Talent search is a fundamentally optimistic endeavor, based on the premise that there is always more value to be found in our world. But finding this talent is itself a creative skill, akin to music or art appreciation. It cannot be done by boilerplate interviews, groupthink, algorithms, studying PowerPoints, or simple formulas.
Similarly, we encourage you to be skeptical of the hyperbolic pronouncements in many management and tech books, particularly those that claim to have identified the one (or three) things that will make you better. Always ask: In which areas might this work? Might this not work? When does this work or not work? We call that last question “looking for the cross-sectional variation.” If you don’t understand when and where a particular claim is wrong, you probably don’t understand the claim in the first place, and you probably shouldn’t be relying on it so heavily. It is the understanding of context that breeds alertness to talent.
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?”
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.7 “Did you feel appreciated at your last job? What was the biggest way in which you did not feel appreciated?”
One nice feature of this topic is that you don’t have to obsess too much as to whether correlation implies causality. Let’s say that everyone who showed up for an interview wearing pointed shoes was a highly productive candidate. You can just hire them! You don’t need to worry about whether pointed shoes cause productivity, productivity induces people to put on pointed shoes, or other variables that have an effect on the relationship (perhaps smart parents both send their kids to good schools and buy them pointed shoes). For our purposes, the causal story, or lack thereof, very often is not of first-order importance. Our main enterprise is prediction of talent, and in that sense we can learn something from correlations without always understanding the underlying causal processes.
The power of compound returns is important for human talent, just as it is for your stock portfolio. If a person improves, say, only 1 percent a year in terms of productivity, it will take about seventy years for that person’s productivity to double. Probably you can’t wait that long, and maybe a mere doubling isn’t so impressive anyway. For that person, what you see is what you get. But say a person can improve by 35 percent a year. That is difficult for many people, but it is hardly utopian, especially for those who are young and/or intellectually flexible in the right ways. Those people will double in productivity every two years. And if their productivity is doubling every two years, after only eight years they are sixteen times more effective. That is how compound returns work. At first the power of the effect seems relatively small, but with the passage of time compound returns are highly significant.
We have noticed there is an entire class of highly credentialed, fairly talented individuals who spend their whole lives hopping from one job to another, restless, never happy, and never able to put down any roots. They are good enough to keep on getting hired, but still, most of the time you should avoid them.
Raising the aspirations of other people is one of the most beneficial things you can do with your time. 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. It costs you relatively little to do this, but the benefit to them, and to the broader world, can be enormous.