Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Perfect competition

I've attended several graduation ceremonies over the past couple of weeks. They all had good speakers, but they tended to discuss the world in rather idealized terms. Work hard, don't cheat, be kind to others, brush off setbacks, etc. and you will be a success at whatever you choose to do with your life.

But in reality, few career paths are perfect competitions.

What is the model for a perfect competition?

A few factors I believe to be crucial:

1. Everybody needs to know they are competing for something.

2. Everyone in the competition has the same knowledge.

3. The competition, at least at the lowest level, is open to anyone.

4. The goals of the competition are known to all competitors.

5. Performance is judged objectively.

6. There is turnover at each stage so people can advance.

Professional sports are the only careers I can think of that come close to being perfect competitions. Sure, there is the occasional cheating, but in most cases, the best players can and do rise to the top.

How do other career paths get corrupted?

In addition to fields where cheating isn't actively monitored for and punished, a few "isms:"

Credentialism - The requirement that people who want to compete have to first acquire an expensive and limited in number credential.

Cronyism - The friends and family members of the "judges" get advanced before the most talented players.

Team Playerism - Quiet, uncritical "players" get promoted. Players who offer up opinions are not.

No room at the top"ism" - The "winners" in a field stick around forever...and the entire competitive ladder below then becomes a logjam, too.

Stolen Creditism - Another player (usually their boss) steals credit for player's successes.

False Blame"ism" - Players get blamed for other player's mistakes.

One of my favorite quotes is: Seeing through the game is not the same as winning it.

Not sure who first said it, but it is an important idea.

Cynicism is usually what overcomes people once they realize the "game" they're playing isn't fair.

Cynicism comes, at least in part, from the idealized view of competitions gotten in youth.

It would be nice if our graduates got a little realistic career advice along with the encouragement:

If you want to succeed in a field, understand how the game is played first...


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