Freddy Adu was destined to be the next global soccer superstar. At the age of 14, he became the youngest American athlete to sign a professional contract after joining the American soccer club D.C. United in 2004. In that same year, he set the world record for being the youngest player to ever score a goal in a Major League Soccer (MLS) game and even appeared alongside the legendary soccer icon Pelé in a Sierra Mist commercial.
Adu was on top of the world and planned to play in the U.S. for a few years before joining the more competitive soccer leagues in Europe when he turned 18. In 2007, Adu made good on his promise and signed with Benfica, a Portuguese soccer team.
Unfortunately, after moving to Europe, his career stalled. Competing against better players, Adu became a journeyman, bouncing around different soccer clubs without ever becoming a breakout star. Despite staying in the league for many years, Adu never achieved the prominence that was once expected of him.
It’s easy to view Adu’s soccer career as a failure. After standing shoulder to shoulder with Pelé, anything less than a World Cup title can feel like a let down. But, by any objective measure, Adu was still more successful than 99.9% of his peers.
It has been estimated that only 1 in 1,250 high school soccer players (0.08%) ever make it to an MLS team. Adu accomplished this rare feat (and even scored in an MLS game) before his 15th birthday. Yet, because of the expectations placed upon him, he is remembered more as a disappointment than a success story.
But it’s not just Freddy Adu who faces this sort of ever-shifting goalpost. We all do. Whether we like it or not, we are wired to make social comparisons. This kind of behavior was advantageous in our ancestral environment, when we lived in small tribes. But, in today’s globally-connected world of nearly 8 billion people, it does us more harm than good.
Modern civilization has made it such that the better you get at something, the better your competition gets as well. This creates a perpetual loop where the reward for hard work is even more work.
So you succeeded at physics in high school? Now try college.
Oh, you did well in college too? Go get your Ph.D.
Nice Ph.D you got there, where’s your Nobel Prize?
You get my point. This never-ending cycle of competition and achievement makes it such that many incredibly talented people can be made to feel rather unremarkable. Freddy Adu is one of them. He didn’t become a worse soccer player, his competition simply got better.
I know this feeling well after being the valedictorian of my high school to becoming an average student at Stanford. The transition was humbling to say the least. I went from being a big fish in a small pond to being just another fish in a vast ocean, questioning whether I actually belonged.
Then I started working full-time in consulting and met people even more impressive than most of my college peers. And today, thanks to Twitter and social media, I now know many people who are orders of magnitude more successful than me.
This doesn’t bother me, but it makes me realize how much of the world is beyond the realm of my individual experience. For example, I once had dinner with David Perell and he was talking about a friend of his who was a workaholic. I would consider myself a workaholic, but when David described how much this guy worked I couldn’t believe it.
The number of hours he put in every day. His relentless focus. How he optimized his attention. It was insane. I’m probably at the 95th percentile when it comes to work ethic, yet when I hear about guys like this, who are at the 99.9th percentile, it’s a sobering feeling.
Of course, there is more to life than work and “success” and all these status trophies we fight over, but it illustrates a fundamental truth about achievement in Western culture—it never gets easier.
Unless you become the #1 person in your field, you will always have someone else ahead of you. You will always have competition that you need to surpass. You will always be chasing after more. Therefore, unless you are prepared to continually battle to be on top, you should accept now that you won’t be.
I don’t say this to dissuade you from aiming higher, but to make you reconsider why you are aiming higher in the first place. Are you doing it because you enjoy it? Or do you have ulterior motives? Does your current behavior align with your long term goals? Or has your ego taken control of your choices?
I’ve seen far too many people get consumed by achievement games only to later learn that they will never win. Like Sisyphus rolling his ball up the hill without realizing that it will inevitably come down the other side.
But, there is another option. As Michael Mauboussin stated in The Long View podcast:
I was preceded as chairman of the board at the Santa Fe Institute by a guy named Jim Rutt. And Jim, in his younger days, was a poker player…he’d spend his days learning about the mathematics and poker tells and so forth. And by night, he would play, and as he got better, he played in more difficult and difficult games and typically higher stakes games. And he was doing OK on balance. But, of course, it got harder as he got to more advanced levels.
And then, one day, his uncle pulled him aside, and he said, “Jim, I would stop focusing at getting better at poker and start focusing on finding easy games.” So, actually, playing where you’re the most skillful player at the table is the best way to ultimately make money.
In the world of poker this idea is known as table selection and demonstrates how, sometimes, the optimal strategy isn’t to improve your skill, but to find weaker opponents.
In life it’s important to realize this as well. You don’t need to constantly try to be the best. Sometimes, the smarter move is to find a table—or field, or job, or project—where you have an edge, and then play that easier game instead.
Then again, you may find that the easier game doesn’t stay so easy for long. Thank you for reading.
This is post 371. Any code I have related to this post can be found here with the same numbering: https://github.com/nmaggiulli/of-dollars-and-data