There are many interesting moments in Ezra Klein’s conversation with Tyler Cowen but one in particular stands out, when Klein says that “You can teach a lot of skills, but you can’t teach obsession. There’s a real difference between somebody who is obsessed with the work they’re doing and someone who is simply skilled at the work they’re doing.” He’s right. You can’t teach people to be obsessed and over the medium to long term you can’t even pay them to be obsessed. Look for the people who are obsessed, even if it’s hard.
The larger context is:
Look for people who are desperate to be doing the thing they’re doing. I have often found really great people by finding people who either seemed or were literally doing what they need to be doing for free because nobody was yet paying them for it.
. . . You can teach a lot of skills, but you can’t teach obsession. There’s a real difference between somebody who is obsessed with the work they’re doing and someone who is simply skilled at the work they’re doing. I will take the obsession and teach the skills over getting the skills and having to teach the obsession.
Thinking about this now, it’s odd to me that more people, especially in hiring positions, don’t select more or better for obsession. That’s especially true in academia but it’s also true elsewhere. Now that I think about it explicitly I also realize that my essay “How to get your Professors’ Attention, Along With Coaching and Mentoring” is in part about how to if not fake obsession then at least demonstrate that the person seeking help or advice rises above indifference.