Taking a Step Back to Not Care

The most successful people in industries like technology and investing are those who develop a unique competitive advantage — something that sets them aside from other people. Each year, a large number of people will want to work in a hedge fund. But even if those people have aced the SATs and have done everything that was expected from an academic perspective, they are far from guaranteed a position in the industry. Indeed, being smart is a good trait to have — investors don’t get very far if they don’t know the fundamentals and have a broad range of knowledge.

But being smart is not a competitive advantage. If you want to work in a hedge fund, you are competing with hundreds or thousands of others who likely have similar test scores and aptitudes to you. The way in which you can ensure you get the job is if you have something that nobody else has: an edge. Investing is all about edges. If you have refined one technique to help you invest that nobody else uses, you can do something with that. If you can search through information and manage large intakes of data efficiently, you can advance.

But one competitive advantage that does not get enough attention is hidden in plain sight: not caring. Of course, you will have to care about some things — long-term outcomes, your family, your routines, et cetera. If you are able to not care about things which prevent you from achieving a certain outcome, you have an edge that many other people do not have. If you can ignore outside perceptions and focus solely on what you think is right, then you can get somewhere other people would never reach — they would quickly give in to those perceptions and never advance. There are a couple of ways in which this can manifest itself in careers.

1. Not caring about short-term hits to your reputation

Short-term reputation damage is a major barrier in careers. Many people are in a good opportunity to make a difference, but are unable to act on their desires — they are scared of what other people will think about them. A great example of this would be crypto. Almost everyone who pursued a career in crypto five years ago had to take a hit to their reputation because the idea was so new and untested. There were so many people who had the talent to make that leap, but ultimately chose a safer path because pursuing crypto would damage how people seen them. Announcing to your friends and family that you are going to pursue a career in an industry people do not understand, building technologies that people question, would be difficult. You would have to face up to people and take a risk.

But if, by some chance, you were right, then there is a large amount of upside to be gained. If you pursue something risky, there are outsized rewards to be gained. Let’s say I started a crypto startup five years ago that took off. In the short-term, people may have thought that I was wasting my time and money on a technology that had no impact on society. But over the long-term, as my work became more viable and its value proposition became clearer, the public’s perception changed. I am no longer the crazy person that pursued an untested technology. I am a genius who saw a great opportunity in the market and spent all of their time working hard. People will see me as an expert, and come to me for advice. My reputation will be boosted significantly because I took a risk when nobody else was willing to. If I had cared what other people thought, I may never have made that choice.

2. Not caring about looking dumb

Nobody wants to look dumb — it shows that we are imperfect. But being willing to look dumb is a competitive advantage. This is because everyone else thinks that looking dumb is inherently bad and will harm their reputation and career prospects over the long-term. Thus, there are many great opportunities for people who are willing to appear dumb and pursue ambitious ideas. Some people think Elon Musk is crazy building a “Hyperloop” tunnel — what possible opportunity lies there? But almost nobody else was willing to pursue this idea.

Announcing that you want to build a hyper-fast underground travel system compatible with cars sounds crazy. And people will think you are dumb. People will think you don’t understand physics. Or that you don’t understand how people travel. Or that you have no idea how urban planning works. Suffice to say people will think you are dumb. But if you don’t care and decide to continue pursuing whatever it is you are working on, you have a distinct competitive advantage so many people do not have.

3. Not caring about failure

Failure makes us feel as if we are not capable of executing — we feel as if we have overestimated our abilities. So many people do as much as possible to avoid failure they will end up in a life that is comfortable, but they will never have achieved an ambitious goal. Why? If you don’t take risks, you will end up with an average outcome. If you invest in an index fund, you can expect an average return. If you go to work for the government as a low-level employee, you will end up with an average outcome. When someone approaches you for a promotion, you may say no because you are scared you will fail. And someone else gets the opportunity who doesn’t care about failure, then ends up advancing significantly.

If we are willing to give away some of our security and accept failure as natural, we can access a competitive advantage. Let’s say I start working on a new Charter City. I would not be able to do that if I did not accept failure could happen. If I ignored failure, I would most likely fail — ignorance of failure does not make it go away. But if I were willing to accept that my new city could fail, then I can get ahead of everyone else. I know that there is a chance things will not work out, and I can make plans accordingly so that if I do fail, there is a graceful path for me to transition back to a safer job. If we hold too much stock in being afraid to fail, we will always end up with an average outcome.

4. Not caring about control

As much as we would like to believe it, we don’t have full control over our lives. Sometimes, things just happen. And many people invest a lot time trying to figure out how something happened, so they can gain control over it. They can say “I understand why this happened. It was because X, Y, and Z.” But this is often a waste of time. Sometimes, things happen for no apparent reason. They just occur. And we didn’t expect it. We were caught off-guard. But if we are willing to set aside our need for control, we can find an advantage. If you are always trying to figure out why things have happened, you will always be beholden to outside circumstances and events.

If something does not directly affect your work, not caring about attaining a level of control over that thing is an advantage. Another way to think about this is that sometimes people get lucky. Sometimes, that report you send will land you a promotion. Sometimes, the investment you made a new company will net you a massive return. Conversely, sometimes an investment you make goes sideways. And you don’t know why. If we just accept that sometimes luck can play a role in our success, we can get back to doing the things that matter most. If we obsess over finding out the cause of everything, then we will never be able to focus on what matters. The best way to navigate this is to understand that there are some things you can control, and some things that are outside of your control. Then, you should make a list of the things you can control, and ignore everything else.

Not caring about something gives you an edge. You are not beholden to outside events or perceptions. Instead, you can focus on what matters most — following your instincts, and pursuing ideas you believe in. And if something takes off, you can access great upside. Average inputs lead to average outcomes. So, you need to find a competitive advantage — something that sets you aside from the crowd. Being willing to take a step back and not care is one of those; hidden in plain sight, but difficult to achieve. All great competitive advantages are such because they are difficult to achieve, but for the people who pursue them, there is a lot to be gained.

Blog, EssayJames GallagherComment