First Place, Worst Place
I'm writing thirty posts in thirty days. This is number twenty-three.
Curiously, it’s often the case that total victory in some kind of societal competition isn’t actually the ideal outcome. The best-case scenario is ending up somewhere off to the side. Consider the following examples:
The best way to win the Bachelor isn’t to win the Bachelor. The single contestant you’re competing for is unlikely to be a suitable match—they’re selected for stardom, not for your lifestyle. What you should do, instead, is make it to the final four, at which point your dating pool will expand by roughly 10,000x. Then you can just have a personal dating show composed entirely of your Instagram DMs.
Being a celebrity gets you access and prestige at the cost of many of your meaningful liberties, which doesn’t seem like a worthwhile tradeoff. But being a micro-celebrity gives you access to the things you’re interested in, with only a tiny portion of the baggage. Someone like Tyler Cowen gets a lot of the nice celebrity stuff—people will pick up the phone when he calls—but he can actually walk down the street like a normal person.
Running a prominent, fashionable enterprise is exciting and remunerative. But fashion is fickle and increases competition’s appetite, and many cool businesses are smaller than you’d think. Meanwhile, DocuSign, while unglamorous, is a 50 billion dollar company. The wealthiest person I know, by far, did a great job at something you would probably never think about ever. He barely shows up on google.
In the short run, the life of a literary darling is lucrative as well as high-prestige. However, in the long run, the life of a pulp novelist is better; more reliable money, less dealing with aristocracy. In the near term, the life of a rock star is fun, but in the long term, the life of a successful music producer is much nicer—you get to collaborate with the best while being sane like the rest.
Given that we are ambitious people who live in an ambitious culture, our mimetic drives are often trained on peak human. The most natural targets for emulation—if you’re shooting high—are successful, lucky, prestigious, and highly visible. But such people’s lives are just a bundle of extremes. There are nice things in those bundles that can be had elsewhere.