Arnold Kling  

Steven Jobs as a Baumeister Male Archetype

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Robin Hanson writes,


Now try to imagine a world where everyone actually tried to follow this advice. And notice that we have an awful lot of things that need doing which are unlikely to be anyone's dream job. So a few folks would be really happy, but most everyone else wouldn't stay long on any job, and most stuff would get done pretty badly. Not a pretty scenario.

He is referring to Steven Jobs' speech to Stanford Graduates, in which Jobs said "Don't settle."

Roy Baumeister would recognize Jobs as a male archetype, taking risks and intensely focused on climbing to the top. Baumeister would see "Don't settle" as the natural male strategy, based on the prehistoric nature of the contest to pass on one's genes. He would say that among our ancestors, it is the males who didn't settle who in turn wound up at the top of the heap (or the bottom). Only the ones at the top got to mate, and they passed along their "Don't settle" propensities to subsequent males, including Mr. Jobs. (In contrast, Baumeister argues, females in the middle of the heap were able to mate; the "Don't settle" strategy was a loser for females, so we observe fewer females at the high end or the low end of the achievement distribution.)

As I said in this post, it is easy to reject a lot of what Baumeister says. Still, I think there is something to the notion that extremes in achievement reflect to some extent extremes in the sort of behavior that can lead to high achievement but which can fail catastrophically.

As Robin points out, this "Don't settle" strategy of driving for the top is not something we want everyone to follow. I would say that we particularly do not want the executives of large financial institutions to follow this strategy. Although I do not endorse all of Baumeister's gender analysis, long-time readers of this blog will note that well before I read Baumeister I was fond of saying that if I were the financial regulatory czar I would begin by changing the gender of the CEOs of large banks. What I mean is that I would like to see banks headed by people who are content with average outcomes. I do not want them to be headed by people who are so driven to get to the top that they are willing to take risks to get there.

And, yes, if we did not have deposit insurance or other forms of moral hazard, we could let banks take whatever risks they want. But that is not the environment in which there needs to be a financial regulatory czar.


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COMMENTS (9 to date)
Ray writes:

"He would say that among our ancestors, it is the males who didn't settle who in turn wound up at the top of the heap (or the bottom). Only the ones at the top got to mate, and they passed along their "Don't settle" propensities to subsequent males, including Mr. Jobs."

I don't understand how this could work. Men pass the vast majority of their genes to both sons and daughters. And Men get more of their genes from their mothers than their fathers. The only exclusive male-->male gene transfer is the Y chromosome, which carries very little genetic material.

So if "not settling" predicted for mating success among males, that factor was likely passed on to both their sons and daughters.

Ivan writes:

Stop distorting Master Jobs message.
If you see the full video you would realize what he is saying, don't settle untill you find what you love doing.
He was lucky he found what he loved early on in his life. As with all matters of the heart you will know when you have found it. Until then, don't live another men's life.

tim writes:

If you know anything about Jobs - he was never focused on "climbing to the top". He was focused on creating products.

This is the second time now that this site has tried to hijack Jobs for your own views. It simply doesn't work. Jobs is an outlier - give it up.

Jason Collins writes:

Ray, it takes very little variation in genetic material to result in major differences. Think high male incarceration and violence rates, their greater risk taking, larger male size and penises - it is amazing what a dash of testosterone will do.

It's also worth noting that we only differ genetically from chimpanzees by a per cent or two.

Arnold Kling writes:

Ray and other commenters,

I think that Baumeister's evolutionary psychology story is full of, er, holes.

But I believe some things are valid.

1. Super-achievers exist, and they matter in society.
2. A super-achiever tends to be an overconfident risk taker.
3. More men than women are overconfident risk takers.

As to how well I know Steven Jobs, I never met him but I read Michael Malone's book on the early Apple, and you can read other portraits that differ from the "Saint Steve" view of him.

When an overconfident risk taker succeeds (so that with hindsight bias you say he was not overconfident), it is easy for him to advise others to take the risk of doing what you love.

Meanwhile, I have a friend whose daughter is married to a guy who earned a degree as an architect but quit his job because he did not love it. So she does all the work to support the two of them and their two children. She bears the cost of his decision to go with Steve Jobs' advice.

Roger Sweeny writes:

The CEOs of banks should be females?

This Atlantic essay hints that post-menopausal women are apt to be similar to men.

www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/10/the-bitch-is-back/8642/4/?single_page=true

Require all bank CEOs to retire at 45?

ivan writes:

Dear Arnold,

1. It should not be surprising that super-achievers exists: Any a distribution will eventually have a 99.4 percentile.

2. I agree being a risk taker is a condition to achieve even moderate success, like upward mobility. But being "overconfiden"t can be tricky to define. Ex ante it is one thing. Ex Post it can be either stupid, or genius, or successfully "overconfident. I do not think most visionaries and people who changed the world were overconfident. I think they really thought they had something of value to submit and believed in themselves. There is a thin line between believing in yourself and being overconfident, but there is a difference that well have to admit is rather hard to estimate. I would rather say "overachievers" find what they love and they dedicate themselves wholeheartedly with passion.

We all have a passion inside, some of us learn early on that it might not be enough to make a living out of that, hopefully we have a second chance to develop another one. For some lucky guys, it so happens that what became their passion is also a niche in society, and they can become great.

3. Agreed. But again, I believe overconfidence is an ambiguous measure. If we are only talking about Finance, I Agree without restrictions.

Actually I have never read a book or anything serious about Jobs, but I saw the full video. It has been very inspirational: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UF8uR6Z6KLc
(Notice that his audience are graduates form an elite university, people who can afford to dream seriously).

I am sorry about the daughter of your friend. But I don't think you should assume her husband followed in Steve advice. Maybe he knew if he failed his wife will back him up? (moral hazard) At least for myself, I don't interpret "dont settle" as quitting, when my father died I had to do stuff I never wanted to, I interpret "not settling" as keep on going, struggle if you have to, but dont settle where you dont see yourself.

The way I see it, if you are married with 2 kids, you are already settled. But thats just me.


Mike Rulle writes:

I always interpreted that speech as an admonition to try and find something which makes you happy. Implicit, presumably, since he was speaking to Stanford graduates, was that should be an activity which requires effort. By accomplishing this subjectively found activity you will feel less anxiety and dread in your life. Playing it "safe" for purely economic security reasons, in the face of certain death, seems to be an absurd way to live if the aforementioned is true, as you will live life with dread and anxiety. I think Freud and Nietzche might both agree, perhaps for different reasons. I think Dostoevsky would disagree.

I am fairly certain he was not saying everyone should try to become billionaires from their garage.

Mike Rulle writes:

I always interpreted that speech as an admonition to try and find something which makes you happy. Implicit, presumably, since he was speaking to Stanford graduates, was that should be an activity which requires effort. By accomplishing this subjectively found activity you will feel less anxiety and dread in your life. Playing it "safe" for purely economic security reasons, in the face of certain death, seems to be an absurd way to live if the aforementioned is true, as you will live life with dread and anxiety. I think Freud and Nietzche might both agree, perhaps for different reasons. I think Dostoevsky would disagree.

I am fairly certain he was not saying everyone should try to become billionaires from their garage. I am not so sure that Arnold's assertion of "doing something which makes you happy" entails "higher risk". It appears risk neutral---except with regard to making large amounts of money---which he said nothing about in his speech.

I once saw John Barth give a talk. I remember one thing and one thing only. He believed that working at a routinzed job, living within your means, and spending free time on your passions was the best way to live. That was his choice (or at least his advice). Why is that risky?

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