Climbing The Right Hill

I’m going to describe a person that you know: They always seem to find themselves in the right place at the right time. Even though they aren’t particularly smart or hard working, they’ve become successful. A series of lucky breaks propelled them into their current position.

You can’t help but check on their progress. Looking at their social media is a guilty pleasure that you would deny if anyone caught you in the act. You become nervous or less sure of yourself when you talk to them.

Do you have a specific individual in mind? A former coworker or classmate perhaps?

When I noticed this happening to me, I sought an answer. In this essay I’m going to share my framework for understanding why this happens, and how I manage it.

Part of my high school education meant reading “the classics”. During Romeo and Juliet my classmates and I would assume roles, laughing at the outdated language. Our curriculum required that we review the characters and describe their motivations. We were quizzed on questions like:

List the members of the Montague and Capulet families. Who was responsible for Mercutio’s death? What would have happened if the characters had simply talked things over?

The feud between the Montagues and Capulets is never explained, so it didn’t make for a good exam question. I always wondered about this, even going back years later to skim the chapters, looking for an explanation. It seemed odd to me that two families with so much in common would have a deadly feud.

The families weren’t feuding because they were different; the conflict stemmed from their similarities. Like your social media doppelgänger, they were jockeying for the same social position.

René Girard was a French philosopher who famously described this impulse through mimetic theory. Mimetic theory is a way of explaining human behavior by examining desire and the competition for scarce resources: power, status, or attention.

Often, we want something because others want it, rather than through some innate desire of our own. Since competition over a scarce resource naturally leads to conflict, the situation will continue to escalate until a critical point is realized. When this happens, a scapegoat is assigned and sacrificed to remove the tension and resolve the issue. Demonstrations of his theory continue to play out in society and literature: the death of Romeo and Juliet, the breakup of a monopoly, a high profile court case. We build up our collective angst over these conflicts and demand a public display to release steam from situations.

Individually, we’ve all experienced mimetic desire through office politics or comparisons with others. Careers that rely on prestige like technology, finance, and consulting are especially susceptible. Grouping ambitious 20-somethings into a cohort and ranking them against each other will inevitably lead to scapegoat behavior. If the only way to go is “up or out” then people will naturally begin to eye each other warily, rather than embracing collaboration.

It’s easy to focus on the next promotion or the completion of a big project that will elevate your career. By succumbing to the natural instinct of mimicry, we rarely ask ourselves the question: are we climbing the right hill?

Hill climbing is an example of an optimization problem that I have found helpful as an analogy for long-term trends like career growth and happiness. The premise is this:

Imagine you are dropped into a hilly area that is covered in a dense fog, blocking your vision except for a few yards in each direction. Your goal is to get to the top of the highest hill in your vicinity.

The simplest choice is to start walking up the nearest hill. This guarantees that you end up higher than you started, but you restrict yourself from exploring other options (and potentially taller hills). The best performing strategies usually involve some amount of randomness, even if it means walking downhill, because you tend to end up on taller hills after exploring a bit.

In this analogy, the hills represent any long-term goal: career, fulfillment, financial security. Our natural instinct is to walk upward, chasing the next promotion or job opportunity. However, we lose the virtue of randomness by doing this. If your only benchmark is the hill you’ve always known, you have no way to gauge its relative steepness. It’s a good way to reach a local maxima, but not necessarily the best long-term option.

Instead, I allow myself to explore other options, even if it seems “downhill”. For naturally ambitious people, it can seem downright impossible to avoid this instinct. It’s hard, and often feels unnatural. However, the perspective gained from these excursions improves my mental map and I’m able to learn what lies on other hills. Taking this mindset means letting go of the mimetic behavior that leads to jealousy or comparison.

After all, why should it matter if someone else is higher? Your peak is somewhere else entirely.