Identifying Talent: What Really Matters

tryoutsAt my recent trip to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, I spent a lot of time talking to coaches about a small but profound question: can we identify talent?

In other words, can we assess a bunch of young performers when they’re 14 or so, measure certain qualities, and figure out who will likely succeed and who will likely fail?

To our conventional way of thinking, the answer seems obvious. Of course we can. It’s what coaches do – spotting the magic spark, the X-Factor.

But here’s the surprising answer the Olympic coaches kept giving me: No, we can’t.

In fact, the vast majority of the coaches said they were reliably surprised by who made it and who didn’t in the long run — at how inaccurate their first, second, and third impressions often turned out to be. I should point out that these are not average coaches. They are world-class experts, with decades of savvy and experience, employing every diagnostic tool known to sports science, observing these athletes on a daily basis. And the closer they look, the more mysterious talent seems to be. And as the casino-like hits and misses of the NFL and MLB drafts faithfully confirm each year, the Olympic coaches are far from alone. So the question grows: when it comes to spotting talent, what do we look for?  What qualities matter most?

I think part of the mystery can be illuminated by a small but revealing data point: A handwritten 1979  letter from a 14-year-old guitarist named Saul Hudson to his girlfriend who just broke up with him.

The letter’s not all that interesting, really, except for one fact: Saul Hudson would grow up to be Slash, the lead guitarist of Guns N’ Roses. And the letter captures some key qualities — the vital intangibles — that helped grow this kid into one of the better rock guitarists of all time.

Back to the letter: Young Saul is writing to Michele, who has just broke up with him via letter. The key passages are in bold.

Oct. 2. 79
Dear Michele,

Your letter scared me, upon first glance, I hadn’t any idea what it was about, but when you told me, it struck in a strange way, I hadn’t any idea that I talked about my guitar so often, I’m going to have to change that, no matter who I talk to.

It’s a drag that it screwed up our relationship, you should have told me sooner, but I don’t think that’s the only reason, you just don’t like me that much, and I can see why, because I’m a hard person to get along with at times.

But any I’m glad we got that straight, thank you for not lying to me. To get off the subject, you look really nice today, you get prettier & prettier every day. My weekend was pretty good. Steve came by and we went to a couple parties, and we went to the Starwood, I spent pretty much of my weekend on cloud 9 if you know what I mean.

I had never been in the Starwood before, like, we hung around outside, but I’ve never been inside. It’s not such a hot place, I mean the Bands are alright, the girls are pretty (I still think you cuter than any of the girls there) the drugs are cool but it’s not a place I would want to waste my life at. The most exciting part of the night was, a guy mouthed off to this black guy, and the black got a hundred friends and chased him around all Hollywood. It’s a pretty crazy place. I’m going there next week to see Quiet Riot, because I hear there pretty good. One of these days I’ll play there.

Love you


[Saul draws picture of a marijuana leaf — and adds the following postscript]

This leaf was perfect untill I put the f*****g lines in it

I think this letter is fascinating because it gives us a peek into the invisible dimension of talent development: the mindset. Saul gives us a look into his core motivations, which contain three important ingredients:

  • #1: Obsession. Young Saul has just lost his girlfriend (whom he clearly likes a lot) because he talks too much about his guitar.
  • #2: A vivid vision of future self. In talking about the Starwood club, Saul declares that he’ll play there. It’s not some hazy dream – it’s more matter-of-fact, a statement of fact.
  • #3:  A keen eye for making small improvements. His scrawled commentary about the leaf is small but telling. Saul wanted it to be better, and he’s emotional about it. It’s the same attitude he shows earlier in the letter when he writes, “I’m going to have to change that.” It’s not a big leap to imagine that same sort of self-talk on the songs he’s learning. Play it again, again, and again, until it’s perfect.

These qualities — which make up Saul’s mindset and his identity — are more important than any measured skill level, because they operate on a higher plane. These qualities fueled and channeled the thousands of hours of intensive practice that built Saul’s circuitry. At the moment he wrote this letter, there were probably dozens of 14-year-old guitarists in Los Angeles who could play far better than Saul (who had only started guitar two years before). In a conventional tryout, he might have been completely overlooked.

All of this is a roundabout way of making a simple point: we fail at talent identification because we’re looking in the wrong place. We instinctively look at  performance (which is visual, measurable) instead of mindset and identity, which are what really matter, because they create the energy that fuels the engine of skill acquisition. They are the nuclear power-plant for the 10,000 hours of deep practice. They are the the ghosts in the machine.

I’ve found that good teachers and coaches often dig around for mindsets, sort of like doctors looking for subtle symptoms of a disease. They inquire about long-term goals, they watch for telltale signs, they try to penetrate the glossy surface to find out the answer to that tiny but titanically important questions: why are you here, really? How much do you care? What are you prepared to give?

For example: one highly successful college basketball coach, who shall remain nameless, uses a simple litmus test in his recruiting: if the recruit makes an excuse for anything – for instance, their performance in a certain game, or their grades in math – the coach crosses them off his list, no matter what physical skills they may possess. Why? Because they have the wrong mindset.

Which makes me wonder: how else can we measure mindset? Is there a way to replace “Talent Identification” with “Mindset/Identity Identification”? And more important, how do we create cultures that help ignite these kinds of mindsets?

PS — For more good reading on this topic, check out Carol Dweck’s book — called Mindsets, naturally.