Dead Ends and Double Standards
By Bryan Caplan
Many activities are Dead Ends. Dead Ends have the following in common:
1. They are extremely labor intensive.
2. They attract extremely talented and dedicated people. You have to be absolutely amazing just to be relatively average.
3. Despite #1 and #2, Dead Ends almost never pay off financially. Sure, there are a few vivid superstars to fill naive heads with dreams of glory. But the total number of jobs in Dead Ends is small, and most of these positions have low pay and low job security.
4. While people often start a Dead End because they enjoy it, the required dedication and extreme competitiveness gradually drain away most of the fun. People in the 50th to 99.9th percentiles of success often come to hate the Dead End they once loved.
You might think that parents would universally discourage Dead Ends. Sometimes, they do: Few parents want their kid to tell them, “I’ve decided to be an actor,” “I’ve decided to be a rock star,” “I’ve decided to be a poet,” or “I’ve decided to pursue a Ph.D. in philosophy.” However, there is a long list of other Dead Ends that parents enthusiastically encourage: Classical music, sports, ballet, chess, and Ph.Ds in mathematics are leading examples.
I want to explain this double standard. But for the life of me, I can’t see anything in common between the Dead Ends that make parents roll their eyes and the Dead Ends that make parents swell with pride. As a parent, it seems like the most sensible reaction to any Dead End that captures your kids’ imagination is to say, “If you enjoy it, that’s great,” and hope they come to their senses before it’s too late. After all, no matter how great your kid seems to be, Dead Ends chew up and spit out a thousand great kids for every one who even vaguely makes it. But clearly I’m in a minority. What gives?