February 20

What We Can Measure Isn’t Always an Accurate Predictor of Success

Tom Brady was the 199th pick in the 6th round the year he was drafted to the NFL. The other quarterbacks in the draft had won national championships in college and been superstars. Of those quarterbacks that were drafted before him, one was cut from the NFL after his first game, and the others didn't amount to much.

On the first day of practice, Brady who was a 4th-string quarterback walked up to the owner of the New England Patriots and said "Mr. Kraft my name is Tom Brady." Kraft said "I know who you are," and Brad replied, "I'm going to be the best decision you've ever made."

We live in a culture of measurements and metrics. We've quantified almost every aspect of our humanity, and with technology, we have the ability to measure everything from our vital signs to athletic performance. But if there's anything we should take away from the story of Tom Brady, it's that what we can measure isn't always an accurate predictor of success or future performance.

Measurement and metrics dominate the modern education system. The future potential of students is almost entirely based on grades and standardized test scores. Colleges use high school GPA's and standardized test scores to predict the likelihood of students success. The higher the score, the more prestigious of an institution that student is likely to succeed at. Or so the story goes.

Rumor has it the valedictorian of my high school had a hellish first few years at an Ivy League school, wrote a blank check to a homeless person, and lost his way.

Thanks to Indian parents with high expectations, I was a straight A-student in high school. My SAT score was unimpressive by elite college standards: a 1270. But I got into Berkeley. Despite my best efforts to study, I got terrible grades and left with a degree in Environmental Economics only because I met most of the prerequisites. For years, I'd have nightmares about showing up to a final exam, having never been to the class. Then I see the diploma on the wall at my parent's house and remember, "Oh yeah, I did graduate."

Corporations make hiring decisions based on GPA's and test scores. With my poor grades and unimpressive SAT score, I knew that I'd never get a job at any of the following investment banks or consulting firms:

  • Mckinsey
  • Goldman Sachs
  • Accenture
  • Deloitte

At 22, I concluded that I wasn't that smart and the only high paying gig I could land with my intellect was working in sales. My early bosses chained me to a desk, forced me to make cold calls all day, and concluded that I was lazy, unmotivated, and uninterested in controlling my own destiny. I was put on multiple performance improvement plans. But nobody ever thought to ask if maybe I was in the wrong profession.

You can't be lazy or unmotivated to write books. You have to be completely self-motivated because your editor gives you a deadline and expects you to deliver a manuscript in 6 months. Nobody holds you accountable but you.

There was one thing that every boss I had completely overlooked. Despite my ADD, when I was genuinely interested in something, I could bring an obsessive level of focus and determination to it.

Texas arguably has the best high-school music programs in the country. The audition process for all-state band is extremely competitive. Nine thousand high school band students from across Texas audition, in twenty-two different regions for 295 spots.

I started playing the tuba in 7th grade and missed all-region band by one chair. The next year I was first chair, and my freshman year in high school, I missed all-state band by one chair, and then made all-state band the next 3 years in high school when we moved to California. But you'd never know that I had this kind of discipline from my resume or GPA.

The challenge with what we can't measure is that we don't have crystal indicators. We have to go out of our way to look for these things. If we continue to reward only qualities that can be measured, that's what we will breed.

Students will be more obsessed with grades and scores than learning, answers more than questions. People will choose careers based on pedigree instead of purpose. Instead of people who solve interesting problems and lead, we'll end up with people who wait for instructions and follow.

The employee that cost Google over a billion dollars

While he was working at Google, a young Stanford graduate wanted to apply to the associate program manager position. But he was ruled out because he didn't meet one of the criteria. He didn't have a computer science degree. So he eventually left Google and started a company. His name was Kevin Systrom.

So, that finally leaves us with the question of how do we spot the qualities we can't measure? How do we make sure we don't make the mistake of missing out on the next Tom Brady?

When we're rigid about criteria, insistent on certain metrics, and unwilling to budge, we overlook opportunities that are hiding in plain sight. We undervalue latent talent and overvalue pedigree.

To judge a person's potential and performance based entirely on what they've done on the job causes us to miss out on qualities that can't be measured. Often you'll find the immeasurable in what they've done outside of work.

While Brady's metrics didn't necessarily impress, there were certain things that NFL scouts didn't notice. He'd been responsible for multiple comebacks as the backup quarterback at Michigan. His college coach even told the Patriots "You'll never regret drafting this guy.”

To make sure we don't miss the immeasurable we have to consider the following:

Cognitive Biases

A few weeks ago a friend called me to talk about signing with a literary agent and pursuing a book deal with a publisher. Prior to speaking to me, he'd spoken with another author who had multiple best-seller lists and received a flood of inquiries for speaking engagements, unlike anything he'd seen before his traditionally published book. But this author also had a massive audience and it was almost a guarantee that his book would be a best-seller.

Even though I also experienced an increase in demand for paid speaking gigs after writing a book, I explained to my friend that he should be aware of his confirmation bias. The conversations he was having confirmed what he wanted to believe: a traditionally published book would lead to more paid speaking engagements.

Chances are NFL recruiters fell victim to their own confirmation bias the year Tom Brady was drafted into the NFL.

We all have cognitive biases that blind us and alter our decisions. When we're unaware of those, it's easy to dismiss the value of things we can't measure.


There's nothing that will get in the way of your ability to make a good decision like your ego. Without humility, we miss opportunities to learn, overlook undervalued assets, and make decisions that cost us.

I strongly believe that emerging talent is the most undervalued asset on the internet. We're quick to write off skilled people because they don't have a big platform or audience. Yet, in doing so we miss out on people who have the potential to produce a lot of value. Emerging talent has something to prove. They might have a chip on their shoulder that motivates them to bust their ass.

When I asked Kingshuk to join our team, he was building a pool cleaning company. He wasn't known as a content and growth strategist and didn't have a decorated resume with Ivy League degrees and impressive clients. Over dinner on a random Friday night, I asked him what he would do with an email list of 15,000 people. He spoke for two hours and the next week we invited him to come on a team building trip with us to Colorado.

Since he's joined our team, he doubled the size of our email list, developed two online courses, and has run multiple product launches. Had we assessed his ability based solely on what we could measure, we would have missed out.


My friend Gareth Pronovost is smart and gritty. When I asked him to take a look at our podcast download data, he build a comprehensive dashboard in 24 hours. He's got a strong bias towards action and is a wizard with data.

In the time we've been friends, I've seen him start four businesses. Three of those businesses failed completely. But, I always knew he would eventually succeed as an entrepreneur for one reason: grit.

When he couldn't afford to hire a web developer, he took an online class and taught himself how to code. The first web site was his third business, but it didn't take off either.

I've never been hesitant to recommend anyone to hire him because I know they'll never regret that decision.

Then he started another business, where he helps organizations and individuals automate their workflow using Airtable. He recorded a Youtube video every week, built a simple website to capture leads and book consultations, and drove traffic from his videos to his web site with ads. In the last 6 months, he's built a company and is regularly earning five figures a month. I'm willing to bet money that any investor would get a massive return from a stake in his company.

There's no way to measure persistence, grit, and resilience. To make sure we don't miss it, we have to look for examples of it in people's stories.

There are idiots with degrees from Harvard Business School, assholes at every Ivy League school, and morons with perfect SAT scores. There are athletes who killed it in college, but didn't last more than one game in the NFL. There are employees who've been fired only to go out and start their own companies that become worth billions.

What we can measure isn't always the most accurate predictor of success. When we believe that it is and make our decisions through the filter of that belief, we miss out on the Tom Bradys and Kevin Systroms of the world. What are the things you can't measure that you've overlooked?


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