Robin Hanson writes,

Now try to imagine a world where everyone actually tried to follow this advice. And notice that we have an awful lot of things that need doing which are unlikely to be anyone’s dream job. So a few folks would be really happy, but most everyone else wouldn’t stay long on any job, and most stuff would get done pretty badly. Not a pretty scenario.

He is referring to Steven Jobs’ speech to Stanford Graduates, in which Jobs said “Don’t settle.”

Roy Baumeister would recognize Jobs as a male archetype, taking risks and intensely focused on climbing to the top. Baumeister would see “Don’t settle” as the natural male strategy, based on the prehistoric nature of the contest to pass on one’s genes. He would say that among our ancestors, it is the males who didn’t settle who in turn wound up at the top of the heap (or the bottom). Only the ones at the top got to mate, and they passed along their “Don’t settle” propensities to subsequent males, including Mr. Jobs. (In contrast, Baumeister argues, females in the middle of the heap were able to mate; the “Don’t settle” strategy was a loser for females, so we observe fewer females at the high end or the low end of the achievement distribution.)

As I said in this post, it is easy to reject a lot of what Baumeister says. Still, I think there is something to the notion that extremes in achievement reflect to some extent extremes in the sort of behavior that can lead to high achievement but which can fail catastrophically.

As Robin points out, this “Don’t settle” strategy of driving for the top is not something we want everyone to follow. I would say that we particularly do not want the executives of large financial institutions to follow this strategy. Although I do not endorse all of Baumeister’s gender analysis, long-time readers of this blog will note that well before I read Baumeister I was fond of saying that if I were the financial regulatory czar I would begin by changing the gender of the CEOs of large banks. What I mean is that I would like to see banks headed by people who are content with average outcomes. I do not want them to be headed by people who are so driven to get to the top that they are willing to take risks to get there.

And, yes, if we did not have deposit insurance or other forms of moral hazard, we could let banks take whatever risks they want. But that is not the environment in which there needs to be a financial regulatory czar.