31. Escape Competition Through Authenticity

Competition can make you play the wrong game. No one can compete with you on being you.

Competition will trap you in a lesser game

Nivi: This reminds me of your tweet about escaping competition through authenticity. It sounds like part of this is a search for who you are.

Naval: It’s both a search, and a recognition because sometimes when we search our egos, we want to be something that we are not. And our friends and family are better at telling us actually who we are, or looking back at what we’ve done is a better indicator of who we are.

Peter Thiel talks a lot about how competition is besides the point. It’s counterproductive. We’re highly memetic creatures, we copy what everybody else is doing around us. We copy our desires from them.

If everyone around me is a great artist, I want to be an artist. If everyone around me is a great business person, I want to be a business person. If everybody around me is a social activist, I want to be a social activist. That’s where my self-esteem will come from.

You have to be a little careful when you get caught up in these status games, you end up competing over things that aren’t worth competing over. So, Peter Thiel talks about how he was going to be a law clerk because he was in law school and everybody around him wanted to be a law clerk for a Supreme Court Justice or some famous judge. And he got rejected and that’s what made him go into business. It helped him break out of a lesser game into a greater game.

So, sometimes you get trapped in the wrong game because you’re competing, and the best way to escape competition, to get away from the specter of competition, which is not just stressful and nerve-wracking but will also drive you to just the wrong answer, the way to escape competition is to just be authentic to yourself.

No one can compete with you on being you

If you are fundamentally building and marketing something that is just an extension of who you are, no one can compete with you on that. Who’s going to compete with Joe Rogan or Scott Adams? It’s impossible. Is somebody else going to come along and write a better Dilbert? No, is someone going to compete with Bill Watterson and create a better Calvin and Hobbes, no. They’re being authentic.

This is easiest to see in art. Artist are by definition all naturally authentic. But even entrepreneurs are authentic. Who’s going to be Elon Musk, who’s going to be Jack Dorsey? These people are authentic and the businesses and products that they create are authentic to their desires and their means.

If somebody else came along and started launching rockets I don’t think it would faze Elon one bit. He’s still going to get to Mars because that’s his mission, insane as it seems, that’s the one he set for himself, he’s going to accomplish it.

So, authenticity naturally gets you away from competition. Does it mean that you necessarily want to be authentic to the point where there’s no product-market fit? It may turn out you’re the best juggler on the unicycle but maybe there isn’t that much of a market for that even with YouTube videos. So you got to adjust that somehow until you find product-market fit.

But at least lean towards authenticity, towards getting away from competition. And competition automatically leads towards copy-catting and often towards just playing completely the wrong game.

In entrepreneurship, the masses are never right

Especially in entrepreneurship the masses are never right. If you see a lot of people tweeting about what a great market to enter is, or you see journalist talking about a company is terrible, they don’t know anything. If the masses knew how to build great things and create great wealth we’d all already be done. We’d all already be rich by now.

So, in a sense when you see a lot of competition, sometimes that indicates to you that the masses are already here, so it’s already competed over too much and there’s nothing here, or it’s the wrong trend to begin with.

On the other hand if it’s completely empty, if the whole market is empty and there’s no one there, that can also be a warning indicator that you’ve gone too authentic and not enough on the product-market fit part of founder-product-market fit.

So there’s a balance. You have to find it. But generally most people will make the mistake of paying too much attention to the competition and being too much like the competition and not being authentic enough, and the great founders tend to be authentic iconoclasts.

Combine your vocation and avocation

Nivi: I hate to bring up the Scott Adams skill stack one more time but I’ll still bring it up. Do you think one way of getting to authenticity is just by not necessarily adding some random skills that you think might be important but just really finding five or six various skills that you already authentically do and just stacking them on top of each other and not even in any purposeful way. If you are expressing who you are, you’re going to be expressing all these little five or six different skills anyway.

Naval: That’s really where life is going to lead you anyway. Long term, if you are good and successful at what you do you will find that whatever your hobbies were, you’re almost doing them for a living. As Robert Frost said, combine your vocation and your avocation. What you love to do and what you do, do. So I think you’ll find yourself there anyway.

And you’re right about the skill stack. Everyone’s got multiple skills we aren’t all one-dimensional creatures even though that’s how we have to portray ourselves in our online profiles to get employed. You meet somebody and they say, “I’m a banker.” Or, “I’m a bartender. Or “I’m a barber.” What have you, all the b’s.

But people are multivariate. They have a lot of skills. One banker might be good at finance another one might be good at sales. A third one might be just good at macroeconomic trends and have a feel for the markets. Another one might be really good at picking individual stocks. Another might just be good at maintaining relationships rather than selling new relationships. Everyone’s going to have their various niches and you’re going to have multiple niches, it’s not going to be just one.

So over time you will find, as you go through your career both you will gravitate towards the things that you’re good at, which by definition are almost the things you enjoy doing, otherwise you wouldn’t be good at them. You wouldn’t have put in the time.

And other people will push you towards the things that you’re good at because your smart bosses and your smart co-workers and your smart investors will realize, “Okay you’re really world class in this thing and you’ll recruit somebody else with that other thing.” So, ideally you want to end up specializing in being you.

Chapter 32 >>