In my eighth grade junior high school yearbook one my friends wrote, I know you’re going to get into Stanford. Four years later, I went to Stanford Law School, ended up at a big law firm in New York where from the outside everybody wanted to get in and on the inside everybody wanted to leave and it was this very strange dynamic where I realized, this was maybe not the best idea, and I left after seven months and three days.
Other people down the hall told me, it’s really reassuring to see you leave, Peter, I had no idea that it was possible to escape from Alcatraz, which of course all you had do was go out the front door and not come back. But so much of people’s identities got wrapped up in winning these competitions that they somehow lost sight of what was important, what was valuable. Competition does make you better at whatever it is that you’re competing at because when you’re competing you’re comparing yourself with the people around you. I’m figuring out how to beat the people next to me, how do I do somewhat better than whatever it is they’re doing and you will get better at that. I’m not questioning that, I’m not denying that, but there often comes this tremendous price that you stop asking some bigger questions about what’s truly important and truly valuable. Don’t always go through the tiny little door that everyone’s trying to rush through, maybe go around the corner and go through the vast gate that nobody is taking.
Q: If someone worked at Goldman Sachs out of college and left after six months and is now studying CS at Stanford, how would you recommend rethinking their competitive advantage?
A: I am not great at the psychotherapy stuff, so I don’t quite know how to solve this. There are these very odd studies they have done on people who go to business school, this one was done at the Harvard Business School where it’s sort of the anti-Asbergers personality, where people are super extroverted, generally have low convictions, few ideas and you have sort of a hothouse environment you put all these people and for two years and at the end of it, they systematically end up, the largest cohort systematically ends up doing the wrong thing, they try to catch the last wave. in 1999 everyone tried to work with Mike Milken, this was a few years before he went to jail for all the junk bond stuff.
They were never interested in Silicon Valley or tech except for 1999, 2000 when they timed the dotcom bubble peaking perfectly. 2005 to 2007 was housing, private equity, stuff like this. This tendency for us to see competition as validation is very deep, I don’t think there’s some easy psychological formula to avoid this. I don’t quite know how what sort of therapy to recommend.
My first starting point, which is only going to be maybe ten percent of the way, is to never underestimate how big a problem it is. We always think that this is something that afflicts other people. We always point to people in business school, people at Harvard or people on Wall Street, but it actually does afflict all of us to a very profound degree. We always think of advertising as this thing that works on other people, for all the stupid people who follow ads on TV, but they obviously work to some extent and they work to the disturbing extent on all of us and it’s something we must work to overcome.