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The cover of Talent by Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross


Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World by Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross

Published in May 2022

Let’s be honest: the reason I read Talent is Tyler Cowen. I suspect I’m not alone. The book is a true collaboration between Cowen and his co-author, venture capitalist Daniel Gross. But Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University, is one of us.

Well, sort of one of us. Cowen is an academic rock star—one of those professors who is everywhere at once. So, fairly or unfairly, how I think about Talent is highly influenced by how I feel about Cowen.

I read Tyler Cowen’s books, and sometimes his “Marginal Revolution” blog and his other writings, because I seldom agree with what he has to say. What I want from a nonfiction book is to learn something new. Learning requires expanding what I know and challenging what I think. Cowen’s books always do both.

Sooner or later, most of us in higher ed play the role of talent spotter. We serve on hiring committees. We participate in admissions decisions. We write letters of recommendation. We recruit students. We try to get our colleagues promoted.

It is also true that almost none of us who work in higher ed received any training in talent spotting. Our lack of theoretical and empirical knowledge on talent evaluation does not impede our confidence when called upon to render judgment. As academics, we are convinced that our abilities can seamlessly transcend disciplinary boundaries. For anyone with a Ph.D., there is no more trusted expert than the person in the mirror.

The fact that working at a university means that we will likely play a talent-spotting role is argument enough to read Talent. In reading this book, you will encounter many ideas to help fine-tune your talent evaluation skills. Are these ideas any good? Sure. Probably. Most likely.

Some of the advice that Cowen and Gross give is backed up by research. It has been conclusively demonstrated that we mistake confidence for skills. The data shows that, as evaluators, we gravitate to people like ourselves. Talent emphasizes that we all suffer from implicit bias and numerous blind spots when forming our judgments about others.

If nothing else, a search committee that started its work by book clubbing Talent would undoubtedly be more interesting and productive. Reading Talent brings to the surface the implicit assumptions we make in evaluating others.

So where is the disagreement?

In reading Talent, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the sort of candidate that Cowen and Gross would like best is someone similar to Cowen and Gross. Cowen favors high-energy people with broad interests and a willingness to be unreasonably persistent. Gross is drawn to anyone with a founder’s mind-set, meaning an ability to inspire others with an unconventional vision and the fortitude to keep going (and pivoting) in the face of constant failure.

Where Talent is the most fun to read is when Cowen and Gross lean into their individual talent-seeking idiosyncrasies. There are efforts to ground their thinking in the literature, but it is never clear if they are selecting studies that confirm their hypotheses. The book would have been better if both authors had spent more time writing about their talent-selection failures and unpacked where their intuitions led them astray.

While Talent may not have any long-lasting impact on how university HR professionals do their jobs or the norms and methods of academic search committees, the book remains a worthwhile investment of time for higher ed readers. There is something sort of wonderful in the willingness of Cowen to take a book-length dive into a topic with a co-author who is entirely outside academia. Much of the book’s fun comes through the comparisons of talent-spotting in the academic and VC worlds.

Nor is it true that every book needs to be the last word on a topic. In putting their thoughts on talent-spotting into a book, Cowen and Gross give themselves space to explore ideas and to sit with contradictions. In reading Talent, I spent a good nine hours (the length of the audiobook) thinking about how to be a better search committee member and potential job applicant.

Much of what I read in Talent struck me as either underevidenced or misplaced in terms of emphasis, but all of it made me think.

What are you reading?

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