An interview with Tyler Cowen about his new book for finding talent : The Indicator from Planet Money Matching talent with opportunity is great for economic growth. But when it comes to Identifying talent, we have a lot to learn according to economist Tyler Cowen. He joins the show today to talk about innovative strategies for finding under the radar talent.

Tyler Cowen's 101 on discovering talent

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Wailin Wong, it's great to have you here. I know you think you're co-hosting for THE INDICATOR, but this is actually a job interview.


Oh, my gosh. I'm getting ambushed.

WOODS: I just want to do a little bit of a - role playing here. So I'm going to be interviewing you. The reason is because, you know, when you're in a job interview, you present - I'm not saying, like, a deceptive version of yourself, but you're presenting a particular version of yourself - like, a diligent-worker self. I need to find what is behind that veneer.

WONG: I'm just a pile of quirks...

WOODS: (Laughter).

WONG: ...Under a cozy sweater, Darian.

WOODS: I have what I'm told is one of the best questions to cut through all that. So can you open up your web browser and tell me what open tabs you have?

WONG: Ooh. For the sake of journalism, here it goes - OK. So I've got TweetDeck open.

WOODS: Uh huh.

WONG: I have an article from the news site The 19th about women and student loan debt...


WONG: ...An ordering tab for my local ice cream shop because I'm trying to order an ice cream cake for my husband's birthday.

WOODS: That's nice.

WONG: And then I have, like, a shopping website open. You know, there's a lot of Memorial Day sales coming up. And then I think I just have, like, Facebook open, you know?

WOODS: That's amazing. So it sounds like you're into social media, feminism and current issues around that, and also looking for a good bargain.

WONG: Am I hired? I don't even know what this job is. I hope it's at the ice cream shop.

WOODS: The whole reason I bring this up is that, you know, you and me, we've been talking about talent, about finding the right people to join your company or your volunteer group. And this is the subject of a new book co-authored by economist and friend of the show, Tyler Cowen. It's all about finding hidden talent.

WONG: Like me, your new ice cream scooper.

WOODS: That's right.



WOODS: And I'm Darian Woods. Today on the show - searching for overlooked superstars; what people fake and can't fake in job interviews and where to find hidden gems in the job market.


WOODS: Tyler Cowen has a new book out, which he co-wrote with venture capitalist Daniel Gross. This book is called "Talent: How To Identify Energizers, Creatives And Winners Around The World." Welcome to the show, Tyler.

TYLER COWEN: Hello. Happy to be here.

WOODS: So, Tyler, you're an economist who has written on a range of topics. What motivated you and Daniel to write a book on hiring and recruiting and finding talent?

COWEN: Well, I'm struck at just how bad a job the world and America does at allocating talent so people slip through the cracks. There are people that, if they were exposed to better opportunities and higher aspirations at younger ages, could have careers that are an order of magnitude better - whether it's starting a nonprofit or going to a better school or, you know, doing a tech startup.

WOODS: So the stakes are pretty high. They're not just about, I know I can find somebody who fits well into our team. You're saying that there's also a impact on how productive countries around the world are because they're not matching the right people into the right places.

COWEN: There are estimates that, since 1960, 20- to 40% of the economic growth in this country has come from better allocation of talent. It's looking at two main issues - women and minorities. And it looked at how few women and minorities held high-productive jobs in 1960 and how many hold them now. And just with less prejudice, we could have gotten there earlier is the simple point, and you can measure those gains in a very rough manner.

WOODS: Why is the book focused on underappreciated talent? So why is it not just finding the best person out there?

COWEN: So to improve society, it's finding people who are in some way being missed or undervalued by the current system. And if you're hiring the people who are obviously talented, you already have to pay them a high wage, right? You're looking for diamonds in the rough.

WOODS: So one of your favorite questions - and I just asked my colleague Wailin Wong this, actually - what browser tabs do you have open right now? So why do you find this question so useful?

COWEN: So often what people say is not very instructive. They're trained to address interview questions in a certain way. That may be fine, but open browser tabs gets it demonstrated preference. I like to say personality is revealed on weekends. So what does the person actually do with his or her time and energy? Open browser tabs show that. And unlike a lot of interview questions, like, A, people are not prepared for it, and, B, it's hard for them to lie. So they're mostly going to tell you what are actually the open browser tabs.

WOODS: One thing you talk about is one very simple thing - actually just asking them something about the field itself. So just to take an example from radio, we will often just ask new reporters and producers - pitch us one of your own ideas and walk us through why it would make an interesting story.

COWEN: Great question. Great question. I'll ask an economist just - what's the country you're optimistic about and why? It's amazing how many people don't have a coherent answer to that one. It's like, what do you think about all day?

WOODS: All right. So other than looking at somebody's browser tabs or asking them technical questions, how can you tell when a person is being truthful in a job interview?

COWEN: So conscientiousness almost everyone tries to fake, and that can be hard to figure out in, say, an hour interview. But openness hardly anyone can fake. Also agreeableness and disagreeableness - it's easier to fake agreeableness than disagreeableness.

WOODS: And that's interesting that you might actually be looking for disagreeableness, but there's a lot of societal stigma around that, maybe for good reasons in other settings, but you almost need to give a safe space for people to be a bit - you know, a bit spiky.

COWEN: A lot of times, when you're interviewing people from other cultures, it can be very hard because they're very concerned to be polite to you, which is, like, a nice trait, right? We all like politeness. But you don't learn that much, so you want to give them as much safe space as you can for them not to be so polite and to be more genuine. That's one of the hardest things to do, especially if they're from a minority culture or a culture that in some way has been oppressed. They may be quite used to being polite as a way just to get through situations. Again, that's understandable, but you want to let them shine and just be super aware of that.

WOODS: You have a chapter dedicated to disabilities, like dyslexia and autism. Tell me about your thinking there.

COWEN: Very often, our highly talented individuals, they do not necessarily fit well into current systems of schooling - same with people who have ADHD. And just, as a hirer or someone handing out fellowships, be on the lookout for this. These people won't necessarily have standard credentials, and I just give some clues and cues how to find those people in any case.

WOODS: And you also talk about how not only might these attributes make people overlook them, but sometimes this person may recognize that they have a disability in a certain area, and they work so hard at overcoming that that they go above and beyond and actually develop quite a talent in this particular area. Can you talk about some examples of that?

COWEN: There's a condition of aphantasia, where you cannot form images in your mind's eye in the normal manner, and I know a number of people who have this. And some of them are professional animators, some of them work in the visual arts, and you might think that doesn't make sense.

WOODS: On the surface, it sounds very odd, yeah.

COWEN: I'm not sure I understand it, but it has meant they have to approach the whole question of images and visuals very differently. And if someone has a disability where you think, oh, no way could they do, like, what I have in mind, I'm just saying, think twice. You know, they might be one of these people who are more innovative because of the disability and who work harder to overcome it.

WOODS: Your book has an appendix with what you and Daniel have called Good Questions To Ask In A Job Interview. So I'm just going to do a rapid fire of a few of them. Are you up for this?

COWEN: Sure. I'm up for this.

WOODS: What did you like to do as a child?

COWEN: I loved to read books. I could read at a very early age. I could read very quickly. And a lot of my job in life to this day is plenty of reading.

WOODS: Which of your beliefs are you least rational about?

COWEN: I'm inclined to think that the reports of what we used to call UFOs may actually represent some kind of contact with alien drone probes.

WOODS: I like it.

COWEN: My smart friends don't agree with me. I am probably irrational.

WOODS: Right.

I'll round off this list with - how successful do you want to be, or how ambitious are you?

COWEN: I want to be what I call an information trillionaire.

WOODS: An information trillionaire.

COWEN: I've just spent most of my life studying things, reading, traveling the world. I've been to over 100 countries, tried to learn as much social science as I can. So maybe right now I'm some version of an information billionaire, but I want to do better than that and be, you know, the information trillionaire. I don't think I'll get there. Like, billion to trillion is a long leap, but that's how ambitious I am.

WOODS: Tyler Cowen, you have passed this interview with flying colors. We'll be giving you another call sometime soon.

COWEN: No, thank you very much. It's been a real pleasure.


WOODS: This show was produced by Jamila Huxtable and Nicky Ouellet. It was engineered by James Willetts. Corey Bridges fact-checked the show. Viet Le is our senior producer. Kate Concannon edits the show, and THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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