Intro. [Recording date: July 24, 2022.]
Russ Roberts: Today is July 24th, 2022, and my guest today is the great Tyler Cowen of George Mason University. He blogs at Marginal Revolution. His podcast is Conversations with Tyler. This is his 16th appearance on EconTalk. He was last here in April of 2022, talking about reading.
And, our topic for today is his new book, Talent, co-authored with Daniel Gross.
Tyler, welcome back to EconTalk.
Tyler Cowen: Hello, Russ. Happy to be here, as always.
Russ Roberts: So, this is an unusual book for you. It's pretty real world. Not that your books aren't real world generally, but this is very real world. Very applied. It's full of very practical advice about how to seek out talent, if you were involved in an organization. How did you come to write a book like this?
Tyler Cowen: My co-author in this book is Daniel Gross, who is an investor and venture capitalist. And, Daniel and I met six or seven years ago, at a dinner in San Francisco, and we just somehow took to each other. And, we met up a few times after that and just kept on talking about talent and how to interview people. And, at some point, he and I more or less spontaneously realized we ought to write this up and turn it into a book.
So, it's a combination of Daniel's own experience and Silicon Valley lore, my background as an academic and a writer, and now the book exists. It's called Talent.
Russ Roberts: But, most academics spend most of their time thinking about themselves. Now, if you're chair of a department or you're building a department, you're going to worry about finding good people. You're going to worry about recruiting good graduate students. But you have a real-world venture now, that has made this very important, which is Emergent Ventures. So, talk about what that is, and why talent-seeking there is so important.
Tyler Cowen: Emergent Ventures is a project in the Mercatus Center and George Mason University. The goal is to find new talent and fund it in a very non-bureaucratic way. So, we have only one layer of no in the system. Our application is about a page. We don't ask for CVs [Curriculum Vitae] or letters of recommendation; and we're willing to take chances on ambitious people with new ideas. That's Emergent Ventures.
Russ Roberts: And, what are the nature of some of the ventures that you funded? How many have you funded, roughly, and what are some of the--give us a flavor of what you're funding.
Tyler Cowen: Regular Emergent Ventures has funded a bit over 170 people. There's a separate branch, not run by me, Emergent Ventures India, which has funded somewhat below a hundred people, but is growing rapidly. That's run by an Indian woman.
Our very first grant was to a American Ukrainian economist called Timothy Malave, who wanted to do some popular writing about economics in Ukrainian. And, he ended up becoming the Economy Minister of Ukraine under Zelensky. So, our very first pick did very well.
One area where I think we're having a lot of impact--it's the result of several winners, not any single one of them--but that is science policy. There's about five grants we've given to people starting nonprofits, to study science policy, to write about science policy. And, I think in the United Kingdom and also in the United States, there's now a big wave of interest in actually improving science policy. And, we've put a kind of intellectual infrastructure there that is doing very well, and self-sustaining on the funding end.
Another area where we've had some successes is penal reform, judicial reform. So, there's a group called Recidiviz. We were their first supporter, and the woman needed some money to take off work, to start the nonprofit. And, what they do is gather data on which prisoners can be released early, without committing crime again. This turned out to be very important during COVID [coronavirus disease] times, when a lot of prisons wanted to release some people to make the problem manageable. And, they used the data of Recidiviz to make those decisions.
A lot of our other grants are just promising teenagers and we'll see how they do. But, to me, they seem great and super smart.
Russ Roberts: You spoke proudly of the fact that it's not very bureaucratic. One page, not much other material. Some people might worry that you'd be throwing your money away. When it's bureaucratic, there's usually a lot of milestones that have to be hit. And, a lot of monitoring, that of course, selects for a certain kind of person. What I know of you, Tyler, and of this book, you're looking for a different kind of person. But, how do you prevent what economists sometimes call 'malfeasance'--people who take the money and essentially run?
Tyler Cowen: I think we have had a few cases of people taking the money and not finishing their projects, but I've been in this arena for decades. And, I see so many cases under the status quo, where foundations with huge staffs, say, give academics money to write books. And, the books are never written, and the money disappears. So, this is hardly something new. I actually think, our record so far is much better average.
Russ Roberts: And, this'll take us to begin with, some of the ideas in the book. When you interview people--which is, I know you do for this--you don't just, they submit the one page, but then you talk to them. So, what does that involve?
Tyler Cowen: I like to speak to them in person, but during the pandemic that usually wasn't possible. And, even without a pandemic, often, they're just far away. So, it is typically a Zoom call. And, sometimes there's refereeing on the proposals, if they're technical in a way that I don't quite understand. And, there's a committee of one and that one person is me, basically. So, there's not some three bureaucratic layers they need to get through with some least common denominator. Very homogenized, doesn't defend any one kind of approach.
Russ Roberts: And, how much time do you spend talking to them? Let's say we could do it face to face?
Tyler Cowen: Face to face, it tends to be over a meal. So, that would be longer. But, the typical Zoom call would be about 30 minutes.
Russ Roberts: That's it? And, then you give them a thumbs up or a thumbs down?
Tyler Cowen: Correct. So, the process is selecting for quality writing, more than anything. When I speak to people, I don't look so much for articulateness. I look more for drive and determination. Someone who seems smart, but is not that articulate, often gets me more interested, right? Because, I know the articulate people often make their way in any case. And, that's the process.
So, there's so many teenagers we have funded. A lot of them are doing biology, actually. They want to have promising careers in research biology. It's a very hot area now. And, if they're impressive, they will get some money. I think those are great investments.
Russ Roberts: So, how many of the applicants do you--get to the interview stage?
Tyler Cowen: Oh, I would guess 10%, give or take.
Russ Roberts: And, you screen them based on the one pager?
Tyler Cowen: That's correct. And, it asks you, who are you? What's your idea? How would you explain your idea in a tweet? What is it you want to do? It also asks a values-based question. Instead of asking, 'What's the thing you believe that no one else believes?' It says, 'What's the consensus view that you agree with?' So, it's saying, 'Place yourself in the space of things that exist.' I find that very useful.
Anyone can visit that application page, by the way. Just google Emergent Ventures and you get right to it.
Russ Roberts: So, you have a hundred and something people you've given money to. And, they're in the middle, in various ways of the process. Some of them maybe have finished. Some are near finishing. Some are early in the stage. So, you're pretty good at assessing, eventually assessing people that you said yes to, and seeing how it turned out. Do you worry about the people you say no to, and see if you miss some?
Tyler Cowen: Of course, I worry about it, but at the end of the day, I'm more focused on getting to the next yes. And, the distribution of proposals is perhaps more bimodal than you might think. So, a lot of the nos seem perhaps perfectly fine, but they don't seem transformative. So, if someone submits a proposal to set up a nonprofit animal shelter in Akron, Ohio, I'm not saying they're incompetent, but I don't quite feel it's something we should do, and I say, no. Now might that become a successful animal shelter? Well, of course it might.
Russ Roberts: I guess the risk--
Tyler Cowen: But, again, the distribution of proposals is fairly bimodal.
Russ Roberts: I guess the ones we want to worry about are the people who get discouraged by the no and give it up, and who might have done something great. But, that's really hard to, for you to worry about. And, obviously, if somebody goes on to success, you don't really care. You didn't fund it, but it came to the world anyway, which is fine.
Tyler Cowen: I have seen good proposals where I say no, because I think they simply don't need us.
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Russ Roberts: Let's talk about talent, which I'm not sure you actually define anywhere in the book. You do concede early on it's more of an art than a science, finding talent. What does it mean to you?
Tyler Cowen: People with a creative spark who can produce ideas that will make a difference. So, we're talking about a particular kind of talent. Not the ability to perform a rote task 10,000 times in a row and do it well. That, too, is important, but it's not what our book is about. It's people with that creative spark.
And, I would just like to remind your listeners, back in 2003 or whatever, I was one of the people leading the charge to hire you. And, I was convinced you would become a much greater and more major talent than you were at the time. And, obviously, I was correct. And, if you're listening to Russ, this podcast, you kind of have to agree with me on that.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. It's one data point, Tyler.
But I do think, by the way, it's a particular kind of talent you're talking about in this book. It's not a middle-level manager hiring a person to help them necessarily, in a particular task.
You're really looking, it seemed to me--and maybe you can correct me if I'm wrong--you're looking for transformative people. And, if I had to pick the one criterion that you use, and without--you don't say this in the book, exactly--but, I think it's people you'd like to have dinner with.
Tyler Cowen: Curiosity and determination. And, that does correlate with the people I would like to have dinner with.
Russ Roberts: Certainly--
Tyler Cowen: People have to be smart enough to do something. But as we argue in the book, I think smarts are often overrated. At least they're overrated by other smart people. I wouldn't say they're overrated by the world as a whole.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I think they're overrated also. And, I know I'm susceptible to smart--it's very seductive. Partly maybe, I think I'm smart, and that may be part of the reason I'm overly really attracted to it.
But, it--a lot of your questions in the book and for interviewing, seem to me to be looking for people who are intellectually broad--as you are. You're the one of the broadest, if not the broadest intellectual I know. Do you think you fall prey to that in your selection?
Tyler Cowen: I think breadth is currently undervalued, and synthetic thinkers are important for starting projects, but a lot of the questions Daniel and I propose are geared toward: How much does a person practice? How well do they practice? How focused are they on self-improvement?
And, that's not breadth per se. So, that's another emphasis we have, other than just breadth.
I know plenty of broad people who just don't work that hard at being really good at any particular thing they actually can do. And, those people, maybe they'll do okay, but they don't stand out. They don't really succeed.
Russ Roberts: I was kind of shocked by that practice question. It's one of the earliest questions you raise in the book. Talk about the idea of that question. Say it more explicitly, and talk about why you care about it.
Tyler Cowen: Here's how the question goes, and it may vary depending on context: What is it that you do to practice on an almost everyday basis, that is akin to how a classical concert pianist would practice scales? Or you can make it how a gymnast, or a basketball player would practice free throws. And, you're just asking people, 'How is it you think about your program for self-improvement?' And, just see what they say. The person who has no answer at all, that tends to worry me, frankly. Well, what is it you're doing to get better?
Russ Roberts: I'm glad you didn't ask me that back in 2003, because I wouldn't have had anything to say. I think a lot of what we do--
Tyler Cowen: I doubt if that's true, by the way.
Russ Roberts: Well, what do you do to practice? What would your answer be?
Tyler Cowen: I write every day. I read carefully every day. I run around the world like a crazy man, trying to talk to as many different, interesting people as I can. I do a podcast every two weeks on average. I do a lot of EconTalks with you. Those are ends in themselves, but they're also practice for the other things I do.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I thought you did those because they're fun.
Tyler Cowen: They are fun, but they're also practice. Practice ought to be fun, if you're going to excel. Because if it's just a torture, at some point, you're going to give it up. Right? So, you want to see, how enthusiastic is the person about their own practice routine?
Russ Roberts: But so much of what's important in a founder, or an employee, or a partner are things that are intangible, that you can't practice, it would seem to me.
Tyler Cowen: I think so many things you can practice. So, say you're a founder and you need to address your team of employees. Well, how good are you at doing that? I know people who practice giving those talks. I know people who go to stand up comedy routines to just practice connecting with an audience. I know people who tape themselves. I know people who go on podcasts to learn the art of being quicker or be more responsive when questions are asked. So, all those things you can practice. Just talking to other CEOs [Chief Executive Officers], other founders, that can be a kind of practice if you do it smart.
Russ Roberts: I don't know. I think I'd want them working on something else other than going to stand-up comedy to learn how to give a good talk. But it's interesting, right? It's a provocative idea.
Tyler Cowen: What do you do to practice being a university president?
Russ Roberts: Um, well, I was a president five or six other times at inferior places to get better at it.
No--the answer is that, I ask a lot of questions. Right? I ask smart people for advice. I go back to people who I respected as administrators in the institutions that I've been in. And I ask them for guidance. I tell them my problems. I get on the couch and bare my soul, the things that keep me up at night, and see if they have any advice for me.
But, I don't--I didn't practice being a podcast host. I mean, I've been somewhat self-aware about it. There are times where I realized I need to change a habit, and I had to work at that. And, in that sense, I did practice. But, I'm not sure I'm much of a practicer. I read a lot of books when I was younger and that helped me be something of a decent writer.
Tyler Cowen: How many EconTalk episodes have you done? To me, it sounds like practice. How many?
Russ Roberts: 850.
Tyler Cowen: Okay. Great answer. You win.
Russ Roberts: Well, I'm better at interviewing than I used to be. There's no doubt about that, but you wouldn't hire me to be an interviewer, I don't think, Tyler.
There's this great story with Ernest Hemingway. This young guy pestered him, this young aspiring writer. And, he asked him for advice, and I think Hemingway took him fishing and they talked writing, and then Hemingway wrote it up. It's a wonderful essay. And, at one point he says, Hemingway tells this kid, 'You got to read. You got to read other writers.' And, he said, 'Why?' He said, 'Because you have to know who to beat.'
Tyler Cowen: Yeah, Mercatus did support you early on to do EconTalk. So, we did hire you to be an interviewer and podcaster.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. That's--
Tyler Cowen: So. I think you're selling yourself short here.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Maybe, maybe.
Russ Roberts: Let's talk about the emotional side of interviewing. I think one of the challenges most people have as an interviewer for--not this kind of interview, but a job interview--is they have weaknesses. They're either--they're like smarts. They're like charm or charisma. And, they're often, I find--a lot of people struggle to discover negative things about the candidate. Once they decide this is somebody, quote, "Like me," or "somebody I'm going to like," they don't push their conclusions. They don't try to test their evaluation. They think, 'Oh, good. I found somebody great.' Do you have that issue? Do you worry about that? You don't talk about that much in the book.
Tyler Cowen: I worry about that, but keep in mind, for a lot of the work I'm doing, liking the person isn't enough. You want to receive a bunch of different signals, that they are strong enough and ambitious enough to push the thing over the top. So, once you get into the mindset of liking isn't enough, you're not just trying to fill a position, in the case, say, of Emergent Ventures. You want someone who will make a difference. And, you just hold yourself to a higher standard. And, plenty of times, candidates get turned away. They're clearly smart. They may go to a top-10 school, they're articulate. But, at the end of the day, maybe they cannot articulate to you how they will make a difference, because that's not their main priority. And, then you're like, 'Oh, you're going to do well. But, you belong somewhere else.'
Russ Roberts: For people who aren't hiring a founder or a CEO of a new venture, do you think about this issue? I think about Kahneman, who urged people to create a more objective index, various characteristics that are important in the job, to avoid being overwhelmed by the emotional connection you might form with a person that might lead you astray. Do you think that's a mistake?
Tyler Cowen: You need to rely then, much, much more on structured interviews, which are more or less homogenized, and have some form of centralized data collection. And also, in general for those candidates, conscientiousness tends to matter more than other qualities. So, it becomes a very different approach.
We talk about in the book--it's not our focus in the book--but we try to explain the very clear and very important differences between those two processes. And, most jobs are of a fairly ordinary sort, by definition. Right? Then look for conscientiousness, usually; have a structured interview process; and apply a lot of discipline.
Russ Roberts: The interview process that you recommend for most of the book is a more, I would say, idiosyncratic: Try to connect with the person, get to know them, get to understand their worldview, where it comes from, what their skills are, the self-improvement. Is that accurate?
Tyler Cowen: Yes. I would stress the point that for a lot of creative or higher level positions, the actual interview process is unstructured, whether you like it or not. So, say the New York Times wants to hire a new columnist. They will ask around about that potential person. Other people have spent time with that person, interacted with that person. They have impressions. Those are in a sense unstructured interviews.
Russ Roberts: It's true.
Tyler Cowen: So, it's not a question of choosing structured versus unstructured. For people looking for a lot of those positions, the data is coming in unstructured form, whether you like that or not. And, then the question is, how to interpret it?
Russ Roberts: But you're a big fan of interviews. And, part of what I guess I've been pushing back on, is a lot of people think they're overrated. But you very much disagree, obviously.
Tyler Cowen: Even for ordinary jobs, the actual evidence--if you get past some of the mainstream media pieces--the evidence is that interviews do matter. And, certainly for higher level jobs, they matter. If you think about hiring economists, which you and I both have been involved in, the simple notion that you sit down with someone and ask them some questions about economics is going to get you a long ways. It's not overrated. I would even say it's underrated. I've heard a lot of economics interviews where the candidate is never asked about economics. They're asked to recite different things, tell us what your job market paper is. That's fine. It's perfectly appropriate. But, just to ask two or three questions about economics--a highly underrated still, to this day.
Russ Roberts: Well, I like the question you asked of a candidate, 'What's your career goal?' 'Publish a lot of papers and get tenure,' which is often what is many people's career goal in academic life. But, it's not the one I'd want to hear. I want to hear: 'Ask important questions that are hard to answer, and make a contribution,' right? That would be the--
Russ Roberts: But that's easy to say. And, as you point out, after a while people can tend to learn what the trick questions are, and how to prepare for them. So, how do you push back in a way to find out how deeply they feel about those things?
Tyler Cowen: I find it remarkable, first of all, how few people lie. So, the people who just want to publish papers and get tenure, most of them will tell you that. They may use slightly different or less explicit language, but they don't have the mental vocabulary or frameworks to even concoct a good lie. And, they don't sit down and say, 'Well, I want to rival Russ Roberts and do the next EconTalk, and reach millions of people.' They really don't.
But, if you think they're lying, just push them on the details and see how well they know the thing they're claiming they want to do. And, typically people who are making it up will collapse pretty quickly. I find that, actually, a surprisingly not so significant obstacle.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well, I've asked people in interviews what their biggest weakness is, and we all know what you're supposed to say: 'I'm a perfectionist. I care too much.' But, sometimes people blurt out their biggest weakness. It's fascinating. They may say that the first time, but you press them and they'll sometimes tell you what's wrong. The things they're not so good at. Amazing.
Tyler Cowen: So, I think interviews are very useful, but you have to be a good interviewer, right?
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Yeah. Hard to do.
Russ Roberts: Let's talk about meritocracy, which you allude to a little bit in the book. It's a little bit out of fashion in 2022. It's not out of fashion for Emergent Ventures, or Tyler Cowen, or Daniel Gross. You're very eager in uncovering highly talented people. I mean, that's the point of the book. But, a lot of people today are writing things about how meritocracy is a mistake. It's an illusion. What are your thoughts on that?
Tyler Cowen: Adrian Wooldridge had a very good book out last year, in defense of meritocracy. You don't have to believe that you're doing moral meritocracy at every level. So, if you support the more ambitious 17-year-old who wants to do computational biology, you're not committing to the proposition that they're a better human being. But, at the end of the day, you want to cure diseases, and limit pandemics and so on. And, everyone believes in meritocracy at some level. The question is, what kind of rhetorical cloaking do they put around what they do? So, if you're having open heart surgery, there are very few people who do not believe in meritocracy.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Although, there is an interesting question about--what the best means, in any of these areas, right? Or, a talented person.
There are certain settings. I remember when we were in the--when we had our first child--the recommendation for a pediatrician from another doctor, was--he was not a good doctor. He was the smartest doctor. He was the one that impressed my friend with their, I don't know, with what, their degree or something. But, that person was a really bad doctor. He had terrible bedside manner with us, two new parents who were uneasy. He was not the best. He was not the best doctor. He was just the smartest. And, God forbid, if there'd been a rare thing that went wrong, it might be good to have the smartest. Even there, I'm not so sure. I don't know. It's complicated.
Tyler Cowen: Composure might matter more in that context, right?
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Correct. Yeah. That's a whole fascinating aspect of this. Especially when you think about the complications, pre-birth, that anxiety on the part of the mother is not particularly good for the child. And so, some situation arises in advance to deal with that's, that could be a problem.
Do you think we overrate credentials in modern economies?
Tyler Cowen: Well, it depends who the 'we' is. I'm not sure you and I do, but certainly the United States as a whole does. Israel, I couldn't say, but the world is becoming worse and worse for credentialism.
There are so many just ordinary jobs where you have to have a college degree, and it makes no sense. The State of Maryland, fortunately, has started abolishing those requirements. But most other groups have not.
And, it's a barrier to minorities, that can be a barrier to women who had children earlier, who had children at the wrong time, or who left school to raise families. And, it's one of the worst things we do in American society.
And, my father, for instance, ended up being quite successful, running a chamber of commerce. He didn't have a college degree. That is no longer possible in today's world, and I'm trying to bring some of that back.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I find that weird. I don't know if it's just a shortcut, right? As a way of culling the pile? Obviously, you and I both know extraordinarily talented people who never went to college, or who didn't go to a fancy school, you know, like you. You went to Harvard. Obviously, you could have been something a lot more successful if you'd have gone somewhere else, Tyler. But seriously, it's such a--is it just that it's an informational shortcut for people?
Tyler Cowen: It is. And it's often a useful one. But if you want to do some kind of, what I would call intellectual arbitrage, you need to look other places. Because the person who comes out top of their class at Harvard Law, they're doing well anyway. And, you could try bidding for them. They might be a good hire, but they're also going to cost you a lot of money, and you will make a lot of your greatest gains looking for other kinds of people. And including from other countries.
Russ Roberts: Let's talk about hidden talent. And one of the things in the book is, there's a lot more talented people than meet the eye. I thought about it for a reason I'll share in a minute, but I want you to talk about that first in general. Obviously, there's global opportunities that are unexploited, because people don't have access to opportunities because they're far away. Can't get, can't interview for them, and so on. Language barriers.
To me, it's extraordinary how many talents--in a way, talent is scarce by definition. And, yet in another sense, there's so many talented people in the areas that are pretty easy to look at and identify, and yet so many people don't succeed. Don't get a chance.
Tyler Cowen: There is. There is a potential market failure. So, if you spot a talented person and help them, you may just elevate them so they go away and work for someone else, or start their own venture. That's fine. So, you need either altruism or some other reason to want to help them.
But, I do think it's under-supplied and there's a pretty simple economics argument why that's the case.
Russ Roberts: Go ahead.
Tyler Cowen: That you don't internalize the gains that they reap. They do. Or some other employer does.
Russ Roberts: I'm thinking about music, writing. And, the reason I was thinking about it, I spent the week--I'm fighting off a terrible cold, as listeners can hear. So, I spent all of the Sabbath this past weekend, lying in bed and reading when I wasn't sleeping. I slept 16 hours. But of the non-16 hours, I read a collection of essays by Hillel Halkin. Have you read Hillel Halkin?
Tyler Cowen: No, who is he?
Russ Roberts: Right. No, that's the thing. So, I knew who he was by name, but I don't think 10 years ago, I knew who he was. It seems to me there's a certain set of writers--and I'm going to put two other people in there: George Steiner and Brian Doyle. They're not famous. They're not well known. They're well known in small circles. But they're all essayists. And essays, I think, are under undervalued in modern times.
And, you might not like Hillel Halkin: he writes a lot about Jewish identity and Israel, and for many reasons might not be your cup of tea. Brian Doyle writes about parenting. George Steiner writes a lot about language, education. Him, you'd like, if you haven't--I suspect you know George Steiner.
But these are people that most people, I would say, 'I've never heard of them.' And, they have given me so much delight and pleasure over the last few years, and I had not heard of them at all. And, it's scary. It means there could be a fourth or fifth, even, person like that, who I'm missing.
Tyler Cowen: There are comparables in every field. Music also; the visual arts; everywhere.
But, I think, entrepreneurship--and there are plenty of people who could be great economists, but maybe just don't pursue it or they're never encouraged. And, we're missing out, there.
One of my core beliefs right now is that the geographic distribution of talent is far from even, but it moves around.
So, if you go to early 20th century, like, Hungarian high schools, they are amazing for math, science. Today, I'm not sure. They're probably just, like, good. A lot of smart people like anywhere else.
And, I think right now, the place with the most undiscovered talent by far is India. That's why we have Emergent Ventures, India. I don't think that's a permanent state of affairs. I don't think it's something intrinsic to India.
But these things come and go, like the Florentine Renaissance, right? Or, Germanic classical music in the 18th, 19th centuries.
So, right now, I think a lot of it's about India, even Canada. I'm very bullish on talent in Ontario. When I see an application from Ontario, I get excited.
Russ Roberts: That's great.
Tyler Cowen: If you have the words Ontario and excited in the same sentence, that means something, right?
Russ Roberts: Yeah, no, it's good.
Some of this is the tournament nature of fame, right? That Sharon Rose and Ed Lazear wrote about. That, it's also in the written in the book, But What If We're Wrong, by Chuck Klosterman.
Inevitably, in certain fields, only a handful of people get famous, and there's a temptation to think they're the only good ones, and there's dozens of good ones elsewhere.
And, by the way, if you're going to read Brian Doyle, One Long River of Song, that's the book to read. He's absolutely magnificent.
I stumbled on it because he wrote an essay that was one of the best essays of the year it came out, in that little collection that gets published. And I thought, 'Well, that's nice. It's a really sweet essay about summer camp and adolescence, and growing up.' A really beautiful essay. And, I thought, 'Oh, he's talented.'
The book's better. The book has got 10 of those, 12 of them, 15. And, for George Steiner read Errata, E-R-R-A-T-A, which is his memoir.
Tyler Cowen: I love that book. Yes.
Russ Roberts: It's a beautiful book.
But, Hillel Halkin's collection is called A Complicated Jew. Again, it's a little ethnically centered for some, but if you're interested in that, you'll enjoy it. He's a phenomenal writer. He's also an incredible translator. And Steiner was also interested in languages, which is kind of a coincidence.
But, anyway, certain fields inevitably have people who, the handful of people who come to the top that everyone recognizes is great, but it's often the case that they're not the best. For you, anyway. You might enjoy some of the other lesser-known people in that field. And, I think it's, I guess it's the nature of reality. But it's amazing how many talented people there are.
Tyler Cowen: That's right. And, in other parts of the world often how few chances they have.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I remember a story--you write about this. You write about aspiration a little bit, and I think it's really powerful, a couple stories. One story is the kid from a bad school, a bad, poor part of town. Gets a tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And--I think Colin Powell tells this story--and they come back and they ask the kid, one of the kids, ask the kids generally, 'What did you learn from that, your experience?' And, one of them said, 'I learned there's a job called a security guard. And, that would be wonderful, to be able to sit there in that room and not have to do anything.' And, that's tragic, right? It's a sad, sad story that that was the ceiling for this high school student. But, you make--you give some examples of how you can encourage people to aim high.
Tyler Cowen: You can change their slope, especially early in their lives. I'm a big believer in funding trips for young people, just so they can, in some way, interact with the best in their field.
So, if they're tech people, send them to the Bay Area. If they're biomedical people, maybe send them to a conference at Cambridge, Massachusetts. Finance, maybe they ought to go to New York, and just to see and rub shoulders with titans. I'm sure you had this experience when you showed up at University of Chicago. You think, 'Oh, my God, these people are awesome.' But, at the same time, you see that a person can become that. It's a thing you can do and be. And, the value of that in my view is very high. It's not just a one-off gain. Again, it's changing an entire lifetime trajectory.
Russ Roberts: But, as you point out, a lot of it is convincing someone that they can be that person, because a lot of people see those people and they go, 'Well, that's for them. I can't do that.' And, telling someone that they can do that, there is a path, is life changing, as you say.
Tyler Cowen: Yeah, you can't convince most people, but you're looking for people that you can convince, and putting them in a peer group of similarly talented others. And giving them an award, and having a kind of presentational charisma behind the whole thing. It can really matter. And, venture capitalists will tell you the same. They say in a lot of cases, the money is not the main thing. It's the person, all of a sudden, seeing someone else believes in them. And, now they can get this thing done.
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Russ Roberts: Talk about stamina and why it's not the same as grit, and why you make the distinction.
Tyler Cowen: I'm 60. You are, I believe, over 60.
Russ Roberts: Yes, I am.
Tyler Cowen: We're both still doing podcasts, including with each other. And, you're doing podcast as a university president, and neither of us shows any signs of letting up. That, to me, is stamina. And, I think in a knowledge economy, the returns to stamina are extremely high. Especially, if you can start fairly young.
Now grit can be important, but I think of grit is, kind of times are tough and you grit your teeth and you bear down, and you suffer through something. Don't mean to take anything away from grit. But, if you distinguish stamina and grit, I think you can make better decisions for the intellectual life. I think overall, I would prefer a person with stamina than a person with grit. If it's someone who's going to win a bicycle race, they're not going to be winning anyway, by the time they're above some age. So, probably in that instance, grit would be more important than what I'm calling stamina.
Russ Roberts: Well, we're both married, which may be no small feat. I think some people with stamina don't always attract people who want to be around a person with stamina. We both work very hard.
It's an interesting question of whether you should encourage it in a person. I think it comes at a price. I don't think it's a choice for me. I think it's deeply embedded in me, both genetically and culturally, the way I was raised to do stuff. Could be a character--terrible character flaw, is what I'm suggesting. But, in a founder, it's a good characteristic for sure, if you're going to invest in them. Staying power, very important. Staying power is somewhere between grit and stamina, I guess.
Tyler Cowen: The social value of staying power and stamina is extremely high. So, is it morally better for every single individual? I don't think it is. This gets to the difference between moral meritocracy and meritocracy. But, I think in our culture, we could use for some number of additional people, taking a stand for excellence and hard work, and determination and sticking to something. And, I don't think you need to pretend that in every case, that person is an angel, but I'd like to see more of it. And, I'm very happy to do that in an unabashed, unapologetic sort of way.
Russ Roberts: Well, I [?didn't?] mean to suggest we're not angels. I mean, I like to think both you and I are. But they might not be the best person to spend a weekend with. Did you read the piece--
Tyler Cowen: And, we are doing this on a weekend, just to be clear.
Russ Roberts: Well, only for you, it's being taped up on Sunday. It's my work--Sunday is a workday in Israel. We get Friday and Saturday off.
Russ Roberts: I suspect you saw the Brie Wolfson piece about working at Stripe. Did you see that?
Tyler Cowen: I was just going to mention it. Yeah. Brie is an Emergent Ventures winner, by the way.
Russ Roberts: So, talk about her essay, which is slightly inspirational, slightly alarming, slightly beautiful, slightly--made me slightly uneasy. It was a very interesting piece. Got a lot of attention. Tell listeners what that piece is about. And, then you could talk about her Emergent Venture activity.
Tyler Cowen: She talks about the number of times that she had to work 15-hour days at Stripe, right next to other people who often enjoyed working those 15-hour days. And, she explains how she saw a virtue in this. And, it's not for everyone, or it's not even for your entire life, but it can be a great way to be. I thought it was a wonderful piece.
Now, she has a project of her own. She's a fairly recent Emergent Ventures winner. And, she is a kind of messenger of corporate culture, teaching people how to improve their corporate cultures. And, we'll see how that does, but she is very hardworking and super smart, and enthusiastic and ambitious. She's also a two-time novelist. And, one of her novels has been optioned into a Hollywood production. And, I would be very bullish on her.
Russ Roberts: Oh, that's such a Tyler-ism, the fact that you like that she's a novelist. I mean, I like it, too; but what's that have to do with her corporate culture work?
Tyler Cowen: If you can write a novel that does well, it shows you understand something about people. You understand something about communication. You must have a certain kind of breadth, if someone would want to make it into a production for the screen, and that's a sign you understand culture of organizations.
Now, look, it's an unusual bet. But, my purpose in doing what I'm doing, is to find unusual bets that are maybe not slam dunks for everyone else. So, I'm not against the slam dunks. I just think we need more people out there willing to encourage the unusual.
Russ Roberts: I find it interesting. I mean, I think I asked, but I knew that you would know about that essay. It's an interesting thing, how the Twitter-verse and the blogosphere and the intellectual landscape is broader, wider, fuller, infinitely larger than it's ever been. And yet, you and I have something akin to the three stations of American television, I suspect. There are things that you read and know about that I have no knowledge of. There's a much smaller group of things that I know about, that you don't. But I knew we'd share that. Right? That's interesting. I've never, I haven't thought about that. It's interesting how we--the intellectual landscape--has created that shared water-cooler experience, despite the fact that we don't have three TV shows anymore, three TV channels.
Tyler Cowen: There's a coastal, intellectual, social media hierarchy, and we more or less both belong to the same part of it. I mean, you're going to have closer Israel ties than I do, of course. But, a lot of the rest will be the same. People who write about innovation and progress and economic growth, and we're both part of that network.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. We both also like Patrick Collison, so, a Stripey thing is going to get our attention.
Russ Roberts: What are soft networks, and why are they important?
Tyler Cowen: Soft networks are people you might know or know of, or maybe they know you a bit, or they know of you. Or they listen to your podcast, or they buy some of your books. But they're not your best friends. You've never worked together with them.
And, I think increasingly, the bigger the talent world gets, the more you rely on your soft networks to bring you talent. So, the book says, yes, you're looking for talent, but the best way to succeed at that problem as Daniel and I stress, is to have talent looking for you. Right? That's a decentralized Hayekian solution.
So, your soft network is super-important. And, maybe our number one piece of advice is: 'Yeah, search for talent. But, think about how you're building it, your soft network, to get talent searching for you.'
Russ Roberts: And, of course, that's not enough. You have to get--you have to build an organization that talent wants to be a part of.
Tyler Cowen: Of course. And, you have to yourself, behave in a way that will attract the right kind of people.
Russ Roberts: And, you talk about that--
Tyler Cowen: If you think of Emergent Ventures, we don't advertise. It's free money. In principle, we could get seven or eight billion applications, but in fact, you have to hear about it. And, if you've even heard about it and have a sense you ought to apply, that's already, up front, I think a great selection filter.
Russ Roberts: It's fascinating, right? Most people would say, 'Advertise more widely, get a bigger pool to choose from. Bigger denominator.' But you're not doing that.
Tyler Cowen: No, we--I try to do the opposite. I try to keep it more secret, and I'm worried that it will be become better known. And, then that filter will be less valuable.
Russ Roberts: So, when we air this, we'll just bleep out the words, Emergent Ventures.
Tyler Cowen: Well, your podcast is a great selection filter, right? That's fine. But, I don't want it, say, in the New York Times.
Russ Roberts: Okay.
Russ Roberts: Let's see. Talk about confession and therapy, and what they have in common.
Tyler Cowen: Some forms of therapy, by no mean all, you're not looking at your therapist, right? You might be horizontal on a sofa, or these days it could be a Zoom call, or it's not even clear 'looking at' quite means. And, sometimes that distance can lead to a better conversation. In classic Catholic confession, you don't see the priest at all. You're in a booth and that connection is obscured. I've never seen this rigorously tested, but it is at least believed, based on centuries--millennia--of evidence, that this leads to a more open conversation because you don't see the other person.
So Daniel and I, in the book, discuss about how Zoom interviews--online interviews--sometimes, in some ways can be better, rather than worse. And, try to take advantage of the ways in which they're superior. Don't just think of them as a worse version of face-to-face. I believe on average, they're worse, but sometimes people will open up more.
I've also encountered plenty of women who say they feel safer in the online interview for a number of reasons. And, the online interview also keeps you from focusing on the person's physical charisma. And, for many jobs, it might be better not to see the physical charisma.
Russ Roberts: When I started EconTalk, it was all by phone. And people said, 'Don't you want to do face-to-face?' And, I started doing some face-to-face. This is before COVID, obviously.
And, what I found is, it was a very mixed bag. Some people don't like to be looked at. It makes them uncomfortable. Some people like to be looked at. And, so, when I'm not looking at them, because I'm looking at my notes or paying some attention to something down here, or the clock, going under here and seeing what time it is, they think, 'Oh, he's not listening to me,' and they stop talking sometimes. They're waiting for me to come back. It's like, 'No, don't stop.'
But, I think it's a deep point. We've talked about on the program--I can't remember; maybe some listeners will remember--watching something together with someone creates an intimacy that's sometimes more powerful than face-to-face eye contact. Watching a play, watching a scene in nature, a vista. And, you can talk, even though you're not looking at the person and you can share things that might be hard to share, eye to eye.
Tyler Cowen: It's like the long walk. Right? You're usually side by side. You can look at each other if you need to. The long walk is often better, either for emotional talks or for intellectual talks, than sitting down at a table.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Steve Jobs was a big fan of the walking interview.
Tyler Cowen: So, an online interview in some ways, not all, but in some ways, it's like the long walk. Take advantage of that.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Although it's better when you turn off your camera, even you might argue.
But, and there are people I know who don't like to interview, don't like to have conversations on Zoom with camera on, just because they think it distracts. Which is quite interesting.
Russ Roberts: Talk a little bit more about Zoom. You talk about it a lot in the book, how it's obviously forced us to adjust in certain ways.
But, the part I found interesting was your discussion of status, and how status is different in Zoom than in person. That was a really interesting set of observations.
Tyler Cowen: In person, the boss usually takes the best seat, sits in the middle of the room, commands the attention of everyone, waves his or her hands around, projects a certain something. Has a non-egalitarian allocation of time spent speaking. I'm not saying that's never good, but very often it's not good.
On Zoom, it's much harder to do all of those. It's, on average, more egalitarian. There are discreet turns of when you stop and start talking. You can't manipulate the room in the same way. That can be great. Again, it's another advantage, not always present, but do something with it. Take advantage of it. Be more egalitarian on Zoom.
It's also harder to make jokes on Zoom. Again, can be both a cost and a benefit, but don't judge Zoom candidates by their sense of humor. It's a huge mistake.
Russ Roberts: Really interesting.
And, of course, some people use humor to their advantage, obviously. And others struggle to appreciate humor.
I was talking to my chief of staff the other day. We had our cameras off on Zoom. And I made a dead-pan joke, which she did not know was a joke. There was no camera. It was about a loss of funding. And, she was--there was a long moment of silence. And, I said, 'I'm just kidding.' And, she breathed a sigh of relief.
But, jokes in general are difficult--on, as you say on Zoom, with or without camera. And, of course, they're especially difficult across culture.
I feel that all the time here in Israel, where if I--making a joke in Hebrew is almost always a mistake. I'm going to do something wrong. I'm going to mispronounce a word. I'm going to put the emphasis in the wrong place; and they're not going to think it, know it's a joke.' And, most of my humor is deadpan, and it's a big mistake.
Tyler Cowen: I think there are some jobs--and CEO would be an example--where having a good sense of humor really matters.
But, for most of the areas where I'm interviewing people, I don't think sense of humor correlates much with success. And, if I can not pick up a person's sense of humor, say, online, that's fine. It may be better not to pick it up. Obviously, if you're interviewing professional comedians, online may not work very well. But, that's not usually what I'm doing.
Russ Roberts: No, for sure.
Russ Roberts: One question I found particularly bizarre--of course, I disliked all the questions I didn't think I could answer well. In the book--
Tyler Cowen: You don't know that you can't answer them well. The point is to induce variance in the answers, which will mean a lot of the answers are bad. So, if you feel your answer's bad, that's actually a sign your answer might be good, because the question is a variance-inducing one, right?
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I'm always looking for the right answer. Obviously a bad strategy in a Tyler Cowen interview. Right? You don't care what the answer is, you just care how they defend it, how they can, right?
But, what are the stranger--so the book has a lot of questions about, suggestions to ask in interviews. And, the one I found particularly peculiar was: What are the open tabs on your browser right now?
So, I have about, I think, I have about 150 tabs open across two browsers. I don't think I could--I guess that would be my answer. You would like that actually, wouldn't you, Tyler?
Tyler Cowen: Oh, I'd be delighted. And, you know, I just interviewed Matthew Ball, the gaming guy, the metaverse guy. Oh, I forget his number, but it was even bigger than yours. And, he writes in so many areas. I was excited.
You do podcasts, you do economics, you write books, you just wrote a New York Times piece, which was great, by the way--
Russ Roberts: Thank you--
Tyler Cowen: You run a university. You read classic works. And so on.
Russ Roberts: No, I'm a perfect candidate.
Tyler Cowen: It makes sense, you have a lot of open browser tabs. But I would not hire you to be a cashier in Starbucks.
Russ Roberts: No, but so it's obvious that I need to exploit your affection for my browser behavior and figure out some venture I can get you to fund. How about liberal arts education in a small Middle Eastern state?
Tyler Cowen: We do new things. So, if your university or any affiliated projects have a new venture, by all means apply. We would consider it.
Russ Roberts: No, you'd be a sucker for my--I've got so many good things for you. You won't even care what it was.
More seriously. You talk about speed of response; in particular, you talk about Sam Altman. Sam Altman used to be for, I think about five years, was head of the Y Combinator, that Paul Graham and others had started. A tough mantle to inherit. He, I think, did a good job. There's a new person there now, taking on that task. But, Sam talks about speed of response. What is that?
Tyler Cowen: If people respond to your emails quickly, it tells you something about them. They view you as a kind of priority. They want to keep a relatively clean inbox, and they're sort of eager or impetuous to get something done. I think for people doing startups or potential public intellectuals, that's a strongly positive signal. If you're looking to support or hire, say a chemist or cancer researcher who will be spending a lot of time working in a lab or maybe already is, it could well be a negative signal. But, I look at speed of response as a significant variable in assessing people.
Russ Roberts: How many emails are in your inbox right now?
Tyler Cowen: Oh, it was--you mean, like, permanently sitting there?
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Yeah.
Tyler Cowen: I would guess 180. Most of them are for reference, not--
Russ Roberts: 180 total? You mean just 180?
Tyler Cowen: Well, I delete the others. 180. Now, fresh ones--
Russ Roberts: Now, this is going to hurt me--
Tyler Cowen: it's going to be however many have come in since we started talking.
Russ Roberts: This is going to hurt my application. I have 58,256 emails in my Gmail account. I also have an Outlook account for my Shalem activities, my college president activities. Now, some of those are not to be responded to, but do you respond quickly to, quote, "every email?"
Tyler Cowen: If I'm not traveling, usually yes.
Russ Roberts: I have to say--
Tyler Cowen: Now, I would not hire you to write email software. It doesn't mean you wouldn't be a great university president.
Russ Roberts: No, but it is an interesting--in today's world, speed of response is a really interesting variable, right? And, I think it's generational. I don't know what way it goes, but I'm sure that there are people who get very upset that they don't get a response quickly. And, there are other people, who find it not surprising at all.
Tyler Cowen: It's very different for Continentals, as you probably know, but I actually hold that against them. So, say, in Germany, you don't respond to someone's email in two days. No one thinks that's so weird. It's like, 'Well, it was two days.' I think that's a sign of complacency, and at least some subset of the Germans should be in more of a hurry.
Russ Roberts: Which subset?
Tyler Cowen: Silicon Valley doesn't work that way.
Russ Roberts: Which subset of the Germans is that? The talented ones, I guess.
Tyler Cowen: Well, but only in some areas. So, the German chemists, I think should be in the lab and not responding to emails very quickly. That's entirely appropriate. But, if you look at the population of Germany, the intelligence levels, cultural sophistication, how many significant public intellectuals in the Anglo world are German? To me, it's a very much an underwhelming performance. I think they're too verbose, and their ideas are too complicated. And, they're not really out there in the rough and tumble, back and forth, honing them and making them more appealing, more attractive and easier to read. It's a big drawback.
Russ Roberts: Well, there go the German sales of Talent. You had a chance of doing well there until then. And, I've had editors who wanted me to take out negative remarks about nationalities, so I'm sure your editor is not going to be happy about that.
Russ Roberts: Let's close with an attempt to generalize what this book is about. In theory, it's about talent. It's about trying to find talented people to hire. But of course, it's about more than that. It's really about a way of life.
I don't want to be overly grandiose about it, and your book doesn't--there's nothing--it's not a pretentious book. It's not a grandiose book. It doesn't aim to be a self-help book on how to live. But, the lessons you're talking about are really about more than just matching employees and employers, or investors and founders. In theory, the principles you're talking about include things that a lot of people care about who aren't involved in anything close to what you've been discussing, which would include making new friends, finding a romantic partner. Right? In a way. And, you don't--
Tyler Cowen: I fully agree.
Russ Roberts: I don't think you talked about--
Tyler Cowen: It's about how to understand your own talent. So, the framing is search, searching for others. But, how about searching for yourself? Like, 'Who am I, what can I do?' It's also a book about that. Like, what are your open browser tabs? Ask yourself.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, it's a good question. There are people, by the way, who would say, 'You have 150 tabs open? I don't want to get near you. Something's wrong with you.' 'You don't answer all your emails. That's not my kind of person.' It's important to know, right? These are not unimportant things.
But I think more generally, moving away from the idiosyncratic questions that we happen to have focused on, because I found that most interesting: Interviewing is a form of conversation, right? Most people, when they talk, struggle to ask questions about the other person. They tend to focus on their next time to talk. And, I think one of the advantages of this book, is it sensitizes you to the opportunity to be inquisitive about the people in your life, not just your employees. Do you agree?
Tyler Cowen: It's an Adam Smithian book in this regard, influenced by your own work on Smith, about putting yourself into the shoes of others, right? Having more sympathy or empathy for their perspectives.
But, to do that, you need to understand them somewhat. So, it's also that kind of book. Not intended or presented as such, but I think it is. There's also something a bit brutal about the book, that I think Daniel and I mentioned.
Russ Roberts: It's true. You do, we didn't talk about it. Bring it on.
Tyler Cowen: When you reject people, say, for a job--you know, if you've sort of, to the extent the book works and you've digested its lessons, you're not saying, 'We didn't hire you because you didn't go to Harvard,' which is bad news, but you can kind of deal with that blow. We're saying, 'We didn't hire you because, we thought you as an individual, weren't good enough for this job.' And, that is a more brutal reason for rejection. And, maybe it can't always be made transparent in society.
Russ Roberts: Well, you're right about your unease with that. Right?
Tyler Cowen: Any process where there's something of value, there are more nos than yeses, right?
Russ Roberts: Yeah. In that sense, we all discriminate. And, that word used to have a subtler meaning. To discriminate is to--we know what the negative sense of that word is. The positive sense is to show good taste. You're discriminating in what you eat, and what you read, and what you watch. It's out of favor, by the way: your book is very much a contrarian book in that sense. Has anybody given you a hard time about it?
Tyler Cowen: No, surprisingly not. So, I think people themselves don't want to come to terms with the fact that they do the same. Because, we say it's universal. It's not like, 'Oh, it's Tyler and Daniel doing this.' But, on a given day, most restaurants, you don't go to them, right? You think they're not good enough. It's okay, but I do feel bad about it.
Russ Roberts: You don't have to wave that about.
Tyler Cowen: I know some of these people, I like them. Their food's pretty good, but, ehhh, not today. Sorry.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. In a way it's the essence of life, right? You have a finite amount of money, a finite amount of time. You can't spend it with everyone. You can't give everyone the attention that they'd like, and perhaps that they deserve. It's very--it's an interesting conundrum, as you become successful, that you have to say, 'No more,' if you want to be able to say yes to the things you care the most about.
And, in my new book, I often, I emphasize that it's really important to learn how to say no. And, it's really dangerous. Because 'yes' is fabulous. Yes is, you're in the game. Yes is: what could come of this? I'm open minded. I'm open. What could happen? Let me see what emerges. So, it's a real art to figure out when to say yes, and when to say no. I'm still learning.
Tyler Cowen: As a university president, you really need to learn when to say no. And, I'm sure that's part of your daily trials.
Russ Roberts: Well, that's my Chief of Staff's job. She doesn't say no for me. She reminds me, I need to say no. Very helpful.
My guest today has been Tyler Cowen. His book is Talent. Tyler, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Tyler Cowen: Great chatting with you, Russ.