To Find Good, Underrated People, De-Emphasize Popular Filters

People who earn the label “hidden gems” are hidden because they lie unturned after a popular, blunt filter is applied to a population. To find good, underrated people, de-emphasize popular filters.

If you want to find a woman to date, try not to filter in favor of big breasts, for example, since this is a popular filter. People watch MTV, demand goes up, supply goes down — competition for big breasts in the real world is fierce. And this really isn’t that good a filter, anyway. Physical beauty can take many forms. Cultivate an attraction (yes, I do think there’s some choice) in a less popular physical feature. For women, an analog is height — figure out a way to like short men and you’ll trade up big time on other important factors like personality.

If you want to hire someone for your company, try not to filter in favor of an education credential. It reflects a person at age 17 and is the most popular mass filter of other companies, driving up the price to hire someone with a Berkeley degree. As Arnold Kling has said, “When you are a start-up, you need to find people who are better than their credentials. The last thing you can afford to do is pay a premium for credentials.” Spot talent in other ways. And fully recognize the importance of drive — I have a friend who shuns hiring Harvard MBAs because of their “coasting attitude for the rest of life.” In other words, they don’t have to prove anything to anybody and will always be able to pull down a six figure salary from somewhere if they need to. This is exactly what you don’t want in an employee.

If you want to find a smart person who has time to be your friend, try to find a bad self-promoter. The popular filter, at least in business, is in favor of charismatic personalities and clever marketers. Find the brilliant mind who’s a so-so marketer and revel in her availability.

Your additions?

23 comments on “To Find Good, Underrated People, De-Emphasize Popular Filters
  • I’m glad to see this post–I sat in on many panel interviews for a corporation a few years back, and I was amazed at how the sparkly charmers managed to get themselves hired time and again–when history clearly showed that they were often the laziest, neediest hires in the long run.

    I was at an entrepreneurial conference where one of the speakers, an engineer, talked about his own filter when interviewing candidates for a job. He said that whenever he sat down with a candidate and liked them right away, he would immediately check himself. Were they reminding him of his best friend? His sibling? What was making the candidate so immediately appealing? Because, he learned through his own hiring history, if he liked someone right away, he didn’t always ask the hardest questions, or dig deep enough into their history.

    My dad, who owns his own business, has always hired unlikely folk–and thus has an extremely loyal crew to back him up. He was always more interested in hiring someone who wanted to learn more and work hard than someone who just sounded good.

  • Yup… Beauty is just skin deep. So no big boobs. Let’s settle for a gorgeous larynx, yeah 🙂

    Seriously, some see an advantage in strictly observing the filters, especially those gloating “coasters” never ask inconvenient questions on questionable deals they peddle.

    Ever wondered why Wall Street banks prefer Ivy Leaguers? Very much on purpose because they hate to tell you the bad news. Push any muck to them, they will package it as CDO/CLO/MBS or any such exotic sounding alphabet soup and truck it out.

    In the end their actions may gobble up the banks they work for besides crippling people’s lives. But that’s another matter.

  • I have to agree.

    My worst hires have always been people that I connected with on a personal level for some reason – which made it all the more painful when it became obvious that it wasn’t working out.

    Hiring based on credentials or specific skill sets has sometimes resulted in mediocre performance and difficulties when the work involved something “outside their skill set”.

    The things that my best hires have in common is that they were smart and the job matched their career goals.

  • Attraction to certain physical characteristics may be a biological imperative where we are all programmed to “improve” the species. Big boobs may just be an indicator of a quality that a particular person needs to improve their line in the species.
    For example, tall women have fewer children so they may be biologically less attractive.

    Screening based on education is an excellent method to choose employees (but not the only factor). For example,an analytical approach is a key success factor in business and the better schools focus on developing this skill (e.g. cases at HBS).

    Should we avoid the simple application of filters and stereotypes–unequivocally yes–but it is much more complicated than the view you present.

  • To Robert Hacker,

    In the spirit of honest challenge, is there any evidence of your first point? In all the talk of natural selection, we don’t ever seem to get to what happens when a species focuses on the wrong filters and gets shunted into a disadvantageous niche or goes extinct. Not that I know one.

    The tall women-fewer babies connection – which way does it go? The tired cliche of “correlation is not causation” is in effect: are tall women incapable of having as many babies and thus selected against, or are they being selected against by popular filters and thus having fewer babies?


  • I have one thing to add. If you do manage to hire an under-rated genius, remember that after working for you for a few months they may not be so under-rated anymore (this is especially true at the entry and junior levels). If you under-compensate them, never ask for feedback, or don’t offer any growth opportunities they will leave for someone who will. You need to do these things early and often to retain smart people no matter how under-rated they are.

  • Kirshna: Amen!
    Robert: evolution of our species, and DNA are complicated matters, true. But in the same light, with these types of ideas presented by Ben and others, an individual can evolve both their being and their business in less than a single life cycle.

    These ideas are also important because as a society we are entering a time when stereo types evolve as fast as technology (for example). They soon will be replaced by new stereo types and a move away from them toward understanding of expected outcomes for ones own life (as you mentioned) will be imperative.

    Respectfully, I would like to hear more about this topic in light of its ‘complicated’ nature.

  • I’ve specifically focused on dating tall women for this reason. Since a majority of men filter out/refuse to date women their height or taller, a very tall woman (say 5’10+, in heels between 6’0 6’3), even if she is fun, intelligent and hot, will be passed over by a lot of guys who are intimidated by her stature. My g/f is an incredible sweet, very successful corp sec attorney who happens to be a 5’11 Shanghainese gal (a nearly six-foot Chinese girl?! Yikes, mutant alert …)

    The most extraordinary vocational example of what you’re talking about is Delancy Street Restaurant – while it looks like your run-of-the-mill yuppie fancy restaurant, their staff is entirely composed of ex-felons working on rebuilding their life after hitting rock bottom. The friendly guy that seated you? Gang member. The busboy who asked if you wanted another glass of water? Bank robber.

    Delancy was run by a good friend of mine, Gerald Miller, who served 15 years in prison himself for various offenses and now serves to help the most unemployable, untouchable amongst us transition to lawful employment. Pretty damn amazing.

    PS: This entry goes in my index of bookmarks for the project we were talking about. 🙂

  • In hiring, I would imagine, it is very hard to come up with a replacement filter that still has any sort of efficiency.

    You know a student who graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Berkeley is going to have no trouble learning your system and starting to produce good code. It’s much harder to predict the same, for example, of someone with worst grades from a lower-ranked college. You’ll start to ask: why didn’t this student try harder in class? Does he have trouble concentrating? Even if he’s not that into academics, maybe we want the type of student who does well even if he doesn’t try?

    It can be argued that the popular filters aren’t overpriced. They are instead the fair going rate for peace of mind…

  • Cal – You change my example slightly to prove your point. Phi Beta Kappa from Berkeley and terrible grades at terrible college presents a more logical case. But what if it’s Phi Beta Kappa at Berkeley and Phi Beta Kappa at State School X?

    I don’t think it’s that hard to come up with replacement filters that have efficiency. Why not develop a standard of work experience that must be met, or, as many employers now do, ask potential employees to answer some questions or solve presented coding problems?

  • Add personal appearance to this list.

    Much of the hiring process hinges on the concept of “first impressions”, of which appearance is crucial. So much so, that I dare say qualified, impressive people are regularly overlooked.

    As long as they are not the main external contact, they probably will not affect the impression of the organization.

  • I would look at enthusiasm as one of the major requirements for hiring some. If someone has a degee and/or experience is great but if they lack enthusiasm for the position/task then they are the wrong choice for a potential employee.

  • Corporations and startups require wildly different skills from their employees.

    Corporations can afford to (and should) hire people with highly specialized skills. For example, a CRM expert.

    Startups on the other hand need employees with proficiency in certain areas but also flexibility and hustle. Taking on several rolls is common within startups.

    New filter? Ask people what they have accomplished outside their day job? Do they write a blog? Did they bike across the country? Anything that demonstrates independent drive and flexibility.

  • Ben:

    Here is an addition (borrowing and twisting heavily both from Christakis/ Fowler and from research into social practices re obesity):

    Hang out with fat people; nobody befriends them apart from other fat people as suggested by research. They will be grateful for a thin person’s friendship and the thin person will look thinner by comparison anyway 😉

    PS: Tongue firmly in cheek..

  • I loved this post. It made me think about people like me who have turned down universities like Berkeley for one reason or another. I figured the prestige was less important than my personal success in a place where I felt more comfortable.

    It also reminded me of an experience related to me by a friend who was on an interview committee for a very selective scholarship. He described one of the candidates the committee turned down: a girl who looked so impressive on paper that she assumed her application would speak for itself. She said little in her interview, and the scholarship went to individuals with fewer “accomplishments” but more enthusiasm.

  • The firm I work hires very few ivy league people and we’re still robustly solvent…

    Brings us back to the signaling or learning argument of education.

  • I believe that attitude and values are the most criteria in the hiring process. It is pointless to hire people who are not trustworthy.

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