The Formula Behind High-Achieving Employees

When we interview candidates, we often try to predict achievement by looking at past success. But what if we could measure achievement more directly?

In Flourish, psychologist Martin Seligman sets out a simple formula for achievement:

achievement = skill x effort

Here’s what that means for your next hiring interview. 


Skill has three components: speed, (its seeming opposite) slowness, and rate of learning. 

Speed. Speed is what we usually think of as intelligence, and it’s correlated with IQ. Competitions like Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune prize speed. 

When you’re fast, that often means that many of your mental processes are on automatic. Seligman gives the example of a soldier who can scan the hillside and immediately sense a threat, his brain instantaneously processing the trampled ground and odd silence. Speedy people seem to have great intuitions.

To test speed, observe how fast they answer questions that require basic familiarity and knowledge of their task or industry, but little creativity. 

Slowness. But what’s the point of being so fast? Once your brain has figured out the basics, it’s time to slow down and do more creative tasks. It’s time for “executive function.”

“Executive function consists of focusing and ignoring distractions, remembering and using new information, planning action and revising the plan, and inhibiting fast, impulsive thoughts and actions,” explains Seligman.

Speedy people can be prone to take shortcuts, skip over nuances, not listen well, and be anxious. They may dive into the first path they discover, rather than taking time to ponder if there are other, better paths. 

Give candidates creative problems, and see if they pause to consider them thoughtfully. Ask if they meditate or take quiet breaks during the day. See how long it takes them to respond to all your questions. 

Rate of learning. Rate of learning is the change in mental speed over time, or how fast you can acquire and automatize new information. Faster learners will become more knowledgeable and more skilled than their peers will for every hour they spend working for you. It’s hard to assess rate of learning in an interview, but you might consider assigning a test project or doing a trial period, and seeing how long it takes them to catch on.


Pure and simple, effort refers to how much time you spend on a task. And the character trait that increases effort is called grit. 

Grit is an extreme form of self-discipline, which combines persistence and passion for a goal. Grit can predict everything from GPA to who drops out of West Point training to who wins spelling bees.

What you’re looking for are people who are diligent, finish what they start, and persist despite setbacks. People without grit tend to get distracted from, lose interest, or have trouble focusing on goals. You can try to discern grit with indirect questions, or have candidates take a test of grit here.

Grit may be behind the suggestion that the most important thing you can say in an interview is “I’m sorry, but I just don’t think this is the right fit for you.” Most candidates will say thank you and leave; the right candidate will persist despite this obstacle and explain why they’re a great fit. 

Candidates with grit will work long hours and be less likely to give up, which is exactly what you need at a startup.

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Written by:
Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact
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