Tyler Cowen is Holbert L. Harris Professor of Economics and director of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He recently spoke with City Journal associate editor Daniel Kennelly about his new book (with coauthor Daniel Gross) Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World.
This book is premised on the idea that finding and mobilizing talent is “one of the most significant failures of our time.” How did you come to this conclusion?
I have been involved in numerous projects in my career, and typically have found that talent—not money—is the binding constraint. So I (along with my coauthor Daniel Gross) thought that the problem of talent acquisition deserved more systematic attention. When I speak to CEOs, typically they agree on the importance of talent. Often, it is the Number One problem facing their businesses.
Daniel and I also noticed that there is no single, seminal book devoted to this issue. Our understanding of talent, and finding talent, is in fact remarkably underdeveloped. We are all staring at a massive institutional failure.
Could you tell us how you met Daniel Gross, and why you and he decided to join forces to explore this problem?
Daniel and I met at a San Francisco dinner organized by Marc Andreessen, maybe six or so years ago. We discovered that we both had a common interest in talent and talent discovery. We started asking each other about optimal interview questions—which ones worked well, and which did not. After more time together, and an open WhatsApp channel, we decided it was time to write up some ideas and turn them into a book.
Several years later, after lots of back and forth, the book was finished. It was mostly written from a distance, but with some face-to-face time as well.
You and Gross strongly endorse an unusual job interview question: What are the open tabs in your browser right now? Why do you think that one works so well?
That question is Daniel’s. One day he just said it to me. I thought “That’s great, it needs to go in the book!” The point of the question is to get at what people really are interested in, and what they really do with their time. You learn how they organize information. What they are curious about. And also how they respond to a surprise question. In their answers, you should be looking for enthusiasm and command of detail, not whether you agree with their tastes in content.
By the way, don’t be put off by “lowbrow” answers citing sports or celebrity culture. Almost all of us do that! At least you know that person is being honest. Just hope they are really enthusiastic about what they are pursuing in those areas.
Your book notes the limitations of the bureaucratic approach for searching for creative talent. Is there a tension between this notion and the rise of diversity, equity, and inclusion mandates and bureaucracies in the corporate world and beyond? Is there an alternative to the bureaucratic DEI approach that could accomplish the same goals?
Current manifestations of the DEI approach involve a massive bureaucratization of the hiring process. Everything has to be counted, labeled, categorized, checked, double-checked, and then checked many more times again. And at the end of the process everyone is judged on questions other than merit and productive success of the enterprise.
One alternative would be to limit our use of credentialism and classism and to do the hard work required to find the truly talented candidates. They are out there, even if they don’t always fit our preconceptions of an ideal hire.
You’re a fan of asking interviewees about their fiction-reading habits, right? We like to end our Q&As in similar fashion. What are you reading right now?
I am reading J. M. Miro’s Ordinary Monsters, a contemporary work in the “faux Victorian” style. I’m only on page 13, but so far, so good. I will read more on my long flight to Delhi tomorrow. I’m also bringing for that trip Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, an Agatha Christie, some Mary Gaitskill, Hardy’s Return of the Native for an overdue reread, Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Thomas Bernhard, John Donne, Isaac Asimov, a full Kindle, and lots of nonfiction, most of all about India.