The general idea behind Talent anyone who is hiring or investing has to focus on finding talented individuals will need to study talent. And yet... we're missing the canonical book on finding talent.

And traditional job interviews do a terrible job with this–they focus more on questions which are easy to answer via prep and don’t really get to “who this person is?”. The result is that talent is often not properly matched with opportunity, and tends to rely on where you went to school or how well you understand social hierarchies.

The other big idea here is finding "alpha" in Talent. It's (relatively) easy to find people who have been historic high-achievers. It's much harder to find the people who have an incredibly high slope.

In this respect, Tyler and Daniel view talent a bit like a market. There are many ways to allocate capital + time, and you'll do better by funding under-funded people and ideas.

Asking the right questions

The first section focuses on interviewing. The goal of any interview is to understand a candidate, but most interviews fail at this miserably. They tend to highlight whether the candidate has prepped for the interview, rather than the candidate's true abilities.

Instead the authors try and get you out of “interview-mode” in a non-antagonist way.

There's a number of interesting questions posed here...

  • “What tabs do you currently have open?”
  • “What do you do for deliberate practice, the equivalent of a piano player practicing scales?”
  • “What views do you hold religiously, almost irrationally?”
  • “How did you prepare for this interview?”
  • “What do you do that’s a little eccentric?”
  • "How ambitious are you?"
  • "What are your favorite conspiracy theories?"

All of these are pretty outside of the norm, and decidedly get away from prepped stories stories about "what a person failed at at a prior job". Most of them also align with "proof of work", specifics that lead you to actually understand a person.

The talent signifiers that match up with my experiences at YC are looking for energy and self-improvement. We'd focus much more on understanding founders ideas and what made them tick. A bad idea wasn't necessarily the sign of bad founders (after all, we applied with a bad idea!), but it was hard for low-energy or slow-moving founders to turn into a high performing team.

These questions seem good for understanding how a person thinks about the world, but less good at understanding what they have actually done to drive changes.

Zoom changes things

Over zoom, we miss out on tons of little cues that people might have.

Status symbols change. Watches + shoes don't make any difference here anymore! What you have on your bookshelf might though.

One benefit: women are more able to get equal footing vs aggressive or dominant body language by men. Everyone is reduced to a little box and more able to jump in.

Because Zoom is at best a poor facsimile of reality, it makes sense that we feel 'zoom fatigue'. We are trying to search for all sorts of visual cues that aren't really there. I hadn't considered this before, but it makes sense. Phone calls are less fatiguing than zoom because you don't search for any visual cues!

In some ways, removing eye contact can actually make us more vulnerable and intimate. The Catholic church's "confession" uses this technique, as do therapists who have their patients sit on a bench and look at the ceiling.

How much does intelligence really matter?

The authors think intelligence is generally pretty overrated. It doesn't usually correlate strongly with huge outperformance in income.

For some fields... intelligence can matter quite a lot. There was a widespread survey of different professions in the nordics coupled with career achievement. To become an 'inventor', you need a very high IQ.

To become a doctor or lawyer, the key factor was the socioeconomic status of your parents. These countries are probably leaving out some talented people who are smart enough to become doctors, but just don't have the financial freedom.

Intelligence matters a lot at the 'edges' too. If you are going to lead smart people, you must be smart.

How much does personality matter?

A really popular personality test is the "big 5 test". It measure's a persons personality on the axes of: agreeable-ness, extroversion, neuroticism, openness to experience, and conscientiousness.

In the VC business (which is basically a talent business), common wisdom holds that you want founders who are not very agreeable, but are very open to experience. They should be willing to fly in the face of people telling them "this is a bad idea" and stick with it, but also be open to new forms of evidence.

Not all of these traits are bad! All of them have to fit the job. In particular, neuroticism measures the tendency to focus on the negatives or point out flaws. It might sound like a bad thing, but is probably quite useful if you are more of a gadfly who focuses on social issues (think about Gandhi or Joan of Arc).

Most of these traits do not correlate to earnings in the long run. There is a modest correlation between workers who are less agreeable, more extraverted, and more conscientious leading to higher earnings.

Traits to look for

People who generate their own energy (this was big at YC)

People who apply deliberate 'practice', a la piano scales. (for me this is writing, daily journaling, spaced repetition)

Interesting aside: why would you spend your time in an airport doing nothing? I've wondered about this too.

Talent Scouts

One interesting idea here: is your problem a search problem or a legibility problem? In the case of chess or video games, you have perfect legibility–talent is very easy to identify because everyone is scored. Instead you need to focus on problems of search.

In other domains, it’s not quite so clear-cut. Perhaps you have many job applicants you’d like to interview, but assessing their abilities is tricky. In sports you have hours and hours of footage tracking the best prospects, but it’s not always clear how those prospects will evolve or how they fit with a team.

A potential workaround for this is establishing a network of ‘scouts’. You see this happening in fashion, sports, and now VC. Scouts allow the central party to get more information, while still maintaining some level of distance.

Are disabilities really disabilities?

There's some thought that being autistic/aspbergers will actually help people be more effective. They are okay disagreeing with the majority and being generally non-conformist (Greta Thurmberg, Peter Thiel)

There might be something to dyslexia as well. If you have a hard time reading, you will do less to accurately read the text word-for-word and instead try and focus on making big picture decisions.

Encouraging ambition

Tyler argues that one of the best things you can possibly do is encourage ambition in a young person. If you ask them what more they could do, you can get them onto a new-found arc of higher ability.

Any interesting thought here: the reason prestigious research universities are so good not because they have the best teachers, but because they show their students what excellence really looks like. I definitely saw this at MIT. You were humbled by the intellect and abilities of peers.

One such example...

During our operating systems class (6.828), everyone was required to do a final project involving an exo-kernel (basically a paired down kernel where most functions are implemented in user-space). Ilya and I built a little driver that would download a song from the internet and begin streaming it to the sound card over the network. It was a cool, fun project, and I'd say about ~average in terms of what was presented. A few more ambitious folks had built 'time-traveling' operating systems that could recover from rebooting at will.

The final presentation came from one of our peers. He had built a hypervisor... that could run copies of the operating system... in itself. He demonstrated this, and the entire class was blown away. He received a standing ovation (and then went on to work on virtualization at Microsoft).

Reflecting back on some of our best hires at Segment, I think a few things held true...

  • they by-and-large were high slope individuals stepping into a next bigger (or unknown) role.
  • we did hire 'high-alpha' talent. most of our early team were not ex-FAANG, but were either new grads or had worked at a fail startup or two
  • our early team and culture worked with sustained high energy.

Additionally, I think the founding team balanced each other well when it comes to each of these five factors. We maintained high levels of neuroticism across various aspects of the business (but never enough to completely give up), were agree-able enough to build, but wary of groupthink (though sometimes we fell into that trap too.