Stop Judging Talent; Start Judging Character

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brady-combine-topThis revisit of a 2013 post is made timely by the fact that Tom Brady, now nearly 40, just went 11-1 and set an NFL record for touchdown-to-interception ratio. Which means 1) he’s pretty good for a sixth-round draft choice; 2) he’s almost made up  for his choice of underwear in the photo at right. 

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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4 Responses to “Stop Judging Talent; Start Judging Character”

  1. Lotus says:

    Great insight into how your Character determines your
    future success and how much we misjudge Talent by only focusing on what we see
    in the persons current Performance !
    Since Tom Brady is a Great Example for exactly that,
    Do you know how he developed that Mindset and if
    he had any Goal Setting techniques he used to ignite and keep his Motivation
    high to achieve such Great Results.
    I’ve heard that Tom Brady always saw himself as an underdog like David from
    David and Goliath… ?
    Your Blog and The Little Book of Talent are Incredible helpful,
    Thanks

  2. Lisa says:

    Dan, this reminds me of one of my favorite videos to use when I teach middle school writers — have you seen this?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WLb8AwuZ7N8

    (The music is hyper-cleaned up Drake 0-to-100; kids are always shocked on playing it! — adds to the shock factor!)

    “Can you handle direct feedback? What do you do when you get it?”

  3. djcoyle says:

    Hey Lisa,
    That is awesome. Thanks for sharing it — I hadn’t seen it. So powerful. It *almost* makes me root for him against the Cavs ;-)

  4. D Benson says:

    This reminded me of this post and the clean-up post from October 2016.

    http://jamesleath.com/your-talent-will-get-you-noticed-but-your-character-will-get-you-recruited/

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