The Olympics we’re watching in Tokyo shows the best of sports: perseverance, achievement, grace. We cheer for underdogs and cry over heartbreak. We share in moments of glory, too fleeting, where talent that is “1 in a million” triumphs over adversity.
The Olympics we’re not watching has the same stories, but with even higher stakes. Around the world, the extraordinary potential of human beings shows in inventions big and small: in the triumph of vaccines that come together in months; in the ingenuity of shoes that generate power for small villages; in the resourcefulness of telehealth apps that bring support to the elderly.
In the first instance, we work systematically as a society to find the best talent and elevate it to glory. In the other, we don’t. It isn’t that we need an Olympic Games for human ingenuity; life presents that. What we need is Olympic preparation for talent to solve our hardest problems.
USA TODAY’s opinion newsletter: Get the best insights and analysis delivered to your inbox.
In today’s era of multibillion dollar sports teams all looking for the next Olympic gold medalist, nothing is left to chance. Talent is scouted, developed and continuously enriched – not only by intuition and feel, but also by commitment to data-driven analytics that lead to measurable results.
If we care about solving society’s most formidable problems, why do we leave so much to chance?
History is full of examples of brilliant young people who were trod upon by the heavy feet of an indifferent universe. We can’t just wait for Albert Einstein to emerge from the back room of a patent office, or for Katherine Johnson to quietly rise against the odds stacked against her.
Report after report shows the effect that gifted people can have in driving innovation, economic growth and social progress when developed at an early age. We should take the mental model of sports analytics to drive the discovery and development of this exceptional talent.
Identify talent at young age
Our blueprint is simple and universal:
►Search early. At elite basketball camps, soccer clubs, tennis academies and Formula One driving teams, it’s common to recruit aspiring champions in their early teens or even younger, depending on the sport.
LeBron James and Kobe Bryant went prep-to-pro before the NBA age restriction was adopted in 2005. Similarly, we should systematically find and connect the most innovative talent early, before college. Programs like Rise have begun that work, but we need much broader investment.
►Search broadly. With the globalization of a sport such as basketball, it has become customary for teams to consider every part of the world as potentially harboring unsung talent. From Spain to Serbia. Cameroon to the Congo. No continental stone is left unturned.
We believe this same mentality should be applied toward the effort of unearthing rare gems of human intellectual potential.
►Reward the people and institutions that help. Participating government agencies and independent philanthropists should not only reward the talent themselves (for example, through student loan adjustments) but also institutions whose alumni have made an unusually large impact on the world and persist in their work for others beyond the institution.
We reward the shareholders of Pfizer or Moderna, but what about the institutions whose research made these discoveries possible?
►Take an interdisciplinary approach. Sports training programs have become increasingly holistic, covering everything from nutrition to strength training to mental health. The Human Genome Project, which drew upon the expertise of chemists, biologists, computer scientists and more, should serve as a template for our approach to our work.
While programs like the Russell Westbrook Why Not? Academy and Schmidt Science Fellows are testing these models, we need more content, more distribution and broader proof points.
Make decisions based on data
►Lead with data. In recent years, across the spectrum of sports, reliance on advanced analytics has taken on a central role in the effort to engineer consistently successful teams.
Today, anyone – not just scouts – can go to websites like MaxPreps, Rivals.com, ESPN and others to find real-time rankings of top teenage recruits. We should make it much easier for brilliant young people everywhere to find – through both high- and low-tech platforms – the most significant scholarships available to them today.
We also need AI-based tools and more systematic information about talent, including both longitudinal academic study and local testing data for analysis.
If sports shows us anything, it’s that talent wins. But it doesn’t win by accident.
Russell Westbrook is an Olympic gold medalist, All-Star basketball player and founder of the Why Not? Foundation. Eric Braverman is founding CEO of Schmidt Futures, a philanthropic initiative of Eric and Wendy Schmidt.