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A Failure of Competition

December 8, 2011

In the 4-Hour Workweek, Tim Ferris describes the following event:

“My lecture at Princeton University had just ended with excitement and enthusiasm…I was offering a round-trip ticket anywhere in the world to anyone who could complete an undefined “challenge” in the most impressive fashion possible.”

“The task was…simplicity itself: Contact three seemingly impossible-to-reach people–J.Lo, Bill Clinton, J.D. Salinger, I don’t care–and get at least one to reply to three questions.

Of 20 students, all frothing at the mouth to win a free spin across the globe, how many completed the challenge?

Exactly…none. Not a one.”

“There was but one real reason…: It was a difficult challenge, perhaps impossible, and the other students would outdo them. Since all of them overestimated the competition, no one even showed up.

According to the rules I had set, if someone had sent me no more than an illegible one-paragraph response, I would have been obligated to give them the prize. This result both fascinated and depressed me.”

Tim shares this story to illustrate why “Doing the Unrealistic is Easier than Doing the Realistic” and reminds us:

“If you are insecure, guess what?  The rest of the world is, too.  Do not overestimate the competition and underestimate yourself.  You are better than you think.”

Without diminishing the relevance of the author’s message, this incident could also be framed as an illustration of the ineffectiveness of a competitive reward structure in stimulating positive results.  Offering a singular reward for group effort is often tantamount to creating a disincentive.

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