Why we still stand in line
The truth is simple. Standing in line at the front door works just often enough that we keep doing it. It doesn't matter if it has never worked for us; we've seen it work for enough people that we believe it will for us, eventually. Our culture is saturated with front-door thinking. From backbreaking SAT prep, to soul-crushing internships, to the 4,074 books found under “resume writing” on Amazon.com, we are raised from an early age to believe in the front door as the only gateway to the realization of our ambitions.
We work tirelessly on the things that open the front door just a bit wider, revise our resumes over and over, give the cold call roulette another spin, buy yet another email list. We’re so busy practicing our “line dance” at the front door, we hardly notice when someone breaks rank and walks around the corner. Sometimes we may even pity them for this—they’ve given up, quit, lost hope. But if we just peek around that corner ourselves, we’ll see them opening the social side door and walking right in.
Sunk costs and other lame excuses
Most of us—myself included—have invested thousands of hours waiting for the front door to open for us. We’ve worked incredibly hard on the things that are supposed to open it. At a certain point, we start to think of all the resources we’ve poured into a better place in line as sunk costs. Sunk costs (and perhaps cheap whiskey) are responsible for the worst decision-making on the planet. “You’ve come this far; it will all start to pay off soon,” we’ve all told ourselves a million times. And this gives us a little endorphin boost of false hope that makes it easier to keep line dancing.
Sunk costs have a particularly powerful effect on our ability to make good choices. We tend to value what we’ve put into an effort over what we stand to gain if we abandon that effort, because we are “loss averse.” The sunk costs fallacy is also called the Concorde fallacy, after the Concorde aircraft that was jointly built by the British and French. Long after it was clear that continued development of the plane was economically unsound, both governments continued to pursue it for fear of “wasting” the funds they had already spent on it.
Somewhere, locked away in a place we’d rather not visit, is the seed of doubt. We can, in fact, choose not to compete for a place in line. Choosing to achieve the same thing in a better, faster way is not quitting—it’s winning, and it feels infinitely better than finally getting to the front of the line.
Any decision carries risks. But there’s really no reason to fear “giving up” your place in line; it’s not always an all-or-nothing gamble. Think of it as an iterative process. In v.1, you might spend half of your time pursuing alternative methods of access and influence, and the other half on more traditional methods. Depending on the results you see, v.2 may bump up the alternative methods to 75%, and minimize the traditional methods to 25%, and so on for v.3. You’ll eventually hit a tipping point at which the results from social side door seeking completely outshine the few results seen from front door methods. That’s when you jump in all the way. At that point, any time spent working the line at the front door to no avail will truly seem like time you could be spending finding the social side door, making things happen. It will be the easiest opportunity cost calculation you’ve ever made, the one you’ll kick yourself for not making years ago: boredom, idling, passivity, the familiar sting of being turned down at the gate, versus creativity, rich human interactions, and finally—finally—the kind of results you had stopped believing were possible.