If you’re a young person in the workplace, you probably think that your older colleagues have an edge on you. And in many ways, they do. Knowledge, skills, money, responsibility – they’re all things that come with time.
But there are some things that the young, the disadvantaged, and the underdogs always have on people who have more.
Enter the law of diminishing marginal utility. It’s the economic principle behind why we value each successive unit of something less than the one before. It’s the reason we value rare, non-essential things like diamonds more than abundant, essential things like water. I think it’s also part of the reason why we fight harder, work better, and create more interesting things when we have our backs to the wall.
It’s part of the reason why you should be glad that you’re starting off with nothing. Let’s look at the big three – time, resources, and reputation – to see why.
You don’t have a whole lot of it. No one does. But sometimes there’s no better way to improve the quality of your time than to cut it short. The young parents I know tell me this all the time. Because they spend so much time taking care of their kids, they have much less that they can waste on things that don’t matter.
If you’re working hard and aiming for your goals, time scarcity can be a strong incentive to get better at setting priorities and making the most out of your days.
Have you ever noticed how companies behave when they raise a lot of money at once? They grow too fast or make unwise investments – and then they fail. It’s not just newly-funded companies that are affected – when businesses gain the lead in a marketplace, they can become complacent and unresponsive to customer value. Then they become Kodak.
This seems to happen in business when companies have enough money to be “comfortable.” A large number in the bank often demands to be spent, and the marginal utility of cash on hand declines with every additional zero. Put these two together, and you’re likely to get less-than-wise decisions about how to spend money and generate new revenue.
The same principles apply at the individual level. When you’re just getting by, you’re going to treat every dollar with a lot more respect than when you’re a rich retiree. I’m not saying it’s better to give up your earthly possessions or anything, but this can be an interesting benefit of not having much to begin with: you’ll be smarter with your money and hungrier to make more of it.
If reputation was a quantifiable thing, I’d say that the people with the most reputation have the most too lose. When you’ve built a solid reputation as a hard worker, there’s the ever-present temptation to slack off every now and then when no one’s looking. If you have a strong reputation as a truthteller, you might be tempted to think that you can get away with one or two white lies here or there.
On the other hand, it’s a lot easier to be fully dedicated to building a good reputation when you have no professional reputation to begin with. When nobody knows who you are or what you’re like, you know just how important it is to make a positive impression.
Reputation is a lot like a bank account – you’ll be more serious about making deposits when you don’t have a balance at all. So here’s your chance to show up and impress, unknown young employees.
If you’re already rich in time, resources, and reputation, don’t worry. There are plenty of exceptions to the rule I’m proposing in this post, and the economic analogy only goes so far. Most people with especially carefully built reputations value their own good name even more as more people know it. The people who have an abundance of time have have often built systems to gain it. And then there are misers (don’t become Ebeneezer Scrooge, obviously). ,
The thing to take away here is not that you should purposefully limit your time, damage your reputation, or get rid of your resources. The point is that you might be starting off with more of an advantage than you think.