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Tyler Cowen is the best curator of talent in the world
Tyler Cowen is an economist that has spotted top talent in fields ranging from biotech to literature, often years before insiders. How does he do it?
I believe that Tyler Cowen is the best curator of talent in the world.
I am a biotech investor. I know a lot of top biotech investors. I’ve also spent close to a decade at two of the best life science academic institutions in the world.
Tyler’s understanding of biotech is that of a very broad economist. Yet, he is often beating me and many of the people and institutions that I know.
Tyler has identified talent either earlier than or missed by top undergraduate programs, the best biotech startups, and the best biotech investors, all without any insider knowledge of biotech. In comparison, Forbes 30U30, MIT Tech Review TR35, or Stat Wunderkind, and other industry awards that highlight talent are lagging indicators of success. It’s hard to find an awardee of these programs that was not already widely recognized for their achievements among insiders in their field. The winners of Emergent Ventures are truly emergent.
I have now met >5 Emergent Venture winners that work in life sciences. The average age of this group is ~20 years old.
One has attracted international recognition for his new non-profit founded this year. Tyler funded him ~2.5 years ago when his most notable public accomplishment was amassing 300 twitter followers.
Another winner has now started a company backed by top tier investors - professional talent hunters - but he received his first funding from Tyler a year prior, when he was still experimenting with what to build.
Others had been rejected by undergrad programs at Harvard, MIT, and Stanford, but their research talents have become recognized by the best academic life scientists and top biotech startups.
Examining Tyler’s public track record reveals many more impressive selections across diverse fields. He was one of the first to support Clementine Jacoby to leave her job at Google to start Recidiviz, a nonprofit that has now helped identify 44,000 prison inmates in 34 states who do not pose public-safety threats and could be released. Her work has now been recognized by the Time100 Next award. In an emergency fund to support Covid-19 related projects, he was was the first to fund Curative, which pivoted from being a sepsis company to carrying out 3M+ covid tests by September 2020 -- 3% of all covid tests in the US (~93M according to Our World in Data). He also funded Youyang Gu, a data scientist with no formal training in epidemiology that became known for producing some of the most accurate covid forecasts.
Outside of Emergent Ventures, consider his construction of the George Mason economics department: Robin Hanson, Bryan Caplan, Alex Tabarrok, Garett Jones, Mark Koyama, among others. Or even take his book recommendations. He spotted now world-renowned authors Karl Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante years before they became well known.
How does he do it?
It isn’t just a matter of more elite selection. In fact, Emergent Ventures has a higher acceptance rate than elite colleges. In May 2020, Tyler reported in an interview with Tim Ferriss that the award rate is ~10%. For comparison, the 2021 acceptance rates of Harvard, Princeton, and Yale were 5%, 6%, and 7%. It also isn’t a wider pool. At that time, he had only ~800 total applications since 2018.
Tyler's success at discovering and enabling the most talented people before anyone else notices them boils down to four components:
Distribution: Tyler promotes the opportunity in such a way that the talent level of the application pool is extraordinarily high and the people who apply are uniquely earnest.
Application: Emergent Ventures’ application is laser focused on the quality of the applicant’s ideas, and boils out the noise of credentials, references, and test scores.
Selection: Tyler has relentlessly trained his taste for decades, the way a world class athlete trains for the olympics.
Inspiration: Tyler personally encourages winners to be bolder, creating an ambition flywheel as they in turn inspire future applicants.
First component: the distribution strategy selects for an earnest, high quality applicant pool
Tyler is famous for his eclectic and hyper-cerebral content, which he distributes through a curated set of media channels tailored to the talent he searches for. He co-writes the widely read economics blog Marginal Revolution (~1M monthly readers according to SimilarWeb), he has 186K twitter followers, he hosts the podcast “Conversations with Tyler”, and appears on podcasts from Tim Ferriss, Eric Weinstein, and Shane Parrish.
“I try to stay a bit weird and obscure enough that mostly quite smart people are writing me. If I had too many not smart emails I would feel that I was doing something else wrong with what I’m writing.” … “The rate of good applications is reasonably high. Maybe I’m lowering it just by talking about the program.” [The Tim Ferriss Show: Tyler Cowen]
“I met Patrick Collison because he emailed me, I wrote him back, didn’t know he was Patrick Collison at the time, he was just some guy. I was like ‘this guy seems smart.’” [Tyler Cowen: Production Function. David Perrell, North Star Podcast.]
Still, the program keeps a low profile. Even with Tyler’s tall stature, a Google search of “Emergent Ventures Tyler Cowen” shows results only from Tyler / GMU’s own promotion, one short TechCrunch article, a mention on LessWrong / Effective Altruism, a mention on Hacker News, and a small number of Emergent Ventures winners’ blogs and podcasts.
Surprisingly, many winners I spoke with had the same story about discovering the program -- not through blogs and podcasts or avid reading of Marginal Revolution, but through their friends. Once Tyler discovers a social circle enriched for talent, he expands and many members are quickly funded. The goal seems to be to hook an initial person, and then generate referrals. One can imagine Tyler’s search strategy as fishing in a well-chosen set of pools, not yet overfished from the mainstream. And when he hooks one fish, sometimes he also discovers a whole school.
“I’ve gotten close with a lot of very talented kids living in the city that are very quiet. I honestly don’t think most of my friends have heard of those awards (I certainly haven’t!) At some point we all get introduced to Tyler.”
- An Emergent Ventures winner
What’s remarkable is how often Tyler does this over and over again in non-overlapping communities. In Emergent Ventures, he has built a product with a high NPS score for talented, earnest people.
Besides on Tyler’s blog, the winners are not promoted and there is zero resulting media attention. It remains obscure - and in fact, I suspect that if it becomes too well known Tyler will end the program - so it will never be a useful credential. Few winners even update their LinkedIn (eg try searching “Emergent Ventures Fellow” in LinkedIn, it only returns a handful of results). The program does not award large amounts of capital, in fact many grants are “travel grants” of a few hundred or a few thousand dollars. Nor is there any promise of connections to a network of elite status people, at least as overtly advertised.
Thus, Emergent Ventures appears to be designed against anyone looking for credentials, large amounts of cash, or status/attention. Instead, the program selects and rewards earnestness. Maybe because few other things in life reward this, earnest people are so delighted to be recognized that they can’t help but refer friends.
Second component: the application only values the quality of ideas
The application is designed to efficiently assess only one thing: the clarity and quality of the applicant’s ideas. Examining it shows a striking departure from almost any job or college application. There is no resume/CV, no test scores, and most strikingly, no reference letters. It is only a <1500 word essay.
As a society, we have converged on one way of assessing talent through a combination of education and work credentials, GPAs, and test scores. We use these methods to achieve (i) efficiency in evaluating a very large number of applications, and (ii) consistency across a team of applicant reviewers.
As discussed above, Tyler eliminates the first need - efficiency - through selective distribution. Because the program keeps a low profile, there is a manageable number of applications (2000 at current date, running over the past 4 years) and the average quality is very high. At least for a hyperlexic, it is indeed possible to read and score every essay.
The second need - consistency - is eliminated because Tyler is the only reviewer. He does not need to create a pretense of having a clean, objective, or consistent way of evaluating applications for the sake of accountability or consistency. Tyler can afford to truly only care about the quality of the applicants' ideas.
The result is that the essay, i.e. the quality of the applicant’s ideas and their ability to communicate them, is the only thing that matters.
“I would stress how much the writing in the proposal matters to me. How good the proposal is is really very important. So when I interview someone for the first time, most of the time I don’t track them down using google and try to read their medium essays or their tweets...[I don’t] track down the past stuff, don’t ask for CV, don’t ask for letters of reference, [and I’m] trying to give everyone a fresh start in a way.” [Tyler Cowen: Production Function. David Perrell, North Star Podcast.]
Third component: Tyler’s practice in “cracking cultural codes” enables him to evaluate ideas in diverse fields
Maybe the most important piece of the puzzle is selection. Tyler has compounded his skills in selecting talent over decades of deliberate practice in “cracking cultural codes.”
Tyler’s nose for talent, even in technical fields like biotech, comes from his study of the humanities: art, music, complex novels, religion, anthropology, et cetera. After all, the humanities are about humans. This is at first counterintuitive, but we also observe that Silicon Valley’s legendary talent pickers like Peter Thiel (a philosophy major and JD) or Mike Moritz (a history major and former journalist) stand out for their humanities backgrounds as well. Indeed, in Tyler’s view, Peter Thiel possesses the “deepest understanding of the humanities that is out there now,” and “is the best selector of talent… maybe ever” [Tyler Cowen: Production Function. David Perrell, North Star Podcast.]
Tyler calls his study of the humanities “cracking cultural codes,” and he highlights this as the most “importantly novel” activity he practices.
“I figured the best way to understand culture was to try to understand or ‘crack’ as many cultural codes as possible. As many styles of art. As many kinds of music. As many complex novels, and complex classic books, and of course as many economic models as well. Religions, and religious books. Anthropological understandings.”
“But I have found it highly useful, most of all for various practical ventures and also for dealing with people, and for trying to understand diverse points of view and also for trying to pass intellectual Turing tests.” [Marginal Revolution - “Deconstructing Cultural Codes”]
How can one develop the skill of cracking cultural codes?
First, pursue real world, practical applications of the humanities, such as:
Art collecting: how do you buy the best pictures in Haitian art? (see below)
Traveling to new places and cultures: how do you identify the best restaurant to locals? (see the general remarks of Tyler’s Ethnic Dining Guide)
Writing book reviews: what were the best books of 2021 in a given field? (see again the previously referenced 2012 post on Norwegian writer Karl Knausgaard)
Consider Tyler on art collecting:
“You learn about other cultures, you learn different points of view by refining your eye and you develop a skill that is extremely useful for judging other things and cracking cultural codes in other settings. It’s an education in market economics - art markets. Like how do you buy the best pictures in an area Haitian art, or how do you assemble a very good voodoo flag collection? How do you get artists in Mexico to do their best work for you? That’s a business problem that you need to solve.
You want experience at solving a broad diversity of problems, to heighten your aesthetic sense, to learn some real history, and to understand how some of the art world works, surround yourself with beauty.
And you should buy it for the love of the art, and try to find that which other people have not really found or appreciated yet. It’s just like the world of ideas right? It is the world of ideas. It just costs more to play in it in terms of upfront dollar commitments.” [Tyler Cowen: Production Function. David Perrell, North Star Podcast.]
Second, leverage fast feedback cycles from the market, peer groups, mentors, or all of the above. In the case of art collecting, a point of emphasis is “an education in… art markets.” You are trying to find undervalued assets - comparing the derived value to the market price - and staking real dollars on your analysis.
In the absence of a market, consider mentors and/or peer groups:
“Get a mentor… Say you want to learn about contemporary art..You need a mentor. Yes you should read some books on it, but you want a mentor to help you frame them, take you around to some art, talk about it with you. Get as many mentors as you can in the things you want to learn.”
“Build small groups of peers..with broadly similar interests...every day they are talking about the thing you care about, trying to solve problems in that thing.” [Lex Fridman Podcast: Tyler Cowen]
Most importantly, practice this consistently, across many fields, every day, for decades. More than anything else, Tyler credits the compounding value of sustained practice on long time scales as his core advantage in everything he does well.
“I started early and I kept on going for many many years… Just having 44-45 years of truly absolute full time work doing something is a big advantage. Most of my peers in terms of age, I’m not saying they have stopped, but they typically have stopped learning or stopped really trying to self improve. One if not the only advantage I’ve had is just the high number of years to work on things.” [Tyler Cowen: Production Function. David Perrell, North Star Podcast]
“Recently, one of my favorite questions to bug people with has been “What is it you do to train that is comparable to a pianist practicing scales?” If you don’t know the answer to that one, maybe you are doing something wrong or not doing enough. Or maybe you are (optimally?) not very ambitious?” [Marginal Revolution - “How I practice at what I do”]
Fourth component: Tyler pushes winners to be more ambitious, and creates an ambition flywheel
Emergent Ventures is not really about grantmaking. The size of Emergent Ventures grants range from small to micro, often only a few thousand dollars. In a world dominated by multimillion dollar venture rounds or large philanthropic gifts, the smallness boggles the mind.
How could such small grants matter so much? Perhaps because many Emergent Ventures winners are very young, the grant is really a meaningful amount to them. But more importantly, applicants receive something more valuable than funding: inspiration.
An Emergent Ventures grant is a push to be more ambitious. It’s a push to drop the status quo, to make a change in one’s life and open the door to a new career.
“At critical moments in time, you can raise the aspirations of other people significantly, especially when they are relatively young, simply by suggesting they do something better or more ambitious than what they might have in mind...This is in fact one of the most valuable things you can do with your time and with your life.”[Marginal Revolution - “The high-return activity of raising others’ aspirations”]
Even if spending only a few hundred or a few thousand dollars a pop, Tyler gives some of the world’s most talented people the confidence that he believes in them. It is the kind of proposal an economist familiar with nudge theory might make to answer the question “what is a capital efficient way to inspire the smartest young people to be 100 times more ambitious early in their careers?” Marginal Revolution’s tagline is indeed “small steps towards a much better world.”
“Supplying people, especially younger people, visions of what they could be, is greatly undersupplied... In some of the grants I’ve given out through Emergent Ventures to younger people, I’ve also tried to give them a sense of what I think they could be and I suspect that’s more important in some cases than the grant. In a way it’s complemented by the grant. In a way you’re giving the grant so you can package it with this vision…and the grant makes the vision more vivid or more focal, like they believe the vision because you spent real dollars on them.” [The Tim Ferriss Show: Tyler Cowen]
Because the current Emergent Ventures winners also inspire future ones, this sets up a flywheel of ambition. Winners are selected → Tyler pushes winners to be more ambitious → Program is associated with ambitious people → New applicants are inspired to write even more ambitious proposals → and so on.
Everyone in the business of building and managing organizations should study Tyler’s performance and process. For entrepreneurs in today’s environment, talent, not capital, is the limiting factor in company building. Finding and recruiting talent is also the core task of venture capital investing, building a research lab, or managing a university.
Tyler’s distribution strategy, application design, intellectual tastes, and influence on awardees all interplay to explain his success as a talent curator. As a whole, it is incredibly difficult to replicate directly because each component is so dependent on the others. However, there are some general principles one can apply.
First, cultivate pools of talent that are very high in quality, even if very low in quantity. Recognize that people have already self-selected on media channels like Twitter, blogs, and podcasts, on discord/slack, or even in group houses. Design incentives to attract the applicants seeking the right things, for example by using an evaluation strategy that is much harder for credentialists to game (e.g. Emergent Ventures’ 1500 word essay).
Second, zero in the talent signals you care about, and develop one’s skill at evaluation by practicing “cracking cultural codes.” Find practical application of the humanities with fast feedback loops. Perhaps learning to make strong art investments is not as different from selecting talent in a specific field as it might at first appear.
Last, raise the ambitions of one’s “winners” (i.e. grantees, employees, investments, students, etc) more than they imagined possible, and work hard to help them succeed. Promote their work such that they inspire new talent.
In May 2022, Tyler will release “Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World,” a book he co-authored with entrepreneur and venture capitalist Daniel Gross. Consider this essay a registered prediction of its contents.
Addendum: Tyler on talent evaluators
When I sent Tyler an earlier draft of this essay for comments, I also asked him two questions that I have reproduced below.
How would you evaluate other people’s ability to be great “talent evaluators?”
“I don't think I have insightful answers, other than looking at results. But I do look rather intensely at how well they understand music, the arts, or whatever culture they might be interested in. I place great weight on that, though not absolute weight. With Shruti [Rajagopalan, who now runs Emergent Ventures India], for instance, I was deeply impressed by her knowledge and understanding of Indian classical music. I thought ‘if she can figure that out...’ etc.”
Besides Peter Thiel, who else would you say are the best talent evaluators in the world? How have they shaped his own approaches?
“A lot of the best talent evaluators I do not know. From my field, Aaron Director? Milton Friedman (who built up U. Chicago along with Director)? Paul Samuelson (who built up MIT)?
In tech, Patrick Collison and also Daniel Gross?...Mike Moritz? Though I hardly know Mike and cannot say he influenced me.
I also would cite my father, who ran a Chamber of Commerce in New Jersey. He did not ‘pick stars,’ or have the budget or environment to even attempt that, but was a true master of finding limited talent or flawed talent and getting the most out of them.”
Addendum: Some questions that I am still thinking about
On Emergent Ventures
The profile of Emergent Ventures is growing quickly. In email correspondence, Tyler reported that the program has now received a total of 2000 applications (as of Aug 2021), up from 800 in May 2020. More applications have come in the past ~12 months than the history of the program!
As the prestige and popularity increases, will success be maintained? Is it possible for Emergent Ventures to “scale up” from 80 winners to 800 or 8000?
What would happen if applicants could apply for 10-fold or 100-fold more capital?
Would the program be as successful if it were an investment rather than a grant?
What was the result of the Call for Emergent Ventures proposals on talent search and major life changes?
Lastly, what am I wrong about or what might have I missed?
More about Tyler
I am deeply grateful to Alexey Guzey, who provided inspiration, contributed many helpful ideas and substantial revisions, and who wouldn’t leave my house until I wrote the first draft of this essay. Alexey also started a list of Emergent Ventures winners, check it out here! I also thank Amy Chen Kulesa, Sasha Chapin, Eduardo Beltrame, Sam Rodriques, Adam Marblestone, Josh Moser, Sam Arbesman, and several anonymous EV winners for discussions and feedback on drafts of this essay. Last, I thank Tyler Cowen. First, for generously answering my questions and for providing thoughtful comments and additions. Second, and more importantly, for putting enough of his work in public to make this essay possible.