#142: Talent Is That Which Is Scarce — Tyler Cowen
In the long run, talent allocation is almost everything. But as a society, we're not actually very good at it. The question of how to reliably match people with jobs they are well suited for is one of the big unsolved problems of our times.
Joe catches up with return guest Tyler Cowen to discuss the art of identifying talent. Tyler is a professor of economics at George Mason University and host of the podcast Conversations with Tyler. He is also the co-author of a new book, Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World.
JOE WALKER: Tyler Cowen, welcome back to The Jolly Swagman Podcast.
TYLER COWEN: Very happy to be here. I wish I was in Sydney right now.
WALKER: Well, I'm looking forward to you visiting one day. Would love to show you around the city. I wanted to thank you, firstly, for writing this new book with Daniel Gross called Talent. I really enjoyed reading it, as I've told you separately. I've also been able to implement some of the interview questions that you share in the book, fortunately before the most of the rest of the world was able to access those questions. I have a bunch of different questions I'd love to ask you, hopefully questions that you haven't been asked in any other interviews so far.
WALKER: Questions both about talent and just other topics more generally. So let's dive in. And maybe also Tyler, this could be an unstructured conversation, so feel free to ask me anything if you want to ask me as well.
COWEN: A real conversation. What are the open tabs of your browser right now?
WALKER: The honest answer is zero, because I closed them all in preparation for this interview so I'm not eating up too much bandwidth.
COWEN: What would they be?
WALKER: I had literally hundreds of tabs open before I closed them. What would some of them have been? I was reading an article from 1985 on the Benthamite political ideology of Australia. I was reading Marginal Revolution.
COWEN: You're hired! That's enough, right?
WALKER: I actually asked that question of a candidate in an interview about a month ago after having read a review copy of your book. And I found I needed to preface the question with sharing what was in my own tabs: "For example, I've got open..." Because otherwise it can come off as a little bit creepy in an online interview. But it is a great question.
So Tyler, let me ask you, who is the most undervalued individual you've invested in? And you can think of "invested" in a broad sense. It could be someone you've hired through the Mercatus Center, someone you've given a grant to through Emergent Ventures or even just someone you've mentored informally.
COWEN: I would curse them if I named them and it's like a mother or father being asked to name a favourite child. But I would say there's a double digit number of Emergent Ventures winners, typically between ages 14 and 20, whom I think are extraordinarily promising. I'm not very sure of my own ability to pick out the best, but I would double down on each one of those bets and I'm extremely enthusiastic about them as a whole. So that would be my answer.
WALKER: Shruti, who now runs Emergent Ventures India, was an applicant to the original Emergent Ventures and then joined the Mercatus Center in 2019. How did you spot Shruti's talent?
COWEN: Shruti had been a graduate student at George Mason and everyone liked her and thought she was quite smart, but she was way undervalued then and she's still way undervalued today. She would be another plausible pick for most undervalued person. She is in her late 30s, she's not a teenager. She is herself a phenomenal judge of talent. And I got to know Shruti first when she was quite young. I met her in India. I was giving a talk and she said, "Oh, I'm coming to George Mason University." I said, "Oh, when you get here, email me for lunch." So we had lunch, Indian food. Over time, I discovered she has really just first-rate taste in Indian classical music. So I took that as a very strong sign of her ability to understand and manipulate these super complex symbolic systems. And that's what set me onto Shruti's talent: talking about Indian classical music with her.
WALKER: And you were able to assess that she was the real deal when it came to Indian classical music because of your own interest in that topic?
COWEN: Yes, and also her work ethic is extraordinary and she's actually not crazy. Crazy can be good for some things, but when you're running a program there's some ways in which you have to be absolutely non-crazy in the good sense, and that's Shruti also. And she's likeable. She does Emergent Ventures India, which is Indian people alone. She of course is Indian. When she speaks to people in India, she can relate to them in a way that I would not be able to, and that's a huge edge for her.
WALKER: How do you filter for non-crazy?
COWEN: I don't think you can quite filter for it. You can spot crazy rather quickly, but non-crazy, you have to know someone for a while. And I think I knew Shruti for almost 15 years before she came back to do Emergent Ventures India and be a researcher and fellow at Mercatus. So that's really the tougher one. When you have a long timeframe, it works great. When you know someone for a week, you can't filter for non-crazy. You can look for signs.
WALKER: Have you thought about the problem of hiring contractors? So, high-frequency hiring and trying to spot red flags very quickly?
COWEN: Sure. Now, a lot of contractors I hire on the basis of other people recommending them. So the real evaluation I'm doing is, "Which other people, whom I know, do I trust?", rather than trying to evaluate the contractor, whom I won't meet until they show up. You don't have a plumber come over to your house and interview to fix your toilet, right? Maybe we should do it that way, but we're not going to. So which of your friends puts in the due diligence is really the question you're asking there.
WALKER: In Talent, you and Daniel mentioned that you went on some joint trips. Were these in pursuit of researching for the book and if so, where did you go and what did you do there?
COWEN: Well, I'm a little reluctant to speak of the travel activities of other people, but Daniel and I have roamed far and wide. The trips are multi-purpose trips to get to know each other, to talk through all kinds of ideas, but most of all to see the different places. So for instance, Daniel and I have been to Lalibela together in Ethiopia, and we met up with Yonas, saw the old stone churches, did some wonderful things. I'm a big advocate of traveling with people when you can. That's one way in which, by the way, in a whole bunch of settings, it's much harder for men to serve as mentors to women than it is for women to women or men to men for that reason, much harder to travel with them in an acceptable way.
WALKER: How is Yonas, by the way?
COWEN: Well, the war is over and the food blockade has ended. So now he's sure he can eat. So he's much, much better and tourism is starting to resume, but his plans have been set back by several years and for a while he wasn't sure he had any future at all. It was a question, "How does my family get food tomorrow?" So we should all thank the blessings we have. The Tigrayan forces had invaded his particular part of Ethiopia, which people had not been expecting at the beginning.
WALKER: In Talent, you and Daniel write that you understand Peter Thiel as applying a very serious philosophical and indeed even moral test to people, and that Peter actually asks whether you deserve to succeed. Can you elaborate on that further?
COWEN: To be clear, this is my subjective impression of Peter. This is not Peter describing Peter. Peter doesn't ask people flat out, "Do you deserve to succeed?" But my sense is that's the question in his own mind. There's a kind of moral judgment. Your work ethic, your wherewithal, your intellect: are you worthy of success? And he brings to bear some emotional/moral judgment on the question that is in a way more powerful than just sheer intellectual questioning like "What do I think of this person? And Peter to me is the master of that. It's no accident that he's a Christian and deeply concerned with the humanities. I think that's why he's arguably been America's very best talent spotter maybe of all time.
WALKER: Have you tried to borrow that frame as well?
COWEN: I don't think it's the right frame for me. So I think I'm quite a detached person. So I operate relatively well in detached frames of reference and you have to specialise in what you're good at. So it might be good for me to be more like Peter, but I'm not. So no, I don't operate that way.
WALKER: I used one of the questions that you and Daniel share in the book in an interview with a job applicant last week. The question was: "Which of your beliefs are you least rational about?" And they gave a great answer, which I thought really increased the trust between us and led to an interesting conversation. In an otherwise very rational dialogue, they said that their least rational belief was in crystals and manifesting things through belief. Which of your beliefs, Tyler, are you least rational about?
COWEN: Well, I think you would have to ask my peers, the people I hang out with, and they would probably say it's my belief that all of these UFO tapings and sightings, there's a reasonable chance that they're alien drone probes. Now, to me that's quite rational. But Alex Tabarrok, my co-blogger, he thinks I'm crazy. Bryan Caplan, my friend, thinks I'm crazy. To me, it makes a lot of sense. But that's what I think other people would say: that I watched too much Star Trek when I was a kid.
WALKER: I'm in your camp on the UFO question, Tyler.
COWEN: But what percent do you put it at? That's the key thing. I would put it at at least 10%, but well below 50%.
WALKER: Yeah. I think in the past I've said about 20%.
COWEN: So we're pretty close, yeah.
WALKER: Yeah. But again, the universe is stranger than we can think. It could just be something totally unexpected, which is why I'm not even close to 100%, even though I would be tempted to say that. It's interesting. The most common rebuttal I get from people who want to debunk the sightings is they talk about how the pilots perceptions might be distorted or might be hallucinating in some way, but they seem to ignore the-
COWEN: There's radar readings.
WALKER: Yeah, exactly.
COWEN: Multiple sensor data. They had the hearings today. Everyone stressed this.
WALKER: Yeah. So I feel like the people who are trying to debunk it are probably being irrational.
COWEN: They just don't want to have to think about it. It's like people who want to think COVID is entirely over. Well, it's much better, but it's not entirely over.
WALKER: So Tyler, you're an avid reader of biography as a genre, right?
COWEN: Well, I read everything. I'm not like a particular biography reader. I've never read the Caro books on LBJ. They're wonderful and brilliant, but they actually bored me. I felt, "I know Texas politics is corrupt, I know LBJ was in a lot of ways a bad guy." And the detail didn't hold my interest. So am I a true biography reader? I don't know.
Boswell's Johnson would be my favourite. And that's a quite trumped up biographical reading of a life, right? Or Keynes' Essays In Biography would be another favourite. It's as much about Keynes as it's about the people he wrote about.
WALKER: Yeah. And why was Boswell's Johnson one of your favourites?
COWEN: The way they had this small group that sat around the table and how they learned from each other. And how part of that was real, but part of it is Boswell imagining Johnson and then improving him and it's the synthesis of the two minds in the book: Boswell and Johnson. And arguably Boswell is the greater of the two, but he puts himself in the background and puffs up Johnson. So it's even quite a Straussian book, and you're never sure what to trust. The narrator is highly unreliable. And it captures one of Britain's greatest ages: the time of enlightenment, literary societies. It's witty throughout, highly quotable. I think it's just a phenomenal work.
WALKER: Has the biography genre in particular taught you anything about talent and how to recognise it?
COWEN: I think when you read most biographies, you learn how different cases are and that talent spotting is an art, not a science. You usually cannot do it by formula. But if you have good frameworks, it's like art appreciation or music appreciation. You can do much better than if you know nothing. Try to explain to people what makes a good painting. You never say, "Oh, all the round ones are great. Or: look for the colour red." Right? Those rules won't get you very far. But if you look at all the paintings and talk them through with other smart people about the visual arts, you will in fact be better at spotting undervalued paintings. Biography teaches you in some way that that's true — how much a successful life is not formulaic.
WALKER: What about even just in the way that biographers choose their subjects? Because biographers, or praise entrepreneurs as you call them in What Price Fame?, one of your much earlier books, they're like talent spotters in a way, right? They compete to discover historical figures who are neglected but interesting.
COWEN: Sure. You have to judge which figures will rise in importance or status and which other biographies, "Maybe it's already been done, but, well, there's room for another one." Is there room for another biography of Abraham Lincoln? I don't know. Maybe not, right? What are you going to find at this point? So it's quite a skill to pick the right subject. I think we have too many biographies of very successful people and not enough biographies of failures. I wrote a biography myself of three brothers, three Mexican brothers, who were painters and essentially were failures in the art world. And I looked at why they didn't succeed even though they were all quite talented.
WALKER: Why didn't they succeed?
COWEN: In one case, the problem was alcohol. In two other cases, the problem was an unwillingness to leave one's native village and take more chances and put oneself out there. Not having enough ambition and not being well-connected, and just some bad luck.
WALKER: Speaking of What Price Fame?, one of your much earlier books, in that book you wrote about how some performers manipulate their style, the style of their writing or their product, to shift the incentives of critics to pay attention to them. And you cite Richard Posner who, in his book, Cardozo: A Study in Reputation, lists Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Kafka as figures who owe part of their reputation to an enigmatic and perhaps even contradictory nature of their writings. I'm curious, how do you reconcile that claim with the claim you and Daniel make in Talent which is that perhaps one way to spot path-breaking, earth-shattering geniuses is to look for people who've developed their own language and terminology? (You give Peter Thiel as an example. Another great example I think would be Nassim Taleb.) Can you reconcile those two propositions?
COWEN: I think they're versions of the same view. So take Kafka or Keynes as writers who developed their own style, their own words, their own set of images, their own metaphors, but a very rich set of images and metaphors. So you can talk for a long time about what Keynes meant or how his different writings fit together. Kafka, how much of it is irony? How much is satire? How much a critique of colonialism? How much a critique of technocratic society? A foreshadowing of totalitarianism? Reflecting back on his upbringing as being Jewish and what he learned as a kid. And a lot of it's theological, or is it existential? And you can go on and on. And you can do that because they have their own language.
Whereas if you read someone like Bryan Caplan, my colleague, whose writings I greatly admire, Bryan is crystal clear: he's a libertarian, he thinks education is wasteful and you should have more kids. You can only talk around that in circles so much. You can argue against it, if you don't agree. But he lays it out flat on the table for everyone to see. So he's famous in a different way. I think now that we have the internet, you're actually less reliant on critics to have enduring fame and maybe the more direct style now is being favoured because your stuff is on the internet probably forever, right? So you're not reliant on someone writing for Times Literary Supplement agonising over what Kafka meant.
WALKER: How can you separate the people who have developed an internally coherent language from people who are just making up their own terms to obfuscate and impress?
COWEN: Well, aren't they both versions of the same thing? You can be good at it to varying degrees, but what's to differentiate? That's what it is. There's people who do it poorly. I don't want to name names, but it's most people out there writing, right?
WALKER: Yeah, fair enough.
I once heard you say that you set up a multi-day seminar on Henry George. I love that idea. Can you tell me all about that? What were the sessions, how was it structured, how you ran it, who attended?
COWEN: I believe that was four years ago, but I could be off a tiny amount. I was talking with Peter Thiel about Henry George and we both had an interest in it, and just thought we should run a two-day seminar where we just march through all of Progress and Poverty. And we had a small group, I would guess maybe 16 people. Four or five of them you would broadly consider to be Henry George scholars. The others were people interested in land use or economists or somehow people who ought to be there; people in the YIMBY movement. And we just completely focused on Henry George. It wasn't that people showed up and during break are looking at their phones. It was really an immersive experience. One of the best conferences I've ever gone to.
WALKER: What made it so good?
COWEN: Everyone there was fully committed to the enterprise. Everyone there was super smart, articulate, focused. The issues seemed relevant, indeed were relevant. And Henry George is... There's a way in which it's simple. Obviously he's obsessed with land monopoly, single land tax, but there's a complex enough set of arguments that it actually helps to have a group to work through them with. And that's not true for every book. It is true for books like Adam Smith or Keynes or Tocqueville or Henry George or Plato, for instance. So we picked the right book to have a group crack at it.
WALKER: Was there a set of notes that you produced by the end of the seminar?
COWEN: I didn't. A bunch of people there took notes, which I presume they still have, but I don't have access to them. But I feel I internalised what I learned. I don't like to take notes. I prefer to listen and think it through then, on the spot.
WALKER: I'd like to bounce a potential false positive and a potential false negative off you, in terms of identifying talent, and just do a thought experiment for each and see whether you would have picked this individual. So the potential false positive is Adam Neumann. So rewind to 2010, and maybe we should put ourselves in the shoes of your co-author Daniel, who's a venture capitalist. So say it's 2010, and Adam Neumann comes to Daniel asking him to invest in WeWork. And Adam Neumann has amazing energy, vaulting ambition. Maybe he even instills a bit of fear in Daniel, just because of his sheer charisma. Should Daniel cut the check, or what should Daniel ask Adam?
COWEN: Well, I wouldn't tell Daniel what to do, and for all I know this happened, I have no idea if Daniel faced this or what decision he might have made. But I do think there are people, if they have low business ethics, that when you talk with them at some length, that comes out. So I've never met Adam, don't know him at all. But I think those are issues that should be explored if you're talking with someone about a major investment. So a lot of people turned him down, right? It's rare that there are no warning signs in advance. The question is whether you take them seriously enough.
WALKER: Are there specific questions you would ask to unearth business ethics, or is it more about having a series of unstructured conversations and hoping that they shine through?
COWEN: For me, it's unstructured conversations, but I like to ask people about novels and artworks, dramatic works, movies, the characters, the moral choices they face to see how they think about it in a way where they're not too defensive about the business context. If you ask them, "What do you think of insider trading?" You're not going to get a real answer. They're going to say, "Oh, it's terrible, it's illegal, don't do it." That's just interview prep, right? Ask them, "Who made the best decisions in Star Wars?" Something like that. "What should Obi-Wan have told Anakin Skywalker before he became Darth Vader? What would his best argument have been?" See how convincing the person is.
WALKER: How do you answer that question?
COWEN: Oh, what should Obi-Wan have told Anakin?
COWEN: I think Obi-Wan should have painted a better picture for Anakin of how he was likely to end up, and you never see him do that. So there are intoxications of power, but there are ways in which you can convince power-mad people to moderate their demands on the world in their own interests. There's a Laffer curve of power, and I never see or hear Obi-Wan trying to do that. Now, I haven't read all the books. There's probably more to the story than I'm aware of. But if you just look at what's in the movies, Obi-Wan doesn't really have good arguments. You're rooting for Darth, right? Like, "Old man what's with you? Where's your startup?"
WALKER: So let me ask you about the false negative now. So we'll rewind to 1819, 1820, and perhaps this can be just from your perspective this time, Tyler. So we're talking with John Keats, and as you know, he dies in 1821 when he is 25. But while he's alive, critics pan his poetry, his poems aren't well received. But he wants a grant, he wants someone to sponsor him so that he can pay his rent and keep writing his poems. Do you back Keats, or what would you ask him?
COWEN: I strongly suspect that if I chatted with Keats for half an hour on Zoom, that I would be extremely impressed and send him a wad of money. I'm not put off by the lack of practicality of what he might have put forward. If it were to just "give me money to write poetry", I think the chance is quite high I would have done it. And they're people I'm supporting — there's a female composer from Azerbaijan who has technical skills, programming, she's in the biomedical world, but also wants support to just compose music. And she's extraordinarily impressive and I gave her some support. We'll see how she does. I know it's highly speculative, but I'm certainly willing in principle to do that. So it all depends on how Keats would have come across, but I think he was probably a very impressive guy.
WALKER: What are some examples of questions you might have asked him? And bear in mind, it's 200 years ago, so you can't ask what tabs he has open on his browser.
COWEN: Well, I would have asked him about Shakespeare. I would have asked him about Andrew Marvell. I would have asked him about Edmond Spencer. I would have asked him to articulate what he found interesting in those works. John Donne. And I think he would've hit an A-double-plus home run. I can't prove that. But those are the questions. How can he not have done well on those, right?
WALKER: What has been the most surprising thing you've learned or improved upon as an identifier of talent through your experience with distributing Emergent Ventures grants? Have you gotten better through Emergent Ventures, or have you just been applying and crystallising things you already knew?
COWEN: I've been doing hiring and talent search for most of my life. So whether at this margin I'm getting better, it's hard to say. But it's not a new thing for me to be clear. Emergent Ventures is new. What surprised me the most is how few geographic areas, the really talented people live in or seem to live in. So I do think talent is evenly distributed in terms of where it comes from. But the people who are ambitious, how quickly they get themselves into a number of highly predictable parts of the world and operate from there, that's a stronger effect than I had thought going in. That's been my biggest surprise.
WALKER: Right, and what are those parts of the world?
COWEN: Well, the obvious parts of North America, such as New York City area, Ontario, the Bay Area, a bit of Los Angeles. But even somewhere like Texas, Austin, you would think, "Well, they have plenty." I get very few applications from there. Now, the problem could be selection, but I still find it striking. There's plenty of people I talk to who are from Texas and they've moved somewhere else. So I don't think it's that no one from Texas ever hears of Emergent Ventures. Southern England has an enormous number. Continental Europe really has quite few, not zero. You could say, well that's English language. But the talented people there tend to be pretty fluent in English.
There's something with ambition where they don't quite match up to the program. So there's much less from Continental Europe than I would have expected. And just more from migrants, and huge numbers from India — and that's run by Shruti, but it impressed me very early on. India was this huge and growing and incredible talent pool, a bit like Central Europe was in the early to mid 20th century. So I thought, "Well, we need a separate India program. This is so good." And that, I wasn't expecting. I certainly thought India would do well, but just its sheer dominance over all other emerging economies in terms of talent, people still don't fully grasp that.
WALKER: And how do you measure that?
COWEN: Well, if you just want to count applications, we get a very large number of applications from India. And then when you speak to people, they're really quite credible. We don't yet know how many will do well, but if you took, say, five emerging economies, add them all up to have an equivalent population, and maybe from those economies we have five total applicants. You've measured it right there. And again, you could say it's somehow our fault, but we don't advertise anywhere. We don't reach out to anywhere. We rely on Twitter, social media, word of mouth. And those are the networks that are super strong. I don't think it's just about Emergent Ventures.
WALKER: Tyler, one of my favorite, or recent favorite, ideas of yours is "context is that which is scarce." And you had a Marginal Revolution blog post about this idea and it articulated something that I think is very important that has been central to a lot of what I do at work, but also with the podcast with researching for interviews. And I want to talk to you about this idea, but I thought maybe first I could share with you three of my current favorite examples of where context is important. The first one is the Sumerian bar joke. I'm not sure if you've heard this one.
COWEN: No, tell me.
WALKER: You have heard this one?
COWEN: No, no, I haven't heard it. I want to hear it.
WALKER: Okay. So, straight from cuneiform, it is: "A dog walked into a tavern and said, 'I can't see a thing. I'll open this one.'"
COWEN: Yeah, context is scarce for me there, but I think that means it's funny, so I'll laugh. It's very good. Excellent.
WALKER: Obviously it's completely unintelligible to us because we don't have the context, but you can imagine a couple of Sumerians giggling over it. But I think it's very neat illustration of why context is important.
COWEN: The first thing that struck me was how long it took to discover basic economics concepts that don't really surface until the 18th century. So you have Euclid very early on. Euclid is fantastically complex, right? You even have the calculus by the 17th century. But supply and demand, my goodness, it takes humans so long. How can that be? I think that was my initial puzzle. And it's not that hard to teach. You can teach it to people who are really not that well educated or arguably not even that intelligent.
WALKER: And why did it take so long?
COWEN: Context is that which is scarce. To see that it's important as a way of understanding the world is the place you first need to be before you can work backwards and put together the pieces of supply-demand curves. You could argue that truly proper understandings of supply and demand don't come until the mid to late 19th century. That Adam Smith didn't quite get it right. John Stuart Mill is closer, but still not quite right. Those are really smart people, right? Not to mention the people who just didn't know any economics at all. And they still haven't quite mastered supply and demand. That, to me, is shocking.
WALKER: I'll give you my second current favourite example. This is from Geoffrey Blainey, arguably Australia's greatest living historian. I interviewed him in Melbourne a couple of weeks ago. He's 92. He was the guy who wrote the book and coined the phrase The Tyranny of Distance back in the '60s.
COWEN: Oh, great.
WALKER: And this is a little book called Making History. It features three Australian historians. Geoffrey talks about a really interesting idea which is that one of the most difficult tasks in history is finding out those things which were so obvious at the time that they were not recorded. Things that were just in the air, they were just cultural assumptions. And because of that very fact, they weren't actually documented.
And so part of the role of the historian is, in Blainey's view, furnishing himself or herself with that context in order to properly interpret past events. And he gives a lovely example of this, Tyler: before Federation in Australia, every town kept its own local time. In the 1860s, Melbourne was nearly 25 minutes behind Sydney and Queensland time was about eight minutes ahead of New South Wales time. So every colony in Australia until 1895 had its own time, which is just one of those things that you wouldn't really discover without searching for that context.
COWEN: The US had its own version of this, but the railroads imposed uniform time on us because they wanted predictable schedules. The train leaves at 8:00, so there's going to be a clear 8 o'clock.
WALKER: Same story I think in the UK, and also I think in Australia.
COWEN: It's amazing to me that the world as a whole... I mean, there are different calendars — in Iran, other places. But what year it is, what day it is, what time it is, we pretty much all agree. And I don't take that for granted. It's one of our bigger achievements and most people take it for granted. Because we didn't even have it internally until relatively recently.
WALKER: It's an amazing thing. My third current favourite example is Sarah Ruden. Who you know, Tyler. I am interviewing her in a couple of weeks.
COWEN: Oh, wonderful. Send me the link that podcast once you've done it, I want to it on Marginal Revolution.
WALKER: Will do. I don't think she's done many.
WALKER: I was hoping you might get her on Conversations with Tyler eventually as well.
COWEN: I've been meaning to, but it's such a daunting prep. I've been putting it off, like, "Oh, Sarah deserves, Sarah deserves." And I'm like, "Oh, but how do you prep the gospels?" I guess, you do know. So send it to me. I'm keen to hear it.
WALKER: Yeah, will do. While I've been researching for that, I've discovered that one of the key themes that she hits on is furnishing herself with massive context in order to properly translate the gospels. And I think she has an edge over other more prudish translators who, for example, won't look at classical texts that mention sex and some of the poets and writers who are a bit more out there. Whereas she absorbs all of that and then, I guess, has a unique context when she's translating the gospels. So I thought that was an interesting example. That's just been something I've been thinking about recently.
COWEN: That's very good. It's related to an idea I've had about travel. One reason you visit other countries is so that when you read newspaper articles about those countries, the article makes more sense to you. If I had never been to Australia, and I've been out only twice, but twice is something, and then I read something about Australia, I just remember it better because I've been there.
WALKER: Yeah. I find the same. I lived in Ireland for a year and I can happily read Irish news articles and understand what they're talking about.
COWEN: Even if you know nothing about the thing, you have some background you can put it into.
WALKER: Yeah, exactly. I find it's the same with enjoying sport as well. Often I just simply won't enjoy watching a sport on TV until I've maybe played it a little bit. Even just a little, and then I can instantly enjoy watching it.
What's your favourite example of the importance of context with respect to talent?
COWEN: More and more often you're interviewing or possibly hiring people from other countries, other cultures, and that's much harder to do than if they're from your native culture or even your native region. So the necessity of investing some time and effort into learning at least something about those other areas so you have points of connection with them... And it's very hard to do. It's a big world. You can't really hope to crack through and understand any of these other cultures. But just to not be at the zero point, I have found helpful and I'd like to keep on doing that. I've been to Ireland four times, which is not a lot, but it's something. And I've interviewed a number of Emergent Ventures winners from Ireland. And I do feel I have this connection with them. I can ask them where they're from or what do you think of this? The chat goes much better. And if it's Nigeria or Pakistan, it's all the more imperative.
WALKER: A couple of random questions to finish. I've noticed that you often end emails or messages with ellipses ("..."). You do this much more than anyone else I know. Was this conscious choice some decades ago, or why do you this?
COWEN: It's totally intentional. It suggests I'm still thinking about the matter. And I hope that I am. Not some closed book like "Here it is. That's that."
WALKER: I love it.
COWEN: It's open-endedness.
WALKER: Yeah. I think it also somehow conveys status.
COWEN: How so?
WALKER: Maybe this is just the way I read ellipses. Well, it's probably a different way of phrasing what you've already said, but you're saying that "I haven't made my mind up on this yet and I don't need to, but maybe I will."
COWEN: Yeah, that makes sense.
WALKER: That's a high status thing to say, I suppose.
COWEN: Yes. And to be so open about it.
A sense of, "I don't have to justify my reasons, I just need to tell you that I have some and they're liable to change."
WALKER: Exactly. Second random question. I've been reflecting on how Australia has responded to the pandemic and just Australia's culture more generally in recent months, and perhaps how our culture fosters innovation, perhaps how it might limit innovation in Australia. And I was wondering about the trade-off between countries with very collectivist cultures and countries with very individualistic cultures. And I was wondering, do you think it's possible for a country to retain its ability to cohere and solve collective action problems while simultaneously becoming weirder, more innovative, less conformist?
COWEN: I think it's a trade-off. So the United States had a fatality rate about 10 times that of Australia. Arguably we're more innovative, even per capita. So there are some kinds of cooperation problems we're better at, like working together to develop a new vaccine — not that that was entirely American, but nonetheless, the US is good at that kind of thing. But getting people to trust and obey social dictates, we've never been good at. We're still not good at it. And right now, we're probably worse at it than before the pandemic started, because levels of mistrust have gone up. So that's one reason why our fatality rate was so much higher than yours.
WALKER: Do you have a view on Australian talent or what might make Australian talent unique?
COWEN: I feel I need to spend more time in Australia. I've really just been to Sydney and Melbourne, which are wonderful cities. They're probably the parts of your country I would love the most, even if I had been everywhere. But of course they're not very representative. So what your weird outsiders are like, I don't feel I have a good grasp on it. How much of a brain drain issue Australia has, I don't feel I have a good grasp on it. I've lived in New Zealand for about a year and a half. I feel I understand New Zealand really much, much better than Australia. And I worry sometimes I view Australia too much through Kiwi eyes.
I guess on net I'm surprised there's not obviously more talent from Australia. I think is where I end up. And it could just be I don't know about it. But you have a reasonable number of people, and you're off there in the corner brewing up your own stuff. But not that much of it seems to break through, I think. So I apologise to the extent that's my ignorance, but that is my impression. And things like Patrick White and Robert Hughes and Jocelyn Moorhouse, I do know something about Australian culture and I've listened to all of Crowded House and I know Geoffrey Gurrumul from the islands up north. But still, it seems to me there should be more somehow.
WALKER: I think that's a reasonable impression. For a very rich, educated country with about 25 million people, we don't seem to have many superstars or super successful companies breaking through as you would expect.
COWEN: It could be that life there is too nice and you develop dimensions of status competition that are not too aspirational, but they're just having this extremely nice life. And Sydney, maybe more than any other city I've ever been to, seems extraordinarily well suited to that: just having an extremely nice life, which of course I'm not at all against. But the way in which you have to struggle every day to deal with New York City doesn't seem to be a thing anywhere in Australia, as far as I can tell.
WALKER: Australia has a very strong equality of manners or social egalitarianism, and I don't think success is held or ambition are held in the same regard as they are in the US. If you stick your head up too high, people are liable to want to cut you down. Whereas my experience in America is people are very supportive of bragging and ambition.
COWEN: Some of your creators are underrated, like Mel Gibson. I know his actual views are quite noxious and objectionable. Not contesting that. But Apocalypto is a phenomenal movie. The Christ movie is amazing. Mad Max. He's actually an incredible talent who's become underrated because he is so personally objectionable. And he is an Australian. I don't know how much he's embraced in Australia, but again, if you go through the whole list, Australia is going to look better than if you just pull out the people you're proud of.
WALKER: Yeah, agreed.
Well, Tyler, I have really enjoyed chatting with you. Thank you again for writing this brilliant book with Daniel called Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World. I recommend it to everyone. It is an excellent book and an incredibly practical one.
But thank you again for coming back on the podcast, and hopefully I'll see you in Australia or in America sometime soon.
COWEN: My pleasure. Come by for lunch to Virginia someday, and I look forward to our next chat.