The big question: Talent exists in every zip code – so why isn’t opportunity there, too? How can business leaders better understand the answer to this question to address their talent shortage?
Talent is everywhere, and opportunity should be too. But it requires employers to think differently. Instead of focusing on where a worker is starting, we should focus on where they'll grow.
In this episode of Opportunity Divide, Malcolm Gladwell, author of seven New York Times bestsellers, joins Guild CEO Rachel Romer and best-selling author Adam Grant to explore how business and people leaders might fix our flawed talent discovery mechanisms, including ways to:
- Provide infrastructure and support for effective career pathways
- Demonstrate a wider diversity of occupational identity to employees
- Facilitate a shift from a degree-first conversation to a career-first conversation
Listen now and subscribe below to get the latest on Opportunity Divide episodes.
“...What percentage of people with a given ability are allowed to exploit that ability to use it? ... I think we assume we’re pretty efficient on that, that we manage to find most of the people who are good at X. But every time you do any kind of examination of this, you discover the exact opposite.” Malcolm Gladwell, Author of five New York Times bestsellers
Meet the guests
Malcolm Gladwell, Author of five New York Times bestsellers
Malcolm Gladwell is the author of five New York Times bestsellers, including The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, Talking to Strangers, and The Bomber Mafia. He is the co-founder and president of Pushkin Industries, an audiobook and podcast production company that produces the podcasts Revisionist History, Against the Rules with Michael Lewis, The Happiness Lab with Dr. Laurie Santos, and Broken Record.
Rachel Romer is Guild’s CEO — a Public Benefit Corporation that provides employees of America’s largest companies access to education, skilling, and career mobility through their employers without paying for tuition or career services on their own.
NYT Best-Selling Author of Think Again
Adam Grant is an organizational psychologist and bestselling author who explores the science of motivation, generosity, original thinking, and rethinking. He is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of 5 books that have sold millions of copies and been translated into 45 languages: Think Again, Give and Take, Originals, Option B, and Power Moves.
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Podcast transcript: Malcolm Gladwell, Rachel Romer and Adam Grant
Rachel Romer [00:00:00]:
If talent exists in every zip code, shouldn't opportunity be there, too? Or maybe the better question is why doesn't it? And how can business leaders better understand the answer to this question to address their talent shortage?
Malcolm Gladwell [00:00:16]:
Talent is everywhere. You just have to be serious about finding it.
Rachel Romer [00:00:23]:
America's workforce we lead them, we need them, we rely on them. But can they rely on us? I'm Rachel Roemer, CEO of Guild. And this is Opportunity Divide.
Malcolm Gladwell [00:00:39]:
I was a dishwasher at the Stonecrock Restaurant.
Adam Grant [00:00:43]:
Why have you been keeping this secret from me all the time? We've been friends.
Malcolm Gladwell [00:00:48]:
What do you mean?
Adam Grant [00:00:48]:
You were you were Good Will Hunting, Malcolm.
Malcolm Gladwell [00:00:50]:
No, I was trying to make some money. I was broke. It didn't seem like there was going to be any money coming from my parents for college, so I felt like, got to make some.
Rachel Romer [00:00:59]:
Malcolm Gladwell is an author of five New York Times bestsellers. He's the co-founder of the audio production company Pushkin Industries, and he's listed as Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People, as well as being recognized as one of foreign policy's top global thinkers. And at one point in time, he worked as a dishwasher and a janitor. We're tackling how opportunity is distributed, the state of talent, and what Malcolm hopes corporate Americas begins to understand. What do you wish corporate America understood about talent?
Malcolm Gladwell [00:01:37]:
The broader question here is the phrase that people like to use is capitalization. So what percentage of people with a given ability are allowed to exploit that ability to use it? You could use it in any field. What percentage of potentially great marathoners actually run marathons? What percentage of people who are capable of doing great physics end up doing great physics? And I think that we assume that we're pretty efficient on that, that we manage to find most of the people who are good at X. But every time you do any kind of examination of this, you discover the exact opposite that we're really inefficient. So I always give this example of guy who I've worked with for years, and a really close friend of mine is this lawyer in La. Quit his job and started going to one of the poorest neighborhoods in La and working with a single elementary school. And his whole thing was, I just want to find the most promising kid in the fifth grade class and tutor them and see what can happen. Literally. This is the most bombed out neighborhood in LA. What he discovered was that without exception, there are 5678 kids every year in that elementary school who, given a relatively modest amount of tutoring, are perfectly capable of thriving in academically elite schools. These kids are now in professions at the high end across he's been doing it for 25 years. But his point was, like, I think we get it into our heads that we must be so good at finding talent that in a bombed out neighborhood you're basically it's hopeless. And his point is, no, we're so bad at this that me, Eric Eisner, can stroll into an elementary school in South LA and every year find half dozen kids who are capable of doing something really remarkable with their lives. It's nothing to do with the size of the pool, the fact it has something to do with the fact that talent is everywhere. You just have to be serious about finding it.
Adam Grant [00:03:37]:
This discussion also reminds me of the Chetty data on Lost Einstein's, where, if you look at patent holders, it's not enough to be really smart. You need to come from an affluent family. And I think the starkest part of the data there was that if you look at low income students with excellent math skills – I think it was the top 5% of all third graders – they're no more likely to become successful inventors than a below-average math student from a rich family. That's crazy. That is completely unacceptable. And so the idea, Malcolm, this is I think one of the fundamental points of outliers is there are some kids who are lucky to be born in Silicon Valley and have access to the teachers and the materials that would allow them to become great. And people who don't their talents never get realized.
Malcolm Gladwell [00:04:23]:
It's very sobering. Like it's so easy, particularly for people who are winners in the talent discovery system, to take the lesson that the system is efficient and is functioning as it should, right? That's the natural conclusion that they draw from their own success. And it's very difficult to explain to that person that I know it's part of your self image that you are this exceptional, rare you're this diamond who was unearthed by this extraordinary talent search mechanism we have in place in America and explain the person, dude, you're not a diamond, you're a bit of shiny quartz that exists. If we would have looked for it, we would find tons of people just like you.
Rachel Romer [00:05:06]:
Malcolm, a big part of why I started Guild is I have 22 cousins on each side of my family and we basically were an A/B test on one side. My grandfather saved through. He had a lot of luck and was able to save for 22 of us to go to college debt free. And that was something we knew was going to be a possibility by age five. And we all marched that direction. And on my mom's side of the family, she's like that kid you were describing, she grew up in La, youngest of nine. Only two of them went to college, but all brilliant IQ scores. In fact, they were all tested by the school at one point. And those 22 cousins are all brilliant as well, probably smarter than the other side of the family, but no college savings and middle or low middle class parents. And so I kind of realized that really early on and bulldozed into Stanford saying it all the time, and I got in a lot of trouble. Like, I even worked in the admissions office and now talk about the fact that we should be publishing what percentage of the Ivy League acceptances are from the three categories of legacy full pay, where your parents can pay 100% and sponsored athletes. Because when you look at the liberal arts schools in America today, they typically have a 70, 80 plus percent acceptance rate for the kids who can pay full and a 20% acceptance rate for low income kids. But US. News and World Report doesn't want to publish that.
Malcolm Gladwell [00:06:25]:
One of the issues is time. If you boil down what the advantage of privilege gives to someone, it's that their abilities are readily apparent to whatever place they're applying to. Whereas the further you get away from privilege, the longer it takes for towns to be located and expressed. So you need more patience at the bottom end. What privilege is preparing and advertising, marking someone as having what it takes to do X, Y, or Z. To use my friend Eric as an example, he has to do four or five years of pretty intensive tutoring to get somebody to where they can finally catch up and where the school can see, oh, that kid is as good as any kid we have. But you have to make that kind of investment before you can create a level playing field. And I think it's that lack of patience in talent's discovery mechanism that is one of their principal failings.
Rachel Romer [00:07:26]:
Talent is everywhere, and opportunity can be, too, but it requires employers to think differently. Not where a worker is starting, but where they'll grow. Building career pathways requires patience, but it'll also broaden the opportunity that we're all creating. One of the things our research at Guild shows is that workers are hugely motivated by career growth and opportunity. They want to work for employers that show that they have the patience and long term orientation to help them grow. It also takes more time, as we've discovered in this conversation, to find the roles or opportunities you don't know about.
Malcolm Gladwell [00:08:04]:
One of the things that's always interested to me is this for purely personal reasons. I observed my mother reenter the workforce in her forty s and have a career. So she went back, got up MSW. Masters in social work. In order to do that, she had to be open to the idea that she could be someone else in her 40s than she was in her 30s. She couldn't think that it was over, and she couldn't have a very narrow, restrictive sense of what her skills were. She wasn't doing anything like that before. She was a homemaker and she was a writer. And I've often wonder whether people need permission to have that kind of openness about themselves later in life. The easiest thing in the world is to think that your skills have already been identified that it's impossible to go back and start at the beginning of the line anymore. And what my mother showed me was that all of that was nonsense. That in fact, in ways she wouldn't have realized at the time. Her life experiences to that point probably made her a better family therapist than someone who was just doing it right out of school. The world didn't necessarily recognize that. But being a mom to three boys for 20 years, you're way ahead of the game when it comes to dealing with people who are coming to you with their family troubles. And I also think the second part of this was there was a college near us, university of Guelph, that not only was open to mature students and was affordable, but encouraged mature students. There was a guy named Claude Goldner who loved nothing more than finding people like my mom and training them. I don't know what happens without Claude Goldner. He was crucial part of this, by the way, who was still alive in his late ninety s and volunteering in Phoenix, Arizona. I was in touch with his son. He's still at it. He's like at 98, he sort of reinvented himself and is now working in a museum in Phoenix. So he lived what he preached.
Adam Grant [00:10:08]:
I think it's a travesty that we have to leave these kinds of pivots and reskilling and upskilling moments up to the Claude Goldners of the world right. That work at the whims of a caring, optimistic individual, as opposed to saying, wait a minute, companies could take responsibility for this. I've now seen a bunch of companies say, let's start with internships for mothers who want to come back into the workforce after raising a family, and we're going to give them a mid career internship to refresh their skills, update their resumes, build their confidence, strengthen their networks. I can't believe that every company in America is not doing this. Why would you not have an internship for somebody who's ready to make that kind of transition? Rachel, can you demystify why companies have been so slow to adopt the returnship concept?
Rachel Romer [00:10:55]:
A lot of what you were describing that gets back to this, Adam, is what we call occupational identity. Privileged and wealthy kids grow up with a really wide sense of occupational identity because they know so many more people in occupations. I experienced this when I was coaching in the community college. When you interview a low-income teen, their sense of occupational identity tends to be connected to their parent of the same sex, and then maybe a teacher or a doctor who intervened in an important moment in their life, and it's really narrow. So what we think a lot about, and this is kind of an emerging field, nobody's really done research on this yet – it's just what's coming out of those of us who are practitioners of workforce development – is that we need to use technology to show people a wider diversity of occupational identities, so that if I work in retail or a restaurant or a call center or construction today, I understand what it means to be a cybersecurity analyst or how to become something I haven't seen before. Adam, the nuts and bolts on a lot of these returnship issues and just scaling apprenticeship or you name it, comes back to one: incentives. I think we could really edit the tax structure to encourage companies to do more of this. We have a consumer-based tax model, not a workers or production-based tax model. So I hope we see changes there and then. I think more broadly to the earlier point, people are trapped in their own view of privilege. We've let people believe that – I always like how Corey Booker says it – that they hit a triple when they were born on third base. And I think we need to demographically teach people through statistics "no, you were born on third base."
Malcolm Gladwell [00:12:31]:
I want to go back to that. Occupational identity is super interesting. I had never heard it phrased quite like that, but it makes an enormous amount of sense because I'm remembering this is one of my earliest memories in third grade. We were asked in our class to draw a picture of what we wanted to be when we grew up. And I remember that I drew a picture of a judge. I wanted to be a judge and almost everyone else in the class. I came from a very blue collar school. I think I was probably the only one who drew a picture of a kind of profession. Everyone else wanted to be a farmer or an elite profession like a judge. And that was just for the exactly the reason you talked about. My dad was a professor. I was observing a full range of opportunities and other kids just had no, it should be take someone else's daughter to work day. If you take your own daughter to work, you're just reinforcing. You're telling her something she already knows. You should take someone else's daughter who has no idea that a woman can be, whatever, a lawyer or a doctor. But I don't know that kind of trying to systematically address this restriction of workplace identity is a super interesting problem that I have never thought about before.
Adam Grant [00:13:36]:
What you're talking about is what psychologists would describe as expanding the repertoire of possible selves to give you a wider range of concepts of who you could be in the future, which is especially important for people who haven't had exposure to those different images and basically think there are three options for me and I have to pick a track, and basically that's going to be my career.
Rachel Romer [00:13:58]:
Our view is that it's a pretty solvable problem. It's not unlike the types of experiments that we've seen plenty in your field. Adam run of sort of priming people and expanding their aperture to that point. I think it requires a mindset shift, though, at both kind of the high school college level and then for working adults. Because today when we enroll you in college and I wonder if this was your mom's experience, even if you're 45 and you're going back, they ask you what you want to major in. Reality is, for most 100 million Americans, we want to serve the 5 million we serve today. They don't know that answer. So moving from what we call a degree first or a subject first conversation to a career first conversation feels really critical. We give a little more freedom again to privileged kids. They get to go to the elite schools or the liberal arts colleges and just take classes for two years and declare their major by the time they're a junior. That's not how the other 3000 colleges in America work. And I think we actually have to flip it where we intentionally let people explore their occupational identity for a period of time before we make them decide what they're going to be in this next chapter of their life.
Adam Grant [00:15:04]:
It sounds like, Rachel, you're describing what we now know is important in sports, which is to give a sampling period before you specialized. It seems like a no brainer that schools ought to do the same thing.
Malcolm Gladwell [00:15:15]:
Yeah. The local university where I grew up, where actually my dad taught the engineering program, was one of the earliest in North America to have a co op requirement. So you would go to school one term or two terms, and then you would work locally for one term, which was always billed as was about you funded your education that way. But the much more important part of that idea is what you're talking about is you build into the college experience a way for students to sample. Now they're sampling within the world of engineering, but you can imagine a co op program for art students which is designed to expose you to things that where you don't know whether you're interested. Like, as opposed to asking people, what are you interested in being a co op student for? In arts only send them to a place they're not interested in or consciously try to expand them beyond their existing list of and give them a relatively low risk environment to explore that world.
Rachel Romer [00:16:18]:
On this show, we like to advance the conversation by looking at real life scenarios. How do we actually assess talent first and not pedigree? Adam and I take that question a step further with Malcolm, where we role play an interview for Context. I'm playing the role of a potential employee who has recently acquired new skills and doesn't yet have experience in those new skills.
Malcolm Gladwell [00:16:42]:
Is there someone at work whose job appeals to you?
Rachel Romer [00:16:46]:
I guess that's hard for me. We did a project in school on that, and I look up to my people manager, but he's still in the warehouse and he's on his feet every day. I see all those people working in business who work with our products and work with our customers and solve problems in the supply chain. I've been reading a lot about that. This year I'd be interested to work on solving one of those problems.
Adam Grant [00:17:07]:
I wonder if instead of launching you into one specific problem, if we could give you a chance to job shadow first. So maybe pick ten or 15 different jobs around the organization, and then you can spend a day or a half day in each of them, and then come out with a list of things that you found intriguing and align with your strengths. And maybe some that you would say. This sounds so terrible. I'd rather be back in the warehouse. And then we can use that compare and contrast exercise to begin figuring out where you might want to specialize.
Rachel Romer [00:17:36]:
Do I have to take time off unpaid to do that?
Adam Grant [00:17:39]:
I believe I have a budget for these kinds of job shadowing projects and if I don't, I want one. And seen.
Rachel Romer [00:17:47]:
And seen. Was that the job already? That was fun. You guys probably know this, but it's fun for me to practice this because we listen to these calls all day long and the smallest logistical circumstances like do I have to take the day off to go to this conversation? Will the company give me paid hours to do the returnship or the internship? Are often the first questions that somebody asks and that's where me or I'm personifying a worker, but any worker's head is and then you have to really that can actually send the interview in the wrong direction because it makes the person seem myopic and not that thoughtful. But that happens all the time and you can't quite get to the higher order until you've solved for sort of maslow's hierarchy of simple answers.
Malcolm Gladwell [00:18:31]:
This reminds me of this really interesting analysis I saw of the reasons why people didn't get vaccinated for COVID. And you have a large group of people who haven't and the easy thing is to say, oh, they all have a problem with the vaccine. But in fact when you break it down, a big chunk of people have exactly the response you just had. They worry it's going to cost them money, they think they'll have to take time of work. There are a set of logistical difficulties that they are either real or imagined that seem in the moment to be reasonably insurmountable. They haven't gotten to the question of is it a good idea or not? Does it help their health? And that's really hard for someone who is not in that position to sympathize with, right to understand. Because for someone who's in middle class and above, almost none of those logistical problems operate in the decision.
Adam Grant [00:19:24]:
No. And to connect that back then, Rachel, to your point then when somebody asks about that during an interview, they're immediately judged as not in it for the right reasons. There's some new research on this by Rellie Derfler Rozin and a colleague where they show that there's a motivation purity bias among interviewers that if you ask about pay, that's a signal that you're extrinsically motivated, not intrinsically motivated, in the mind of the interviewer – even though those two things can coexist. The fact that I am worried about being able to feed my family or support myself doesn't mean I'm not interested in the job and I don't care about my own skill development. It means that I have a constraint that really matters and weighs heavily on my mind. And the idea that an interviewer would expect you to only be interested in what's best for the company and not be concerned at all about what's going to be good for you and your family is outrageous.
Malcolm Gladwell [00:20:15]:
I have been writing this book about black Los Angeles in the leading up to the Watts riot, and an overwhelming majority of women in black LA were employed as domestics. You lived in Watts or Central Avenue when you were a maid in Beverly Hills. What happens in that period in the 40s is they shut down the streetcar. The streetcar was built to take people from Central Avenue to Beverly Hills. They shut it down and a commute that used to be X became 2X. And I often think that there are huge books and academic studies written about "why did LA explode in riots in the 1960s?" and I'm wondering whether it's not this very simple logistical tuition that a large class of people – either themselves or saw their mother – go from barely managing to get to work on time to have to seeing her commute doubled: three buses as opposed to one streetcar. The way which we think about the Watts riots of '65 is such a version of what we're talking about here. It's like an educated person cannot help but think about this in these grand philosophical and ideological and economic terms when a big chunk of it may just been as simple as, my – because I was reading all of these autobiographies about this period, the number of times in the autobiography where the person describes standing outside their house after dark waiting for their mom to get home because her commute had turned into hell in the 40s. That's what we're talking about here, right? Impediments to people's participation in the economy.
Rachel Romer [00:21:58]:
I hadn't heard that snapshot or analogy of the riots, but I fear that's exactly what's happening in Populism in the U.S. right now. And to bring us back to an earlier part of the conversation and the hot take to wrap us up, I fear it's the US higher ed system and particularly the elite admissions process that is the number one driver of Populism right now. Because people have suddenly said this thing's rigged. Like what I was told I was supposed to do, what I was told to get my kids into these schools. What the kids felt when they got all those rejections, not knowing that they had a five x higher hill to climb than the rich kid applying to the same college. We hear it every single day in our conversations with the 5 million Americans we talk to.
Adam Grant [00:22:42]:
I think MIT has gotten this right in at least one way. When they threw legacy out the window altogether and said, we're not going to look at that as a factor in admissions. We don't care if your parents went here. That shouldn't give you an edge that's already given you an edge. Let's take that out of the picture altogether. And I think it's absurd that every university in America hasn't done that yet.
Rachel Romer [00:23:03]:
Yeah, I think that's exactly right. And there are two levers that are deeply related legacy and full pay. Because, unfortunately, these schools are businesses. And even the public schools like Colorado, their public schools used to be majority funded by the state legislature. Now they're privately funded 92, 94% of their budget. I think, on an average, school is privately funded, even though we call them state schools. So they're businesses, which means they literally have a reason to accept the person who can pay 100% with their parents and a reason not to accept the person who can only pay partial or none at all. So until we decide if we want higher ed to be a business or a social good, we're going to be trapped in what I think is the more complicated version of shutting down the trolley. Malcolm, what's your magic wand? If you were suddenly chancellor of the Ivy Leagues of America, what would you do?
Malcolm Gladwell [00:23:52]:
Oh my God. I would probably ask each of them to triple in size or yeah. To find some way to education more people. To obviously end legacy admissions, you have to, at some point, surrender your claim to being at the top of the heap. I'm more and more convinced that this is the case. I'm not opposed to meritocracies. I think meritocracies are very useful in various contexts. And I also think that there are many professions in which there is a genuine hierarchy of skill, and you want to have a place where that really knows how to do brain surgery. But I'm more and more convinced that undergraduate education is not the place where those kinds of hierarchies need to be enforced. So I would do whatever I could to dismantle the very position that they hold. So if I was princeton has an endowment of $37 billion. I think they should just give it away, just start over. It's like there's no longer any function to them holding onto this. Take that $37 billion, give it to schools that need the money. And if they need to raise money, they already have an installed base of insanely rich people who will give them more. But it's just they're not in the absence of that kind of grand gesture, we're not going to change the function of these institutions.
Rachel Romer [00:25:14]:
The opportunity divide exists, and the question is, what are we going to do about it?
Adam Grant [00:25:20]:
Something I see all the time with managers, which is when you ask them why someone is not growing or not developing up to their potential. There are only two kinds of explanations that managers give. One is motivation. "This person doesn't care enough. They're lazy. They're not committed." The other is ability. "This person lacks the natural talent, the skill, the intelligence, the expertise." And what they never talk about is what we've been talking about this whole conversation – which is opportunity. That this person was never given the mentoring, that nobody opened a door, that nobody believed in them or gave them a chance. And I think that there's so much opportunity to think about, how do we create those opportunity structures? Because I think the logistical barriers are a lack of opportunity. And I wish we had a more robust set of systems to say, this is what a good opportunity structure and future looks like in a workplace.
Rachel Romer [00:26:14]:
In our conversations this season, we've gained incredible insights into the why behind the opportunity divide that exists for so much of the American workforce. And now it's time to act. Thank you so much to our guests this season, and especially to Adam Grant for joining me for these incredibly important conversations. Please share this podcast with just one other leader. You know, share it with them so that they can think about how they want to change the way we enable the frontline American workforce and how we close the opportunity gap. For more on how you can partner with us to close the opportunity gap together, click on the link in the show Notes.