Bryan Caplan  

Your Big Break, If Any

Nowrasteh on Guest Workers... Krugman on Gains from Trade...
I got my big break in the summer of 1993 when I met Tyler Cowen.  I was a summer fellow at the Institute for Humane Studies, and he was our weekly speaker.  We had time to chat afterwards, and I learned that he'd written a paper on the economics of anarchy.  I soon wrote a critique, he liked it, and we stayed in touch via email when I started at Princeton a couple months later.  When I was on the job market in January of 1997, Tyler persuaded GMU's committee to interview me.  I had nine interviews, but only the GMU interview turned into a fly-out, which soon turned into a tenure-track job offer, which eventually turned into my dream job for life.

What makes me so sure that meeting Tyler was a genuine big break?  Like all academic departments, GMU only interviews a tiny fraction of all applicants.  Without Tyler to vouch for me, I doubt I would have been interviewed.  Since I got no other fly-outs, the likely counter-factual is that I wouldn't have landed a tenure-track job, and would have accepted an unpleasant position in economic consulting.  Maybe I would have done better on the academic job market if I'd tried again in my fifth year.  Yet given my spotty success the first time around, there's no reason for confidence on my part.

What's the right model of my big break - discontinuity of the world, imperfect information, or rationing?  Since GMU really is the best libertarian economics department in the world by a wide margin, maybe my opportunities really were seriously discontinuous.  But I still think imperfect information was key.  Tyler aside, several GMU faculty members probably would have vouched for me during the hiring process if they'd known me better.  For obvious reasons, though, they didn't get to know me until after GMU hired me.  Rationing also probably played a role; if GMU econ didn't have a slot in 1997, Tyler's strongest recommendation wouldn't have saved me.

Yes, this is just one man's story.  Mere anecdote.  My question for readers: Did you ever have a big break in your career?  If so, what were the circumstances?  How would you explain your experience theoretically - discontinuity, imperfect information, rationing, or what?

COMMENTS (17 to date)
Fabio Rojas writes:

In theory, I find it easy to believe the difference between discontinuity and imperfect information. In practice, I find it hard to distinguish the two. For example, your own job search could be seen as discontinuity. A different search committee would have hired a very different person.

At the same time, one could argue that a typical GMU search committee would be looking for someone like you and that the social network with Tyler simply reduced the search cost.

The problem is that big breaks aren't seen in a larger sample. Maybe if I saw, say, 50 GMU econ search committees, and the average hire was like Bryan, then Bryan's big break could be ascribed to imperfect information. But if you saw a lot of variance, then it is discontinuity.

The deeper issue here is whether you believe that the social world is smooth and continuous or if you believe if it is "combinatoric" - mixing different discrete things (search committee members) will result in qualitatively different outcomes. Think physics vs. chemistry. My own prior belief is that the world is 90% smooth vs. 10% discontinuous, but that 10% can be rigged to be create high variance.

Peter H writes:

I think path dependency plays a big role here. At the time of your big break, it is fair to say that there was a yawning chasm of discontinuity between your first best and second best options. But that chasm came about because of the path you put yourself on. When you pursued graduate studies in economics, you set yourself on the track where your intended first best option was a tenure track position at a research university. Having spent years aiming at that, it's to be expected that your second best option is much worse. The same is true of almost any rigourous training regimen. You aim at a particular market niche, which at the time of your training is well-compensated enough (either by money or prestige) to justify the chance that you will miss the chance and have to settle for an option you probably could have done without most of the training.

For example, an aspiring basketball player has huge discontinuity between the first best opportunity (NBA) and second best opportunity (Europe or the D-league). And after those second bests, things get really bad in a hurry, and basically all of your basketball training is useless on the market.

But the discontinuity is a product of path dependency. The fact of having spent most/all of high school and all of college intensively playing basketball puts you on a path where your first best and second bests are miles apart. This is particularly the case since when you focus intensely on training in one area, it tends to push out training in other areas (see: academic performance of college athletes).

With reference to your framing, I would say that the flow of big break opportunities is reasonably continuous at the aggregate within most fields, but in order to see the vast majority of big breaks, one must have focused so narrowly on a particular subset of breaks that it becomes discontinuous with respect to that individual.

Mark M writes:

For US Army officers, when there is an opening, having someone who is at a location you want to be at request you by name is a big part of the assignments process. Better to take a chance on a known than an unknown.

NZ writes:

A month and a half ago, my wife and I both got hired by the same company in a city that's high on our list of desirable places to live. It's the most we've ever been paid, there is ample opportunity for advancement, and is so far one of the most pleasant work experiences either of us have had. Other positive things could be said about our positions, but you get the idea.

While nobody can perfectly predict what path a whole career will take, right now it feels safe to say that in 5, 10, or 15 years we'll both be confidently calling this our first big break. How did we both catch it?

I had been freelancing in the film industry for the past several years, and things were slow but picking up very gradually. Things were worse for my wife, who was unemployed. To top everything off, we found ourselves living in a city we were sick of.

One day, my wife was put in touch with the colleague of one of her family members. This guy was starting another company (he's started several successful ones already) and was looking for somebody with my wife's particular skills. Apparently by coincidence, it turned out he was looking for somebody with my particular skills as well. He asked for resumes and after we met him for brief successive interviews (very informal, and conducted by video chat) he hired us more or less on the spot.

I don't know which theory this story fits, but I offer it as anecdotal data.

Eric writes:

I've often wondered, on a similar vein, who the most "unlikely" president was. Ignoring VPs who got their "big break" through death or resignation of a president (which means it's probably Gerald Ford), I suspect George W. Bush. He just barely won (please don't get political, use "won" to mean "became president" which is an empirical fact) the 2000 election and any number of events could have made Al Gore president instead. In addition, he probably wouldn't have been nominated had he not been the son of George H.W. Bush, a former president. George H.W. had very little electoral experience and would likely not been president had he not been selected by Ronald Reagan as his running mate (and Reagan had many choices, it's not usually the case that someone picks the person who finished #2 in the primaries).

Hadur writes:

I received my first job out of school at a job fair. The employer had forgotten to fill out the paperwork for getting a table at the job fair, and was instead walking around the fair on foot, stopping people and asking them if they would be interested.

I got stopped, and 15 minutes later had a job offer. My lucky break is that I snapped my glasses in half a few weeks earlier, got a replacement pair that was bulky, and apparently looked smart.

Adam writes:

Imperfect information cuts both ways. What if, under perfect information, it turned out that there were many other applicants who actually would have gotten along *better* with the people at GMU at that time, and were at least as qualified?

[broken url removed--Econlib Ed.]

Daniel Klein writes:

Fun stuff, Bryan.

Yes, "imperfect information," if you must.

But consider these words:


I think you need a couple of them to do the story justice.

Michael Stack writes:

I was a student studying Computer Science, working part-time at a popular pizza chain.

I had a customer come in looking for menus. Unfortunately we were out of menus. I asked if there was anything specific I could help with, and he let me know that he worked for a new Internet start-up in the area, and was simply visiting area businesses to get menus for lunch. This was around 1998.

I jokingly suggested that when I graduated, I could come work for him.

He had me in for an interview the next day and hired me, and thus began one of the best internships imaginable. I worked directly with the CFO, CIO, and company president. I learned so much about how people behave in a work environment, how hard some people work, and lots of other important life lessons.

I'd file this under "Discontinuity of the world", maybe with some "Imperfect Information" thrown in.

Silas Barta writes:

I just wonder how many thousands of people have a comparative advantage to those who (like Bryan_Caplan) got a big break, and yet didn't get a big break, and "clutter up" these very scare slots in tenured professorships or movie roles.

Philo writes:

Just as interesting and informative as the positive answers to your question would be the negative ones, i.e.: “Did you ever have a big *adverse* break in your career?” Unfortunately, many of the victims have probably dropped out of the economics profession, and many of those who remain *do not know* what are the breaks that have adversely affected their careers.

AMW writes:

Two big breaks:
1. First year of grad school I was assigned as an RA to Vernon Smith and his colleagues. I had never heard of experimental economics before, and fell in love with it. Also, connections with that group of economists are largely responsible for the jobs I've landed since studying under them. I think it was a case of imperfect information. As I said, I didn't know about experimental economics before entering graduate school. But as an undergrad I had thought of a similar concept as a tool for teaching economics.

2. Working on my dissertation I came across a paper in a top-5 journal whose results were somewhat contradictory to my own. I was irritated by the disconnect and started digging through the paper's experimental design. I uncovered several major flaws and (years later) was able to write a paper exposing those flaws and running experiments with an improved design. My paper was accepted by the same top-5 journal. this may be a combination of imperfect information and discontinuity. On the one hand, the flaws were there for anyone who cared to dig through the details of the experimental design, but apparently I was the first to do so (and be willing to point out what I'd found). So chalk one up for imperfect information. On the other hand, I suspect that very few top-5 publications have flaws as cut-and-dried as the ones I found. So chalk one up (provisionally) for discontinuity.

bobroberts17e1 writes:

Honestly, I think big breaks are a crapshoot. You don't get one until you do. I've never known anybody or had any connections who helped me get a job or internship, and so I guess the whole "big break" thing is kind of foreign to me.

Right before I graduated, I had an interview for a design position at an aircraft company in town. I went to the interview and never heard back from the company. I didn't think anything of it, because that seems to be the norm (at least from my experience) nowadays. College grads are a dime a dozen.

A few months later, after I had my degree and was still looking for a job, the same company called me in again. This time they interviewed me for a manufacturing engineering position, completely unrelated to the initial position I'd interviewed for. I mentioned I'd been interviewed previously, and my soon to be boss said that the the person conducting engineering interviews in HR quit about the time my first interview took place. He said that several of the engineering managers had told HR to hire some folks, but it wasn't until very recently they'd been told that the HR person they were emailing no longer worked for the company.

I'd say it's due to imperfect information, quite literally in my case.

Pete writes:

6 years ago I got an awesome break. It was a position in a research institute in Germany, working on light microscopes. Now I build them. Take a look at the link attached to my name... I did it all with a G.E.D. I received when I was 25 years old.

David Jinkins writes:

Choice-supported bias. Bryan, you look at getting a job at GMU as your big break. With your level of optimism, I can almost guarantee that if you hadn't got the job at GMU you would be telling us how great it was that you didn't get the job, because then you would never have started doing ______.

TMC writes:

Eric, Bush had been Governor of the second largest state. Not a very far stretch to the Presidency as Reagan, Carter and Clinton took the same route.

A one term Senator with little experience in anything is a far less likely choice.

Andy writes:

I got my job at a top tech company straight out of school just by applying online. Actually that's how I've gotten all my jobs. So I've never really had a "big break" in terms of chance connections. I guess I was fortunate they chose to look at my application, but it wasn't all that unlikely.

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