We Are Absolutists Living in a Relative World

Last year, I had a networking call where I spoke with a senior professional in the industry I was targeting at the time (investment banking). Let’s call him Tim. Tim was asking me standard questions like “Why banking?”. While delivering a genuine answer, he stopped me and told me that everyone says what I had just said. 

Flashback a week: I was sitting in my room thinking about why I wanted to be a banker. My answer was genuine, well thought through, based on self reflection and, apparently, completely forgettable.

You may only give your answer one time to an interviewer. However, they hear answers from 20+ people consecutively. Coming out of college and applying to work in the same industry, these people tend to think similarly. Answers that are thought through by similar people, using a similar process also sound the same.

Tim was a really nice guy and we went over about a dozen questions and he told me what everyone says. We called these the “benchmark answers”. I went back over all of my answers and made sure they sounded good relative to the benchmark of everyone else.

Plenty of companies make the mistake I did. They build a product that seems like a problem to a solution. Of course, they forget that their customers probably have a dozen potential solutions from other companies. To win the business, they need to beat the benchmark and not just solve the problem.

Most people are absolutists or have a natural tendency towards it. Before we have a career, our family and friends reinforce well thought out, but absolutist rationales. Our friends and family are exposed to fewer people similar to us (i.e. she’s my startup friend or my son is into finance) and so thinking absolutely works on them.

Our friends and family only hear what we say and there is no benchmark of 50 other people similar to us. This is why all of our friends and family tell us an idea is great, but we should not listen until you discuss it with someone who is used to hearing such ideas and can compare it. Thinking absolutely is easy and it gets reinforced by friends and family. Then we you try to get a job, sell a product or start a company and you enter a large relative pool and absolutism fails miserably.

I am trying to not be an absolutist in a relative world.

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