Here is a brief excerpt from an article written by Malcolm Gladwell for The New Yorker (December 15, 2008). Although written years ago, it still has some bite. To read the complete article and check out other Gladwell resources, please click here.
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How do we hire when we can’t tell who’s right for the job?
On the day of the big football game between the University of Missouri Tigers and the Cowboys of Oklahoma State, a football scout named Dan Shonka sat in his hotel, in Columbia, Missouri, with a portable DVD player. Shonka has worked for three National Football League teams. Before that, he was a football coach, and before that he played linebacker—although, he says, “that was three knee operations and a hundred pounds ago.” Every year, he evaluates somewhere between eight hundred and twelve hundred players around the country, helping professional teams decide whom to choose in the college draft, which means that over the last thirty years he has probably seen as many football games as anyone else in America. In his DVD player was his homework for the evening’s big game—an edited video of the Tigers’ previous contest, against the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Shonka methodically made his way through the video, stopping and re-winding whenever he saw something that caught his eye. He liked Jeremy Maclin and Chase Coffman, two of the Mizzou receivers. He loved William Moore, the team’s bruising strong safety. But, most of all, he was interested in the Tigers’ quarterback and star, a stocky, strong-armed senior named Chase Daniel.
“I like to see that the quarterback can hit a receiver in stride, so he doesn’t have to slow for the ball,” Shonka began. He had a stack of evaluation forms next to him and, as he watched the game, he was charting and grading every throw that Daniel made. “Then judgment. Hey, if it’s not there, throw it away and play another day. Will he stand in there and take a hit, with a guy breathing down his face? Will he be able to step right in there, throw, and still take that hit? Does the guy throw better when he’s in the pocket, or does he throw equally well when he’s on the move? You want a great competitor. Durability. Can they hold up, their strength, toughness? Can they make big plays? Can they lead a team down the field and score late in the game? Can they see the field? When your team’s way ahead, that’s fine. But when you’re getting your ass kicked I want to see what you’re going to do.”
He pointed to his screen. Daniel had thrown a dart, and, just as he did, a defensive player had hit him squarely. “See how he popped up?” Shonka said. “He stood right there and threw the ball in the face of that rush. This kid has got a lot of courage.” Daniel was six feet tall and weighed two hundred and twenty-five pounds: thick through the chest and trunk. He carried himself with a self-assurance that bordered on cockiness. He threw quickly and in rhythm. He nimbly evaded defenders. He made short throws with touch and longer throws with accuracy. By the game’s end, he had completed an astonishing seventy-eight per cent of his passes, and handed Nebraska its worst home defeat in fifty-three years. “He can zip it,” Shonka said. “He can really gun, when he has to.” Shonka had seen all the promising college quarterbacks, charted and graded their throws, and to his mind Daniel was special: “He might be one of the best college quarterbacks in the country.”
But then Shonka began to talk about when he was on the staff of the Philadelphia Eagles, in 1999. Five quarterbacks were taken in the first round of the college draft that year, and each looked as promising as Chase Daniel did now. But only one of them, Donovan McNabb, ended up fulfilling that promise. Of the rest, one descended into mediocrity after a decent start. Two were complete busts, and the last was so awful that after failing out of the N.F.L. he ended up failing out of the Canadian Football League as well.
The year before, the same thing happened with Ryan Leaf, who was the Chase Daniel of 1998. The San Diego Chargers made him the second player taken over all in the draft, and gave him an eleven-million-dollar signing bonus. Leaf turned out to be terrible. In 2002, it was Joey Harrington’s turn. Harrington was a golden boy out of the University of Oregon, and the third player taken in the draft. Shonka still can’t get over what happened to him.
“I tell you, I saw Joey live,” he said. “This guy threw lasers, he could throw under tight spots, he had the arm strength, he had the size, he had the intelligence.” Shonka got as misty as a two-hundred-and-eighty-pound ex-linebacker in a black tracksuit can get. “He’s a concert pianist, you know? I really—I mean, I really—liked Joey.” And yet Harrington’s career consisted of a failed stint with the Detroit Lions and a slide into obscurity. Shonka looked back at the screen, where the young man he felt might be the best quarterback in the country was marching his team up and down the field. “How will that ability translate to the National Football League?” He shook his head slowly. “Shoot.”
This is the quarterback problem. There are certain jobs where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they’ll do once they’re hired. So how do we know whom to choose in cases like that? In recent years, a number of fields have begun to wrestle with this problem, but none with such profound social consequences as the profession of teaching.
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To read the complete article and check out other Gladwell resources, please click here.
Malcolm Gladwell has been a staff writer with The New Yorker magazine since 1996. His 1999 profile of Ron Popeil won a National Magazine Award, and in 2005 he was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. He is the author of The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference,” (2000),and Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005), both of which were number one New York Times bestsellers. More recently, What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures, and Outliers: The Story of Success (2011).