Don't Focus On Local Maxima

By Nat Eliason in Psychology

Competition is more optional than we think, so long as we know where to look.

For those who are unfamiliar with the term, here’s a local maximum:

And here’s a global maximum:

A local maximum is the greatest possible value in a given area while the global maximum is the actual greatest possible value.

If you were to say “I want to have the best dinner possible” but then only look at restaurants within a 3 minute walk, you can get the best dinner possible within that constraint but it certainly won’t be the actual best dinner possible.

Or if you were to say “I want to learn as much as possible about design” but only look at what classes you can take at a college, you would be neglecting numerous other methods of learning and would be limited by your unintentional constraint.

We overvalue local maxima, and that overvaluation creates unnecessarily steep competition on very narrow planes and sub-optimal outcomes for everyone involved.  Like I alluded to in the first sentence, this problem is optional, if we know where to look.

The problem stems from two areas:

1. We unnecessarily fight for local maxima when there are better options

2. We compete feverishly on local maxima when, again, there are better options

Stop Fighting for Local Maxima

Let’s say you go to that decently good (and best local option) restaurant in your 3-minute radius. But when you get there, there’s a huge line, and you’ll have to wait hours for a table. You could wait and hope to get a seat before it closes. Or you could give up and go to a lesser restaurant within the radius. Or you could whine and moan to your friends about how you didn’t get a seat at those tables.

Or you could just expand your radius.

Let’s take an example from college and work. Students will focus on the companies that come to their schools or post on their recruiting platforms. Professionals will look at companies that are one “stepping stone” up the ladder in their industry. It’s the “Availability Heuristic” at work: we think most about the things that we’re more familiar with and that we see most commonly. If a company isn’t recruiting people in our area or through our schools careers website, then it doesn’t exist.

But that creates massive local competition. Instead of just treating the school’s (usually meager) recruiting resources as one of many sources of jobs, we treat it as the end-all-be-all and compete fiercely against our peers over the few options available there. Instead of expanding our radius to areas with less competition, we choose to wait in line.

The other mistake is focusing on a narrow application of your skills. If you’re a skilled writer you might look to journalism as a natural path, but ignore the many marketing jobs that require strong writing skills. By ignoring the tangential ways that we can apply our skills and interests we gravitate more towards fighting for local maxima.

To make a corollary to dating, imagine you’re a guy, and you show up at a bar to find that there’s a 10:1 ratio against you. You could get in another Uber and go to a bar farther away that might have a better ratio. Or you could stay at this bar where you have to out-perform 90% of the guys to stand a chance. You can stay if you want, but this Uber will be cheaper if we split it.

And the competition over the local maxima isn’t the only problem because in the process we also compete on local maxima.

Competing on Local Maxima

Here are the absolute worst ways to make yourself stand out as a college student:

  • Having a high GPA
  • Leading student organizations
  • Being on student government
  • Being on Dean’s list
  • Playing sports
  • Hosting campus events
  • Taking “hard classes”
  • Internships (usually)

Why are they bad? None of them make you that special. None of them make you stand out because everyone around you is going to have the same qualifications on their resume. Everyone is going to have some campus leadership, some club involvement, probably a similar internship experience, maybe student government. Not to mention that there are tons of people who have high GPAs.

If you go up to a recruiter at a college career fair and try to stand out on any of these criteria, then in 99% of cases you’re unmemorable. You’re another student with a high GPA, another student who led some club, another student who took the same hard classes as everyone else, another student on dean’s list. None of these qualities are memorable.

When we don’t expand our radius of what we can compete on, we focus on the lowest common denominators (nearest restaurants), instead of going for the actual biggest and best opportunities.

Another way to think of this in regards to work is the type of qualifications or jobs you compete on. There are tons of good developers out there, but how many good developers are there who also have strong leadership and management skills? There are tons of good marketers out there, but how many good marketers are there who also have technical skills

When you diversify your skill set, you define a new maxima and stop competing for the local ones determined by common skill sets.

You could apply the same thinking to dating. If your goal were purely to be the most attractive “catch” possible, then go where you stand out the most. If you’re Asian, don’t try to compete in Asia or parts of the US with a high Asian population. If you’re a pale white blonde guy (cough), don’t compete in northern Europe.

Escaping Local Maxima

The underlying solution here is to expand your radius. Think beyond the artificial limitations of your environment. If you see everyone around you competing over something, then see if there’s another way that you can reach the same goal from a different path.

Shane Snow outlines this thinking particularly effectively in Smartcuts. He points out that many of the most successful presidents did not follow the typical progression from the local government, house, senate, to presidency.

They found other tangential ways to get relevant experience that helped them be more qualified for the job. That’s why the average age of a president is lower than that of a senator. Candidates who compete on the narrow criteria of the legislative branch are unmemorable and hard to distinguish, candidates who were distinguished military leaders, sheriffs, revolutionaries, or even actors, stand out more in our minds.

With job hunting, that means look for opportunities beyond what’s offered at your school. Maybe even make an effort to not use your school’s resources since that’s where your competition is highest. You’ll be the hardest to differentiate from the people at your own school, compared to when you’re competing against people from other schools. Or better yet, don’t go for jobs meant for college students–shoot higher.

If you can sneak into the job fair of a less-impressive school, go for it. I don’t know if that will work, but it’s worth a try. Please tell me if you try this.

Avoiding local maxima also means looking for tangential ways to apply or combine your skills. Don’t try to compete on a single skill, there will be too much competition and it will be too hard for an observer to tell who is the best. Combine your skills and interests in new and unique ways that make you hard to replace or compare. Google can always find another good software developer. If you’re only good in one area, you’re not special.

And obviously this applies to more areas than applying to jobs as a college student.

If you’re into startups, don’t try to make a slightly better version of something that’s already out there. We don’t need another messaging app with a slightly nicer interface and UI. Let us send messages telepathically. That would be a new global maxima.

If you’re a blogger, don’t try to come up with the best “listicle” style articles. Take a nod from James Altucher and adopt a strategy from left field that readers love and builds a loyal audience. (I’m still trying to figure that one out).

If you’re a writer, don’t take the conventional publishing route where competition is fiercest. Self publish your book, get a good marketer (this is how you stand out from other self-publishers), and when the book performs well on it’s own THEN go to a publisher with proof that they’re going to make money from you. It’s becoming more common now, and I won’t be surprised if the publishing industry shifts almost entirely to this method since it gives them much greater safety in their investments.

If you run social media for a company, don’t just do the generic self-promotion, create character like Taco Bell’s Twitter that people want to follow. They remain the only company I keep in my twitter feed because they’re hilarious.

The common thread here is stand out. Don’t just be “different” since different isn’t necessarily good, but figure out what the goal is (get a job, start a successful company, build a massive readership, become a best seller, develop a brand, etc.), look at how everyone else is doing it (the likely local maxima) and then find a better way.

It requires a bit more creativity, and maybe a bit more risk, but when you hit on it, you’re in an open playing field with higher upside, less stress, and an opportunity to truly distinguish yourself.

Don’t focus on the local maxima.


Did You Enjoy This?

Then consider signing up for my Monday Medley newsletter. It's a collection of fascinating finds from my week, usually about psychology, technology, health, philosophy, and whatever else catches my interest. I also include new articles, book notes, and podcast episodes.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.