Stop Judging Talent; Start Nurturing Character


Sorry to break this to you, but you are a pretty bad judge of talent.

It’s not your fault. We’re all bad at judging talent because we instinctively tend to overrate the visible stuff (performance), and underrate the invisible stuff we call “character” — namely work habits, competitiveness, ambition, and grit — which turn out to be far more important over the long run.

Take Sunday’s Oscars, for instance, where the big winner was “Argo” director/producer/star Ben Affleck. That would be the same Ben Affleck who, a few years ago, was known mostly for making a series of spectacularly mediocre movies, including 2003’s “Gigli,” which has been hailed by reviewers as possibly the worst movie of all time.

So were we all wrong about Affleck’s talents? Absolutely, because we made the same old mistake: we were distracted by the visible, and ignored what really matters.

Nowhere is this more true than at this week’s NFL combine, that annual festival of bad judgement. Hundreds of top college players are brought in to be measured — to leap, run, lift weights, and take intelligence tests. Teams then use these measures and other sophisticated scouting techniques to determine the players’ value in the draft… and then proceed to get it wrong with spectacular consistency.

Some teams, however, consistently manage to avoid this trap. One of them is the New England Patriots and their coach Bill Belichick. How? In part, because they’ve figured out an efficient way to test for character.

Here’s how it typically works: at the combine, Belichick invites the prospect to the team’s hotel room. The athlete walks in, Belichick says a brisk hello, clicks off the lights, then pushes PLAY on a video of one of the player’s worst moments of the previous season: a major screwup. Then Belichick turns to the prospect and asks, “So what happened there?”

Belichick not really interested in what happened on the field, of course. He’s interested in how the player reacts to adversity. How does their brain handle failure? Do they take responsibility, or make excuses? Do they blame others, or talk about what they’d do differently? (One player started ripping into his coach, and Belichick flicked on the lights and ended the interview right there — possibly saving his franchise millions.)

The idea is not just to weed out players with the wrong mindset, but also to identify those who have the right one. Players like this skinny, incredibly slow, unathletic quarterback (below), who developed into one of the all-time greats.

The challenge for most of us is that most of the time, we behave exactly like those NFL teams. We’re easily distracted by brilliant performance, and we naturally forget to pay attention to those quieter things that really matter in the long run. So here are a few ideas on how to do that:

  • Highlight daily work and repetition. For instance, some music programs create a “100-Day Club” for people who practice for a hundred consecutive days.
  • Track effort. Some coaches rate players after each practice on their effort and hustle from 1-5, and post those publicly, so everybody can see. Is there a way to do that in music or academics?
  • Look for small signs of initiative, and celebrate them. Whenever a learner comes to practice with new ideas, or inquires how they can get better, or spends unexpected time working on their own to improve a skill, treat that as a big moment. Because it is.

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18 Responses to “Stop Judging Talent; Start Nurturing Character”

  1. Zanetti says:

    This is so great. You can see exactly the same tendency in football (soccer) at many different levels here in Europe, where teams sign players left and right based only on “the visible”. And so many of them goes wrong.

    That Belichick method is great, although he will not be happy about you uncovering it here.

    Anyway very useful post as always.

  2. gpo613 says:

    I have been discussing this exact thing with some friends for sometime now. I think the key is finding the athlete that truly wants to continually get better at his/her craft. Some think they get to NFL or NBA and get paid and then they are done. But the ones that keep on working are the ones that become the best. Problem is how do you figure that out. You can’t easily measure that. You really have to get to know someone before you can understand if they are going to put in the work.

  3. Craig says:

    (Some) Coaches have been saying forever…”give me heart over talent!”

  4. Craig says:

    by the way…who the hell is Tom Brady?? Did he ever get drafted?? 😉

  5. djcoyle says:

    I think you’re right.
    Funny, I was just reading an anecdote about Michael Jordan in The Rare Find, a great book by George Anders. As a freshman at Carolina, he would ask scouts, “What do you think of my game? What should I do to get better?” The scout said that in his long career, he’d never been asked that question by a player before.
    So no wonder….

  6. Adrian says:

    Great post. These poor guys who are picked mainly on percieved talent leaves the door wide open for the great coaches to pick with growth mindset skills showing. I wish our gb tennis association would value more Tom BRady like attitudes…….this is another post that will be circulated to all our academy to underline what WE value.

  7. The worker bees make the honey, not the queen.

  8. Sam34 says:

    Wasn’t Brady taken in the 7th round? That would seem to indicate that the Patriots didn’t think he was particularly special either, no matter what he said in the film room. I’m sure you’re right about evaluating talent, but nobody thought Brady would be this good… It seems like a stretch to credit the Brady pick due to Bill’s brilliant selection process, there’s some luck involved. What about the 50 or so other players drafted since (I know the Pats are great at the draft, but they miss too)?

  9. Candice says:

    Love this article. It reminds me in Born to Run of the Coach Vigil “Over the previous few years, Vigil had become convinced that the next leap forward in human endurance would come from a dimension he dreaded getting into: character. Vigil wasn’t talking about “grit” or “hunger” or “the size of the fight in the dog.” In fact, he meant the exact opposite. Vigil’s notion of character wasn’t toughness. It was compassion. Kindness. Love.
    That’s right: love.
    Vigil knew it sounded like hippie-dippy drivel, and make no mistake, he’d have been much happier sticking to good, hard, quantifiable stuff like VO2 max and periodized-training tables. … ”

    I think it’s true because you need humility and a willingness to remain a learner no matter how good you get. Thanks for sharing.

  10. djcoyle says:

    Hey Candice, that’s a great connection (from one of my favorite books, to boot!). That humility point is massive. Seems like the best learners/learning places also tend to be the most humble. That can’t be an accident, can it?

  11. djcoyle says:

    Thanks, Sam — I think you make a good point. Luck is a big factor on a lot of levels — along with development, team chemistry, etc. And yes, the Pats miss on picks, just like other good teams.
    To me, though, the point is that they miss less than others. They take smarter gambles. They didn’t “know” Brady would be that good, or they’d have grabbed him in the first. But they did see something powerful of value there, when others wrote him off, and they were willing to make the move when nobody else did. And that’s the instinct that’s worth celebrating, I think.

  12. andrew says:

    Great article. I am not sure if this question is relevant, but I am curious as to what happened to Jamarcus Russell? He had high praises in the Talent Code, but did not perform as expected.

  13. djcoyle says:

    Thanks, Andrew — and yes, Russell was maybe the biggest bust EVER (thank you very much!) and proof that I should never go to Las Vegas. Here’s a story about what happened to him — Basically, his life was a train wreck — both personally and on the team. No consistency, no coaching, no relationship with the Raiders — a perfect storm of poor decisions both by him and the team. It reminded me of what Tom Martinez told me just after the draft — how Jamarcus needed three years of good coaching, how you couldn’t just hand a kid $60 million and have him do well. I think Tom was prophetic.

  14. This may sound a bit simplistic, though the core aspects of someones character are:


    And it’s not only to others, it’s to themselves and to how they train.

    Players will give away their honesty about how they train, put cones on the ground as part of a drill, get the players to start running around the cones and very quickly they’ll start cutting corners and in that small action it reveals their honesty to themselves about their approach to training.

  15. Thanks for another great post. I’ve been teaching piano for about 25 years, and so much of what you said is spot on.

    Talent IS overrated. Some of the most frustrating students I’ve had were extremely talented, but were held back by their egos and impatience. They weren’t willing to do the “grunt work” of figuring things out carefully and then do the necessary repetition. I think that many people have the incorrect assumption that talent means things should come easy to you.

    So often, the parents set them up for failure by praising their talent, as if that’s an achievement. They should be recognizing accomplishments and hard work, instead.

    Taking responsibility is a huge indication of a potentially good student. Like the players who criticized their former coach in your example, I have found that students (or parents) who criticize and blame former teachers are almost always the worst students to work with.

  16. Simon says:

    A very interesting point is being made here… I was wondering if anybody had any ideas on how to stimulate or reward ‘character’. How can you put players that have character (and show it)in the spotlight so that others will look for something similar within themselves?

  17. Rob Gurden says:

    Hey Daniel, Another great post! This reminds me of the youtube video that I came across recently. This topic is of great importance to me as i’m looking to identify and nurture talent in terms of young potential tennis players as well as assessing talent in terms of building a team of coaches for my training center here in Connecticut. Keep up the good work! Anything is possible!

  18. […] You often hear that talent is not everything and that the intangibles and character count just as much.  As the pool of athletes competing and participating in volleyball increases, coaches are increasingly placing a premium on off the court traits and the intangibles that athletes possess.  Obviously talent and skill set matter in sports, but when two athletes are equal or close in talent, the determining factor is often character.  One of my least favorite things to hear about an athlete is, “She is a great athlete and volleyball player but…”  The words that follow the but are always character based.  This is a great article to read about how character affects scouting in football: Stop Judging Talent Start Checking Character. […]

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