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Future Mistakes #14: Trusting the Lists

article career goals identity Jan 16, 2024

It’s hard not to be a sucker for #1, whether it’s the best-ranked pizza slice in town, the highest-rated salon, the best-ranked college, or the most prestigious career field. Unfortunately, for most people, pursuing the top-ranked goals is trying to fit yourself into a shoe that doesn’t fit your foot. It just doesn’t work well. 

Here are a couple of examples in real life:

  • “Just pick a really good school, and it will all work out eventually.” Well, what if I can’t get in? Or what if that’s not the best environment for me? Or what about the insights from Malcolm Gladwell about the fallacy of top-ranked universities? 
  • “All the best jobs are going to be in STEM, so double down on math and science.” Well, what if I don’t like those subjects, aren’t good at them naturally, and have aspirations elsewhere?

As Malcolm Gladwell says, “You should never go to the top-ranked school you get into.” Rather, based on the Relative Deprivation Theory, it would be more beneficial to be a big fish in a little pond rather than an average-sized fish in a small pond. In other words, the kid at Harvard who is in the 80th percentile in their class feels like a dummy, but the top five percent of kids at the state college feel like absolute champs. 

I went to a private high school that prided itself on an extremely high graduation rate and college acceptance rates. They especially celebrated the top schools that prior graduates attended. Schools like Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and Georgetown. 

I was in that world. I took all Honors and AP courses. I was ranked 21st in a class of over 420 students and constantly overheard conversations about the top 10 tearing each other down. 

But I didn’t want to play that admissions game. I wanted to go somewhere where I felt like I could thrive and be at home. I didn’t want to pursue the lists. I chose the University of San Diego because it had a good vibe that resonated with me. Back then, and in the school I went to, declaring that I was going to USD was similar to saying you were going to a community college or straight to work. It just wasn’t impressive. In fact, people laughed. 

But I would say it’s even deeper than that—yes, we are comparison creatures who size ourselves up compared to the people in our orbit. It can be efficient to go with what other people have recommended. You might get lucky and be satisfied.

Chances are, though, your tastes are unique to you. Your temperament, wiring, and aspirations are distinctly different from everyone else on earth. So why would you listen to the masses?

Frankly, it’s lazy to go with the top-ranked anything. Do your due diligence. Take a risk on yourself and trust your gut—not what other people think. 

P.S. Here’s my confession: I think In-N-Out fries suck. I don’t like U2. Harry Potter is lame. Driving a Tesla is clichè.  

(What’s on your list?)


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