The New Way to Identify Talent: The G Factor

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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?


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13 Responses to “The New Way to Identify Talent: The G Factor”

  1. gosobooks says:

    Hi Dan,
    It’s great to know you attended the seminar in London. The science of sports guys seem to have a very contrasting views from your position as regards talents and it was mentioned in their most recent blog after the london seminar. So, what do you think?

  2. As a sports coach it rings true.

    By the age of 13 those who show talent in any aspect have been told how talented and clever they are, I wouldn’t like to say how many 100′s of times, therefore setting them up not to try as hard and unwilling to work (fixed mindset). Whereas by 13 those not displaying as much talent or do not percieve to have talent are continually told that work and effort are the path to success (growth mindset).

    The growth mindset is the hub of the wheel of progress.

    At the moment with sport, a lot of systems and courses have been set up by detail thinkers, whereas big picture thinkers need to be bought into the fray to add their wisdom and observations.

  3. Jeremy G. says:

    I’m tracking with you on this one. To me, Carol Dweck’s work on mindset points to the best indicators of future success outcomes relating to picking talent. One thing that I would add to the mix is the motivation factor, specifically regarding curiosity vs. competitiveness. I’ve blogged about this curiosity/competitive factor using the Nadal vs. Federer dichotomy as an example. http://gershfeldislistening.blogspot.com/2009/02/federer-and-nadal.html The idea is that the extremely competitive are driven to be the best with a razor sharp focus (think Jordan, Jascha Heifetz etc) and the very curious are driven by what is interesting to them. (Albert Einstein) Its convergent vs. divergent thinking pushed to the extreme. While over time, both Nadal and Federer have displayed amounts of both types of thinking, they still illuminate both kinds of brilliance, in an intriguing confrontation.

  4. Cody says:

    Next you gota tell us how we can change to score 100′s on the grit scale, without lying :-) Really like how you keep learning and sharing with the rest of us, i really enjoy it!

  5. bill dorenkott says:

    Daniel,

    I selfishly do not want my competition to come to the realization that grit and self control trump body type or talent in the athletic arena.

    We had a teachable moment with our team yesterday after a less than inspiring performance. I showed them a youtube video of the honey badger and told them that in the future I will recruit more athletes who embody the qualities of this animal…the honey badger has true grit.

    Go Bucks!
    Bill

  6. James says:

    Talent is up to the desire for the kid to want to succeed. There are plenty of kids great at sports thatt, by the time they reach a certain age, they’re burnt out, they lost the desire to play the sport that was “fun” when they first started. It goes with the idea to play a sport. Key word play. Play loosely translates to fun – go play outside jimmy; what sport do you play? It’s not “Ashley, what sport(s) do you compete?”

    We compete too much, with school, getting good grades, sports, work, who’s got the better car clothes etc. you need to “play” again, after all, if it isn’t fun, it ain’t worth doing…

  7. Sami says:

    @bill dorenkott: “Which honey badger video are you talking about?”

  8. Nick says:

    For what it’s worth, I would hope you could distance yourself from calling anything a “g-factor”. Chris Brand ruined that term in the late 90s with his nonsense.

  9. djcoyle says:

    Hey Nick, I had no idea! (Maybe that’s a good sign.)

  10. Nick says:

    Hi Dan,
    Sorry, I didn’t for a moment mean to imply that you did know about him. I would just hate to see the great stuff you do being tarred with his brush, but I’ll leave it there.

    Thanks for your great book and sharing more on this website,
    Nick

  11. Dan,
    This is so true and I totally agree on your perspective with “ID programs a little better than rolling a dice”

    I decided that I wanted to play pro soccer at the age of 16. I was an average player, never selected for an academy or talent ID camp. Two years later I was offered a contract to play with a professional club in Europe.

    It was only through constant improvement and self reflection that I was able to get so much better than the tens of thousands of kids that are in the academy systems – you can see those reflections on my website actually (www.nickhumph.com).

    The problem with professional soccer and sports in general is that coaches have a extremely limited time to prove themselves and only want the very best players NOW so they can win games – looking forward a few years in the future doesn’t work for them.. it’s tough.

    If any of you wanted to read further into my story you can view it here on this quora post: http://qr.ae/TG23f

    thanks again for sharing this!

    Nick

  12. [...] New York Times best selling author of the Talent Code wrote a blog post back in 2011 titled “The Way to Identify Talent: The G Factor“. I found it today after Jordan shared it on Facebook and it sums up my work method [...]

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