The Competitive Edge of Uniqueness
Unpopular Opinion

American society is typified by its theoretical commitments to capitalism and, therefore, to competition. From an early age, American children are pushed to play sports like football and tennis — that is, to compete. We are taught that we can make it to the top by becoming the best competitors out there. Think about all of the starry-eyed kids who want to become famous athletes and performers. Only 0.03 percent of high school basketball players actually make it to the NBA. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 70,000 paid actors in the United States, which equates to only 0.0002 percent of the population; furthermore, most of those actors do not achieve Leonardo DiCaprio levels of fame. That level of competition is like taking a test where even scoring within the 99th percentile is still failure. Though the chances of success are infinitesimal, our society encourages impressionable youths to retain virtually impossible goals.

This behavior strikes me as pointless. Every student of introductory economics knows that, in a state of perfect competition, or a hypothetical market where competition is at its maximum level, all the profits disappear. While perfect competition does not exist in the real world, any form of competition eats away at the potential benefits that any one person can reap. Let’s return to the example of performers. I know someone from my hometown who dropped out of college to become a rapper; needless to say, his quest to become a music legend is not going well. There are simply too many other people out there with the same skills, goals and mindset.

What most people fail to realize is that competition is reckless unless you have a defensible competitive advantage. Even if you do, it is nullified if others have a similar or equally valuable advantage. To realize true success, you need to be fundamentally different, which is hard because humans exhibit herd behavior and mimesis. This is why we emulate our role models; we believe we can succeed by modeling the behavior of people we admire. But if you want to be an actor just like DiCaprio, why would anyone cast you when they could just go get him? If you played baseball exactly like Derek Jeter, there would be no point in recruiting you because you would not move the needle on any sabermetrics models — you would not add new value.

Alternatively, monopolists exert complete power over markets; they set prices and block competition. While we are conditioned to think monopoly is harmful, monopolists are the winners in society. Historically, patents have literally given monopolies to people in order to encourage them to create things that are usefully different — think about the value created by the first telephone and railroad companies. Today, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are multi-billionaires because they have monopolized. Rather than competing on existing dimensions and catering to computer scientists, Gates created a PC that everyone could use. Buffett decided to take value-investing to its logical extremes while every other financial firm chased trends. Monopolists win because they are different.

For a somewhat ridiculous example, consider Silly Bandz. At their peak, creator Robert Croak sold over a million packs a week, simply by tweaking a product that already existed in Asia and arbitraging it to America where it would be unique. In 2010, Croak’s company hit $200 million in revenue. Clearly, monopoly makes more sense than competition. We willfully ignore the fact that society does not reward competitors — it rewards the exceptional.

This is because in a market for perfectly competitive labor, labor is undifferentiated and substitutable. One laborer can be replaced by any other. This proves true for most jobs and clubs. Nothing really differentiates one Students of Georgetown, Inc. applicant from another; literally anyone can make coffee or salad. Therefore trying to compete on those dimensions is futile. Even trying to compete based on cultural fit is tough because there are so many people who exhibit the requisite traits. You need to meet all of those base criteria and add something new — that could be something intangible like charisma or a sense of humor, or it could be exceptional design skills. The point is, trying to be the perfect competitor is worthless because you are only valuable insofar as you are different from the competition.

Many people opine on the competition problem at Georgetown, but few offer concrete solutions. To that end, I say that because we reward the unique, it is better simply not to fixate on competing. Instead of getting discouraged about the tough process to get into clubs like Georgetown University Alumni and Student Federal Credit Union and Georgetown University Student Investment Fund, work instead on creating some sort of lasting competitive advantage. In the long run, cultivating the thing that separates you from everyone else is what will generate the most value. Refusing to compete forces you to strike out on your own, push the bounds of comfort, develop diverse new skills and become a leader rather than a follower.

 

Rahul Desai is a junior in the McDonough School of Business. Unpopular Opinion appears every other Tuesday.

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