days/week, 24 hours/day.
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