Don't Look for Talent; Find People Who Do Things

I wrote a blog post a while ago about what one of my former assistants did after working for me, and in it I wondered why so many of them have had success. My conclusion was:

I honestly don't think I have much to do with it. I think I just pick really smart and motivated people to work with -- people who are probably going to do great things anyway -- and I just teach them what I know, maybe teach them how to think a little clearer than they did before, and then off they go.

So if this is true -- that I had nothing to do with their success, I was just picking the right people to work for me -- it raises the question: What was I seeing in them that I picked them before they were successful?

I wrote a blog post speculating about what I was seeing in those guys before they did great things. I re-read it this morning and realized it was just ex-post rationalizations. I was creating a narrative to explain a set of facts, but I had no real proof for any of it; in fact, reading it now, it's all just bullshit that makes me look good. That type of rationalization is worthless. In fact, it's worse than worthless; it's toxic because it makes you think you have skill where you're probably just lucky.

Then, browsing my RSS feed, I read this interview with the head of HR for Google. It's amazing, and you should read the whole thing. Google is a data monster and analyzes everything; they don't tell themselves made-up stories, they test and measure and see where the proof is. This doesn't always work either (for various reasons, pure reliance on measured data is a bad way to operate because of the inherent limits of human wisdom, see e.g. all of Nassim Taleb's books), but at least they try to strip the made-up stories out and find something objective to look at and think about.

I'll summarize the piece as best I can: Everything they thought mattered in the hiring process was totally worthless.

Google used to use brain teasers and résumés and look at grades and test scores and all the standard ways to find new talent. They analyzed the results and realized it was all a complete waste of time. None of it actually predicted who would do well at their job:

One of the things we've seen from all our data crunching is that G.P.A.'s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless -- no correlation at all except for brand-new college grads, where there's a slight correlation. Google famously used to ask everyone for a transcript and G.P.A.'s and test scores, but we don't anymore, unless you're just a few years out of school. We found that they don't predict anything.
On the hiring side, we found that brainteasers are a complete waste of time. How many golf balls can you fit into an airplane? How many gas stations in Manhattan? A complete waste of time. They don't predict anything. They serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart.

Here's what's crazy: They also found that interviews don't even work well, and no one is good at identifying talent ahead of time:

"Years ago, we did a study to determine whether anyone at Google is particularly good at hiring. We looked at tens of thousands of interviews, and everyone who had done the interviews and what they scored the candidate, and how that person ultimately performed in their job. We found zero relationship."

You know what does work? Asking people what they've done:

"Behavioral interviewing also works -- where you're not giving someone a hypothetical, but you're starting with a question like, 'Give me an example of a time when you solved an analytically difficult problem.' The interesting thing about the behavioral interview is that when you ask somebody to speak to their own experience, and you drill into that, you get two kinds of information. One is you get to see how they actually interacted in a real-world situation, and the valuable 'meta' information you get about the candidate is a sense of what they consider to be difficult."

I almost laughed out loud reading this, because it perfectly articulated why I have hired so many good people to work with, yet I had no idea that this was what I was doing.

When I interview someone, I tell them I don't care about their résumé. I only care about two things: 1. Tell me what you can do, and 2. Show me examples of where you have actually done these things. I don't want to know anything else, because everything else is puffery, status signaling, or bullshit.

When you frame the interview this way, it forces them to really dig into what skills they have, and how they have been applied, which is really the only thing that matters when you're hiring someone for a job. I knew this intuitively, but I hadn't explicitly understood what I was doing and why. Now I get it.

In hiring my assistants, I didn't have some innate talent at picking stars early; I was just picking people who had already worked hard on their own to develop skills, and then used those skills to do actual things. They were all doing that before they met me, just on a small scale. All I did was teach them where and how to apply those skills and that desire in a more productive way, impactful way. That's it. Anyone can do that, and it means there really isn't some secret sauce to hiring.

There is an incredibly powerful and simple lesson here. If you want to have success you have to do two very basic things:

1. Do the work necessary to develop problem solving skills in the fields you care about, and

2. Apply those skills to solving actual problems.

And if you want to find employees who will be successful, then just look for those two things; a problem-solving skill set, and the successful application of that skill set to real problems.

This can be even further boiled down to this for people: DO THINGS.

And to this for employers: HIRE PEOPLE WHO HAVE DONE THINGS.

[Note: When I say problem-solving skills, I mean it in the broadest sense possible; writing, designing, programming, engineering, math, thinking, argumentation, reasoning, fixing a flat tire, putting in plumbing, etc., etc. I fully include higher reasoning right next to more functional intelligence as problem solving skills; both solve problems, just very different kinds.]

Think about it: If you don't have any actual, tangible skills, then how can you do anything? You may be laughing and nodding, but do you realize how few people, when asked the basic question, "What can you do?" stumble on the answer and have nothing to say? Most people.

But having those skills alone is not enough. You must actually use them to do actual things that matter to other people. Literally ask yourself, "What can I do?" but follow it up with "Where is the proof?" If you can't find proof of a skill you think you have, then you don't have that skill.

That's ultimately what life is: solving problems. How can you solve problems without the skills necessary? You can't. And how can anyone else know you have those skills, until you've proven it? They can't. And what does all of this take? Some work. Not even that much.

You doubt that? Really?

If you don't have a job right now, and you have a computer and a basic intelligence level, I guarantee you can get a great job, paying really well, in less than three months. How? Learn to program. But you whine, "computer coding is impossible to learn in that time, it takes years." Really? Because lots of people do it in tht time frame. Some of them do it here too.

You can't afford to pay that small tuition? Okay, you can get that info for free with a little more work. It's on Google. Mediocre developers get paid $50,000 to start. Good ones are more than $100,000. You just have to have actual skills.

There's no excuse. It's up to you.

Also on HuffPost:

The 12 Most Underrated Jobs of 2012