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Quarterbacks, Teachers, and College – Finding the Hidden Potential Everywhere

In both a piece for The New Yorker and his book Outliers, author Malcom Gladwell defined what he calls “the quarterback problem.” He discusses that for both NFL quarterbacks and teachers, it is virtually impossible to tell from the training programs and selection processes (college football for quarterbacks and academic learning programs for teachers) how successful candidates will be in the real job. 

Both of these positions, he argues, require a high level of demonstrated competence in order to be successful, and for both of these positions, it’s impossible to show that demonstrated competence until you’re actually in the role, doing the thing. Gladwell points to the importance of environment and context, and he makes a pitch to create opportunities where “outliers” can grow.

Now I’ver never been either a college or NFL quarterback, but as an educator, I think about this all of the time. When I was learning how to be a teacher, I worked on one lesson for month, spending hours researching content, carefully crafting each segment of the lesson, getting feedback and iterating, and then testing it out on a sampling of my peers because I didn’t have easy access to a group of middle schools students. 

My first year as a teacher, I was shocked to learn that’s not how actual teaching worked. Instead of carefully planning one lesson over several months with the support of mentors and teachers, I had to plan five different lessons every night all by myself. Also, my middle school students were very different from my test 20-something test subjects and were far more critical and less patient and didn’t just pretend to be engaged.

Fortunately, I adapted quickly, but I’ve reflected quite a bit on how there is virtually no correlation between who I was as a student, learning to be a teacher, and who I was as a teacher. Except that I’ve always been a really good student, so that meant I was able to secure a really good job (and, fortunately, for everyone involved). I figured it out so that I didn’t disappoint anyone with my hiring (at least I don’t think I did!).

In the ninth chapter of Hidden Potential, called “Diamonds in the Rough: Discovering Uncut Gems in Job Interviews and College Admissions,” Adam Grant discusses this concept in the context of how to make space for hidden potential when looking at candidates for college and professional opportunities.

He shares, “In schools and workplaces, selection systems are usually designed to detect excellence. That means people who are on their way to excellence rarely make the cut.”

Generally, we base selection off of a resume and maybe an interview. We are looking at past performance and past accomplishments with little to no regard to environment or context, failing to consider both the opportunities a candidate may or may not have had or the relevance (or lack thereof) what is listed on a resume may actually have to the current opportunity. 

Grant suggests an alternative, stating: “What really foreshadowed earning potential was whether students improved over time.”

He adds, “To gauge the distance people are capable of traveling on steep slopes, it’s also critical to take a closer look at the skills and abilities they’ve gained so far. Instead of looking at past experience or past performance, we should find out what they’ve learned and how well they can learn.”

Before I went into education, I had a brief stint working in business with Neiman Marcus. The woman who hired me there was fascinating. She told me that she liked to hire people in school or right out of school because they were still in learning mode. She didn’t want to look at my resume (which was good because I didn’t really have one) and, instead, asked me to take some sort of personality test. She was more interested in who I was as a learner than what roles I’d previously held. And then I went through a very extensive (and supported) training program that was very education-focused. 

In the end, I discovered (maybe because of that process) that I was passionate about education and left my role at Neiman Marcus to focus on that, but I wish I could go back and ask that woman more questions about her hiring process and how successful she felt it was. 

I think maybe she was onto something, and I wonder where we can (and should be) rethinking our selection processes.

I was listening to a podcast recently with Adam Grant, Barry Schwartz, and Coco Krumme, titled “Why aiming for the best isn’t always good for you” where they give one suggestion. Among the ideas they discussed was creating a lottery system for elite colleges where the schools would create criteria (GPA, test scores, etc) for what they believed would qualify a student to be successful at their university, and anyone who met that criteria would be entered into a lottery for admission. 

The argument was that some schools are so selective due to the sheer volume of applications they receive, admitting only a small percentage of students, and at a certain point, admission is almost random because many more students than those who are admitted could be successful.

Grant, Schwartz, and Krumme talk about the unlikelihood that a system like that is highly unlikely to ever be put into place because too many people would complain that a little isn’t “fair” (as opposed to a system where as little as 3% of students are chosen in what seems like a pretty random system currently). But it would be so interesting to look at data and see what kind of hidden potential they were able to discover through this process.

Ultimately, it’s really hard to predict anyone’s success in a new situation. We do the best we can by looking at their past to predict future performance, but people change, and it’s impossible to isolate variables. People could struggle for any number of reasons – both within and outside of their control. And people are successful for any number of reasons. 

Gladwell points to environment and context.

Grant goes in a different direction, saying, “Talent sets the floor, but character sets the ceiling…but character skills aren’t always immediately apparent. If we don’t look beyond the surface, we risk missing the potential for brilliance beneath.” 

So, how do we look beyond the surface and find that brilliance…in our students, our team members, and the people around us?

And then, how do we make that brilliance shine?

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