Talent is Heideggerian
My Review of Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross
Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross have written a Heideggerian book in Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World.
First, a disclosure. I am the beneficiary of Tyler Cowen’s approach to talent selection, being the recipient of an Emergent Ventures Fellowship, so discount this post accordingly.
Heidegger argues that the essence of being human is “care.” He also argues that authenticity activates our care, by stripping away our veneer of socialized pieties and attachments and bringing us face to face with our own mortality.
What Cowen and Gross describe as talent corresponds to what Heidegger describes as authenticity. We might say, that if you want to spot talent look for an intensity of care.
Cowen and Gross are less impressed by IQ, that is, raw analytical power. And that’s because what makes human beings special is not “processing power,” but interpretive power, the ability to “be-in-the-world,” rather than just compute functional equations. The view that takes human resources as mere skills is an inauthentic view, in Heidegger’s sense.
“The Question Concerning Technology,” which Heidegger takes up in his later writing, continues the theme of Being and Time. Technological societies, says Heidegger, optimize for the wrong thing, flattening what makes human beings distinct and promoting an impoverished view of self. But Heidegger also says that the way to counter this trend is not be anti-technological, returning to a Luddite existence. Rather, it’s about finding ways to restore wonder, enchantment, poetry, and care to the world. Creatives do this. What Cowen and Gross describe as innovation, Heidegger calls art. And while Heidegger sees the problem as mainly cultural rather than economic, the insight of Cowen and Gross is in offering prompts for intervening at the level of the economy. Hiring is an art, and so is managing. Heidegger was too allergic to the business world to appreciate that his own thought might be integrated with it.
Nervous energy and obsessiveness are markers of talent, for Cowen and Gross; for Heidegger, we might say, they are signs of anxiety in the ontological sense. Those who know their ownmost nothingness are likely to react by leaping towards their ownmost sense of possibility at every turn. Those who do not know the sting of death are happier to be complacent, just steering along, like Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich.
Heidegger is weak on proposals for making society better. He’s more diagnostic than prescriptive, at least on first glance. This is where Cowen and Gross depart, writing a book that is practical and not simply theoretical. Yet their call seems to be similar to Heidegger’s: if we let the world be run by Ivan Ilychs, it will be a worse one, at some margin, than one in which it is run by people who have an intensity of care.
I think I agree that our system is destined to promote conscientiousness (rule following) rather than neuroticism (obsessiveness), but I also don’t know if this is always bad. Maybe some percentage of endeavors should be led by obsessive, imbalanced people, but some percentage should be led by people who are less obsessive and also more inauthentic. I’m not sure the world would be better if we had more people like Steve Jobs. In some ways, it might be worse. Authenticity, if you will, is one good amongst many, but not the most important thing. And this is one of the lines of critique made of Heidegger, be it from Levinas, Arendt, Strauss, or Marcuse, to name some of “Heidegger’s Children.” Selecting for authenticity or “energy” alone can lead to some terrible places, as we know from Heidegger’s own political commitments.
On the other hand, being a good team leader or communicator, or having “soft skills” surely requires the hermeneutical power that Heidegger thinks separates Dasein from both animals and bots.
Two questions that Cowen and Gross highlight strike me as deeply Heideggerian. “What tabs are open on your browser right now?” and “what is the equivalent of musical scales that you are practicing every day to get better at what you do?” Both are about surfacing a person’s care. Don’t tell me what you care about; rather, show me. Heidegger’s argument that truth is about “disclosure” and not just correctness is also evident in these questions.
So, in short, if Cowen and Gross are right about talent, and I think they are, up to a point—if hidden talent is underrated and under-appreciated owing to our biases—then it’s because the world is not sufficiently Heideggerian. We are too inauthentic, selecting for the wrong measures of success, promoting people who get good grades and the like, instead of celebrating those who are animated by an intensity of care. We celebrate those whose accomplishments reflect fear of death rather than “anxiety before the Nothing.” Perhaps the intensity of care metric is insufficient and unstable, even dangerous. But that is a second-order problem.
The sheer fact that Cowen and Gross have mainstreamed Heideggerian thought and operationalized it (and in a context so anathema to Heidegger the man) is worth applauding.