Pupils with the highest marks receive status and credentials. We teach every young person the same subjects in mostly the same ways, irrespective of individual talents and preferences. Students who don’t learn best by sitting still at a desk are made to feel somehow inferior, while students who excel in conventional measures like tests and assignments end up defining their identities in terms of this weirdly contrived academic parallel reality. And it gets worse as students ascend to higher levels of the tournament. Elite students climb confidently until they reach a level of competition sufficiently intense to beat their dreams out of them.
Higher education is the place where people who had big plans in high school get stuck in fierce rivalries with equally smart peers over conventional careers like ‘management consulting’ and ‘investment banking’. For the privilege of being turned into conformists — students, or their families– pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in skyrocketing tuition that continues to outpace inflation. Why are we doing this to ourselves?
That’s a quote from Peter Thiel’s Zero to One, a book on startups I read years ago and just re-listened to this weekend during a long drive. In it, Thiel makes a steady case for monopoly being the thing businesses should strive for.
When I first read Zero to One, it didn’t make much of an impact, in part because I resisted the endorsement of monopoly. A monopoly to me was basically the same thing as the Empire in Star Wars. The idea of monopoly brought to mind antitrust lawsuits and the oft-touted belief that competition is healthy.
Competition is good, right?
We like competition, don’t we?
More on competition later. The main reason why I resisted Thiel’s endorsement of monopoly was because it’s a paralyzing idea for most people.
Here I’m taking the idea of monopoly and applying it to people rather than businesses, in the line of “why don’t we have a society entirely composed of people pursuing their life calling?”
The dream scenario would be that everyone devotes themselves fully to what they love and do whatever it takes to excel, to make the most impact in the world, for their loved ones, and within themselves.
“Don’t die with your song inside you,” we say.
Except for what I said earlier, which is that this whole thing is paralyzingly difficult for most people.
The very possibility that there is One Thing so important and singular — well, you had better get it right. Otherwise, no monopoly for you.
This difficulty is compounded by the fact that the truest things for people tend to also be the most vulnerable. Meaning, your life calling might be camouflaged in the dark forest part of your psyche where no one is ever allowed admittance.
Understandably, people give up. Since nothing could live up to its own ideal, they phone it in.
Excuses show up immediately.
Somehow, excuses always find a way in:
- I want to be an artist but I can’t pay the bills, so Mona Lisa’ll have to wait.
- I’m just not good enough.
- I have that old injury.
- I’ll go to school to get a well-paying job so I’ll have time to devote to my art or whatever.
And when it’s not excuses, it’s a wrong monopoly that gets created. A person becomes a top-notch painter, but the whole endeavor is a distraction from who they should really be.
So if that’s the wrong monopoly, what’s the right one?
You won’t be able to tell just by looking. The achievement matters, but the truth isn’t in the achievement. The pudding is in the process and the achievement.
Most people aren’t in touch with what they want to do. After all, it’s not remotely easy to be someone who:
- Knows what their biggest nature wants to do
- Is equipped emotionally, financially, socially, materially to follow through
- Has sufficient confidence and training and support to excel
I don’t think we’re aware of the limits placed on us by our conditioning — by society, the generation we live in, our parents, so forth.
“What’s your calling” is an extremely difficult question, and it’s reasonable that people conflate it with “What’s on the career menu?”
My own life has shown me that even if you don’t know the absolute answer, your saintlike calling that will make you a billionaire philanthropist rockstar in just 7 minutes of ab crunches a day, the main thing is to make sure you don’t say no to growth when it’s available, and that you are heading ever-more in the direction of your Big Thing at any given time. It may be true that we have to pursue one thing for awhile to learn the ropes, and then a different thing to discover that there is a still deeper thing.
Conditioning can be shed, onion-like, only in earnest pursuit coupled with either a total stubbornness to the unseen thing or a general understanding that the truth is always beyond appearance but can only be found in interaction with appearance.
Taking no action will not engender the kind of inner alchemy that causes the conditioning to fall away. It will be a life of dullness.
Taking action and getting locked into the first station, whether by accepting a level of success, or some measure of failure, will be better than not trying at all, but will leave the real pursuit tantalizingly deeper, and the achiever in the purgatory of ambiguity.
Instead, the quest is to be devoted monopolistically to the pursuit of painting such that the earnest engagement leads you to the relationship that introduces you to the person who in a chance conversation sparks a whole different life trajectory in which you become a rocket engineer.
This sort of thing happens all the time, and I would like it to happen more and more. To those who would call it magical thinking, I challenge them to introspect whether it could be a valuable belief.
The Thiel quote resonates with me because it looks at deeper causes, especially around the neurotic ways we conflate identity with career or performance, and the inhumanity of this kind of competition.
Elite students climb confidently until they reach a level of competition sufficiently intense to beat their dreams out of them.
It suggests that such an outcome is no coincidence — really, it’s the role of this competitive ideology to beat the dreams from someone, and to pit people against each other.
I’m not trying to generalize that competition is bad or advocate utopic thinking (although there are worse things to advocate). The value that stood out for me in this section was that it it pointed to a deeper level of the ideology of competition we’re steeped in.
Like a fish in water, unless these things get noticed, they just get accepted and we’re more or less powerless to navigate things so that life brings us better options.
Maybe what we want is to win, not to compete.
Maybe you don’t need to be good at the things you aren’t good at.
His basic solution from a business angle is to address a job to be done for a niche market that’s an order of magnitude better than the existing solution.
In life, the value I see is to seek earnestly what you most care about and to ruthlessly prioritize that. Deal with the facts of life, but set up your life so that it supports what you actually care the most about.