Scott H Young

The Obvious Choice is Often the Worst: Why People Fail Choosing Jobs, Classes and Dates


Decision

Taking at least one or two economics or business courses should be mandatory. That way I’d hear fewer business ideas that start with, “It’s like Facebook, only better.”

One of the first lessons of economics is the importance of competition. Specifically, that if you try to do what everyone else is doing, you’ll probably fail. The naively obvious choice of trumping Facebook or becoming the next Microsoft is often the worst choice.

It amazes me that this lesson is rarely seen outside of economics textbooks, since it is essential for excelling in many areas of life. Career choice, learning and even dating are just a few examples.

The “Obvious” Choice is Probably the Worst One

The rule of competition could be stated: if a choice appears obviously good to many people, and competition weakens the opportunity, then the obvious choice is probably one of the worst choices.

That’s the reason Facebook 2.0 is a bad business venture. Aside from the natural monopoly of a social network, when everyone is trying to create one, competition goes up and the chances of winning go down.

By the time an idea widely becomes “obvious” it usually isn’t very good. The first person to the gold rush is rich. The last person is just sifting pebbles.

Sexy Ideas are Often Terrible

But this applies to far more than just gold rushes and tech bubbles. If any opportunity, subject to competition, gets a lot of attention or interest, it will also probably be a worse choice.

I witnessed a perfect example of this talking with a friend who does freelance programming. Freelancing is a fairly unsexy profession, at least compared to running a business. He brought up an example of a guru in his industry who is widely respected for having a business that provides an income about $50,000 per year.

In contrast, my friend can earn that same amount in three months.

My argument isn’t that freelancing is good and entrepreneurship is bad. Instead, it’s about recognizing that the more widespread attention and sex-appeal an idea has, the tougher the competition.

Why Most Students Taking “GPA-Boosters” are Idiots

The rule of competition applies to way more than just business. Consider an example in academics:

Students who need higher grades often cherry pick a few easy classes to try to secure an A or A+. The idea here is that a few easy classes will boost the GPA brought down by the tougher courses more central to that student’s major. Let the basic computer training and basket-weaving exercises begin.

But simply understanding the rule of competition will show why this strategy isn’t a very smart one. Grades are distributed competitively. More students competing makes achieving a high grade more difficult (even if the subject material remains easy).

An A+ in such a GPA-boosting course may need a 95%. In difficult classes, even 70-80% can secure the same mark.

Therefore a smart GPA-boosting strategy wouldn’t be to go into courses everyone finds easy. Rather, it’s to go into courses that you personally find easier than the majority of people. Either courses you have a talent in, or just a peculiar interest that will make putting more effort in easier.

Why You Shouldn’t Pursue Your Dream Job

The same logic of competition applies equally to career selection. Chasing a widely-regarded “dream job” is a lousy idea. This is because, if it is in high demand, everyone will want to do it. This either reduces the quality of the opportunity, or reduces the chance that job can be secured.

Obvious candidates for extremely competitive “dream jobs” include NBA player, actor or start-up entrepreneur. But those are extremes, in day-to-day life there are more common paths that are idolized—such as starting a blog or business, to wanting to be a writer or musician.

The problem isn’t that having a passion is bad, nor is it that all attempts to find a dream job are doomed to failure. Otherwise as a blogger/writer/business-owner I’d be a terrible hypocrite.

The problem is, instead, that your actual dream job—the one that will be both attainable, and highly rewarding—is probably not the obvious choice. Instead, it will probably be found after the accumulation of skills and navigating opportunities over time.

Cal Newport shares a similar analysis that the people who loved their work the most, often worked in rather unsexy professions. To the reckless dreamers, Cal’s findings may not make sense. But, if you follow the rule of competition, it’s not surprising. When a profession becomes excessively idolized, it becomes either less rewarding or more scarce as a result.

Dating and the Rule of Competition (or Why the Hot Blond Isn’t Your Type)

Whenever I go to a party with friends and see a dozen guys all drooling over the same hot girl, I want to slap them. They obviously weren’t paying attention in economics class.

All else being equal, the person you want to pursue shouldn’t be simply the most objectively attractive person. Unless you’re in the enviable position of also being the most attractive person, you’re going to have to fight your way through the drooling masses.

Instead you should try to pick the person who you are attracted to more than most people, or the person who is more attracted to you than most people.

For some reason, women seem to understand this rule more intuitively than men. While women’s dating advice tends to focus on compatibility and finding a “match”, men’s dating advice is usually about how to chase that generic hot blond.

Some Obvious Choices are Good Ones

I’m skimming over the basic economics, but there are many areas of life where this rule doesn’t apply. Physical fitness is a prime example—me being fit or fat has nothing to do with the scarcity of different workout plans. In cases without competition, the obvious choice is probably the best one.

There are also different effects for this rule. If a choice is widely popular, but also relatively balanced in terms of distribution of results, then it might not be a bad choice either. Becoming a teacher or doctor has a fairly predictable outcome, so you mostly need to weigh the pros and cons of the individual decision.

However, even within those popular, stable choices, there is room for the competition effect. Being a doctor in a relatively unsexy field may make it easier to become world-class. Similarly, here in Canada, more teachers have a liberal-arts background, which makes job-hunting easier for teachers who studied chemistry or physics.

Don’t Just Be Different, Be Smart

I don’t suggest you become boring or give up on your dreams. Rather, I suggest getting smart about it. Recognizing where your life choices are directing you into the competitive frenzy, and navigating opportunities that can allow you to succeed.

I made the, perhaps stupidly obvious, decision to try to earn a full-time income from blogging. Perhaps what’s interesting about that choice was that I ended up being successful at it, not by pursuing book deals or traffic spikes, but by teaching learning skills—a choice that certainly wasn’t obvious to me in the beginning, but one I’m glad I took when I did.

Image thanks to JB London


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24 Responses to “The Obvious Choice is Often the Worst: Why People Fail Choosing Jobs, Classes and Dates”

  1. You are right about the troubles brought by competition. This reminded me of billing statements…

    Even though “obvious choices” may at first seem like the best choice, the competition involved is often like hidden fees in billing statements (bank accounts, cell phone plans, etc.): You were never *completely* explained what you were buying, but it did sound very lucrative at first!

  2. Dave says:

    People who are dreaming of “sexy jobs” are simply suffering from being unoriginal. That’s not necessarily their fault though.

  3. Anthony says:

    Good post!

    I just want to point out that this:

    “However, even within those popular, stable choices, there is room for the competition effect.”

    applies to part of this

    “Obvious candidates for extremely competitive “dream jobs” include NBA player, actor or start-up entrepreneur.”

    Building a start-up, often in an “un-sexy” niche, can have surprisingly little competition. Similarly, certain character or niche acting roles.

    The reason that this is less applicable to playing a professional sport is that there are only so many niches in most sports – just a few positions.

  4. Colin Wright says:

    I’m just shocked that being an entrepreneur is now seem as being sexy! Hell yeah!

    But in all seriousness, you raise a good point here; chasing what you’re told to like, pursuing supposedly easy paths and hopping on trend bandwagons lead to being one in a crowd of millions rather than one in a crowd of one.

    Stacking the deck is easy when you look at it in those terms – find a niche based on your personal preferences, talents and personality traits – just don’t get caught up in the hype created by those who benefit from keeping you from standing out.

  5. Jason Dudley says:

    I guess the trick is to just keep dabbling until you find that unexplored niche of your own to mine. And, as you’ve said, that niche might be nestled within a ‘sexy’ profession – just like how you inadvertently stumbled across blogging about learning.

  6. David Button says:

    Nice Scott!

    In secondary school, students often wanted to pick the subjects that scale there scores higher in order to achieve higher ‘overall’ marks. The downside was that these subjects were scaled up because students score poorly because they were difficult subjects.

    The advice given to us was to pick subjects or areas of interest or expertise instead. This was we could remain motivated and maintain higher scores without struggle. This helped us rise above the general competition because they were stupid in what subjects they pursued.

    Who likes to be involved in something that you find terribly boring and extremely difficult?

  7. Stanley Lee says:

    People who take GPA boosters for its sole purpose are morons. Employers either don’t care about a lot of the grades, or they would check your relative rather than absolute performance (smart employers do check the relative difficulty of courses like admissions committees do).

    For widely-regarded dream jobs even in traditional professions, they are often hyped to be both attainable, and highly rewarding, yet you’re really forced to sacrifice a lot (when crossing all the T’s and connecting all the dots) for zilch outcomes in terms of reward and attainability. Wasting time, effort, energy, attention, and emotion for zilch can be quite devastating (sure it’s great feedback, but it doesn’t change the fact that the poor decisions robbed you time that you will never get back, and you’re not likely to be successful in future trials or decisions).

  8. Andrzej says:

    Hi Scott!
    Reading it I smiled and was thinking about myself two years ago when I tried to open my own e-commerce. One of questions that my friend who did that for over five years then asked was: What is your niche? Why your clients should even know you? what 10 things will be better in your case?

    It made me browse like crazy for a whole afternoon and in the evening I had to admit “I have no clue”. And then he just smiled and said “Good, now let’s see what we can do about it”. Three hours later I understood that I didn’t wanted do do it anyway. I wanted to work for my own, but this way was not for me.

    It took me then several months do rethink what’s important in my life. And I have to agree – you have to be damn smart to reach for your dreams. But learning to be that way fruits in many other ways ;)

    Andrzej

  9. Scott Young says:

    Anthony,

    Good point. I suppose entrepreneurship (particularly of the let’s start a passive-income-online-business variety) runs a lot in the blogging circles I’m in, so I see it as being an overcompetitive niche. Start-ups in less sexy industries are a good example of being smart when chasing your dream job.

    Andrzej,

    Competitive analysis is only one factor to consider when starting a business, and you’re right–some people can get into a flexible business environment and sort of “feel” there way through it. Frankly, that’s what I did with my business. I was very much like your position–not knowing what my niche or speciality could possibly be–but after time I guided myself towards one.

    Stanley,

    I don’t usually see GPA boosters as being for employment, but for future academics. Gaining acceptance into a particular faculty, for example, may have a set GPA requirement, but little oversight into the actual composition of courses beyond the requirements.

    But you’re right–taking courses solely for a higher GPA is dumb.

    Maria,

    That’s probably why I always grill the sales rep before signing contracts!

  10. Al fred Hung says:

    obvious choice or not……seems involved some complicated tradeoff……

  11. jon says:

    I do agree with you that alternative methords , is becoming the way to go now. However in my opinion it’s realizing what theories would benefit and work effectivly is the most difficult.

    What suggestions and niches would you make for any aspiring bloggers and other Internet based work.

  12. Nwokedi says:

    Nice post Scott.

    The one hang up in this perspective is that as humans, we often times have a bad perception of what “most” people think or believe. (ask any jaded startup founder :o)

  13. Scott Young says:

    Nwokedi,

    True. There is the perceptual bias to view others as more similar to ourselves than they actually are (vegetarians overestimating the % of people who are vegetarians, for example).

    Thinking about the rule of competition is just one thing to keep in mind when making decisions, hardly the only factor.

  14. Thomas says:

    Would becoming a conceptartist be a sexy or unsexy profession?

  15. Dom says:

    But Scott,

    Beating all those other people at a difficult contest is where all the fun is at. Watching everyone else’s jaw drop in jealousy when you take home the hot blond makes it all that much better. If you’d ever gotten the hot blond you would realize this.

  16. I think dream job or idea can be perfect choices to follow, if they are based on your passion and beliefs and not because it is in high demand. It may not work instantly but in long run with hard work and little luck, it may flourish! Aren’t you living your dream life?

  17. Scott Young says:

    Zengirl,

    Competition isn’t the only factor–just one to consider. And even within the span of dream jobs, you can intelligently make choices to make the process more likely to succeed (as I mentioned in the last paragraph).

    Dom,

    I suppose inspiring envy isn’t my main goal in chasing women. ;)

  18. Radek says:

    Shouldn’t just people do what they love to do, enjoy , are passionate about? In my opinion this is the only way to success. If I enjoy my job and do it the best way I can, I don’t care about competition. The most important part here for me is, I don’t spend 8 or more hours a day doing something I don’t like or enjoy.

    I believe there are many people who take a big competition as a challenge, as with the blond girl.

  19. Scott Young says:

    Radek,

    Why do the two need to be mutually exclusive?

    Of course you need to do something you enjoy passionately–I see plenty of overlap between that and other more pragmatic considerations.

    -Scott

  20. Stuart says:

    Hm, interesting observations here, some of which (on first glance) I probably would disagree with.

    However, that’s what happens when you don’t take the time to understand something! Upon reading this post properly, I realise that a lot of this may not be applicable in my personal life, but it makes SENSE. And this is important for everyone, that they understand what is being truly said.

    I think I’ll read some more of what you write Scott, I’m genuinely intrigued and impressed. Keep up the good work :-)

  21. “The problem is, instead, that your actual dream job—the one that will be both attainable, and highly rewarding—is probably not the obvious choice. Instead, it will probably be found after the accumulation of skills and navigating opportunities over time.”

    I think the problem is putting ‘Dream’ and ‘Job’ side by side as if that really exists. Think playing in the NBA is a dream job because superstars get paid millions? Yea, sure, but they spent their lifetimes scrapping and fighting for hours and hours a day on the playground and in the gym. It’s thrilling but not exactly fun to wrestle Dwight Howard for rebounds for 38 minutes.

    Sometimes people think ‘dream job = easy money’… Which means they’ll take any job (regardless of the morality) as long as the paycheque is good, a cynical, depressing thought.

    A job is to make money… people don’t go to sleep at night dreaming about more work. Rather than dream about the office, try dreaming about what you’re going to do in your free time, because that’s where your passion and energy is going to come from. When you can bring THAT energy to the office, amazing things start to happen. That’s how people can smile through the toughest, most stressful jobs.

  22. [...] second problem is made worse by competition or the failed-simulation effect. Competition tends to weaken the most obvious opportunities, so [...]

  23. [...] is stupid for the main reason that it often doesn’t work. GPA booster classes are under the same competitive pressure as all classes, so they tend to result [...]

  24. [...] But just because it’s unfair, it doesn’t make it untrue. Yes “match” matters, particularly in a competitive environment, but let’s not kid ourselves that everything and everyone were created [...]

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