Hiring is Not a Competition
In 1995, economists Robert Frank and Philip Cook wrote a book entitled The Winner-Take-All Society. They connected globalization to the amplification of small differences and thus an increase in economic inequality. Globalization means not only that market participants face competition on a global scale, but also that the disappearance of regional markets leads to fewer winners overall.
Winner-take-all markets create two kinds of market inefficiency. The first is that they attract too many participants — especially since participants often overestimate their odds of winning. The second is that they create a positional arms race: participants invest in the hope of improving their relative position, but their competing investments cancel each other out.
The Talent Marketplace
On one side of the talent marketplace, hiring managers pursue “top talent”. Especially in Silicon Valley, it’s hard to get through a week without reading a blog post about the "war for talent", "rock stars", “A players”, etc. Naturally, companies attempt to attract and retain "rock stars" by competing on compensation and perks, as well as by enlisting armies of recruiters. They also use hiring processes that have a high rate of false negatives, since their biggest fear is accidentally hiring a "B player".
On the other side, potential employees find themselves in a positional arms race of credentials. Jobs that once required high school degrees now require a college degree — or even an advanced degree. And not just any degree — employers place far more value on degrees from a small set of selective schools. And the credentialing arms race doesn't stop with graduation —since job experience serves as competitive differentiation, many people pursue a competitive job opportunity today in order to obtain a more competitive one tomorrow. The rat race is endless.
As with other winner-take-all markets, the result is an inefficient over-concentration of resources. Our obsession with “top talent” guarantees that both companies and employees waste significant resources in positional arms races.
Is There a Better Way?
Frank and Cook propose the idea of "positional arms control agreements" to reduce the waste of positional arms races. For example, sports associations ban performance-enhancing drugs in order to avoid a particularly dangerous positional arms race.
But even if it were possible to get companies to agree to some kind of positional arms control agreement, such an agreement would probably violate antitrust law. And such agreements are even less imaginable on the employee side, at least in a technology industry that is historically averse to organized labor.
If collective action is impossible, then is it possible for individual market participants to act unilaterally? Yes, but it means resisting the prevailing culture that frames hiring as a competition.
Play a Different Game
If you're a hiring manager, then your goal should not be to hire the best employees. Hiring should not be a competition. Rather, your goal should be to find people who are the right fit for your needs. Evaluate your candidates' ability to perform, but do so in absolute rather than relative terms.
If you're contemplating your own career trajectory, then don't frame your own goals in competitive terms. I'm not suggesting that you should be unambitious. But frame your ambition in absolute rather than relative terms. Don't define success as winning a race.
Zero-Sum Games are for Losers
By definition, zero-sum games are poor investments for most of the participants. If you're privileged enough to be reading this post, then you're not competing with your fellow human beings to meet your basic needs. But it’s likely that you engage in competition on a regular basis to maintain or increase your status. Or that you do so as an employer through your hiring practices.
Stop wasting your precious time and effort on positional arms races. Forget all the war and rock-star metaphors, and focus on creating value. It’s a lot easier to win once you stop playing a game that’s designed for losers.
Hiring is not a competition.