The New Way to Identify Talent: The G Factor

So I recently returned from a London sports-science conference where the discussion revolved around the mystery of talent identification. All over the world, in everything from academics to sports to music, millions of dollars and thousands of hours are being spent on singling out high-potential performers early on. And the plain truth is, most of these talent-ID programs are little better than rolling dice.

Take the NFL, for instance, which represents the zenith of talent-identification science. At the pre-draft NFL combine, teams exhaustively test every physical and mental capacity known to science: strength, agility, explosiveness, intelligence. They look at miles of game film. They analyze every piece of available data. And each year, NFL teams manage get it absolutely wrong.  In fact, out of the 40 top-rated combine performers over the past four years, only half are still in the league.

A lot of smart people have been thinking about this, and what they’ve decided is this: the problem not that the measures are wrong. The problem is that measuring performance the wrong way to approach the question.

According to much of this new work, what matters is not current performance, but rather growth potential – what you might call the G-Factor — the complex, multi-faceted qualities that help someone learn and keep on learning, to work past inevitable plateaus; to adapt and be resourceful and keep improving.

Thing is, G-Factor can’t be measured with a stopwatch or a tape measure. It’s more subtle and complex. Which means that instead of looking at performance, you look for signs, subtle indicators — what a poker player might call tells.  In other words, to locate the G-Factor you have to close your eyes, ignore the dazzle of current performance and instead try to detect the presence of a few key characteristics. Sort of like Moneyball, with character traits.

So what are the tells for the G-Factor? Here are two:

One is early ownership. As Marjie Elferink-Gemser’s work shows, one pattern of successful athletes happens when they’re 13 or so, when they develop a sense of ownership of their training. For the ones who succeed, this age is when they decide that it’s not enough to simply be an obedient cog in the development machine — they begin to go farther, reaching beyond the program, deciding for themselves what their workouts will be, augmenting and customizing and addressing their weaknesses on their own.

Another tell is grit. This quality, investigated by the pioneering work of Angela Duckworth, refers to that signature combination of stubbornness, resourcefulness, creativity and adaptability that helps someone make the tough climb toward a longterm goal. Duckworth has come up with a simple questionnaire that measures the responder’s grit. It has only 17 questions, and the respondent self-assesses their ability to stick with a project, see a goal to the end, etc. (You can take it online here.)

Duckworth gave her grit test to 1,200 first-year West Point cadets before they began a brutal summer training course called the “Beast Barracks.” It turned out that this test (which takes only a few minutes to complete) was eerily accurate at predicting whether or not a cadet succeeded, exceeding the predictions of West Point’s exhaustive battery of NFL-combine-esque measures, which included tests of IQ, psychological profile, GPA, and physical fitness. Duckworth’s grit test has been applied to other settings – academic ones, including KIPP schools — with similar levels of success. (Here’s a good story about grit.)

It’s fascinating stuff, in part because it leads so many good questions: what other elements are part of the G Factor? And perhaps most important, is it possible to teach it?