Should jobs apply to people?
Notes on how to flip a paradigm. An attempt at quantum economics.
In any perceived power dynamic, there are hidden ‘leverage’ points that give one ‘side’ or the other more or less ‘influence’ over the relationship.
These leverage points are, simply, how much each side needs the thing. (Semantics alert: I’m saying “needs” instead of “wants” as the fundamental, catch-all term for the primary motivating force that expresses itself through people’s actions.)
So, as Tony Robbins says, all human behavior is to get our needs met. And asking yourself “Why am I doing this?” is the same as asking, “What need(s) am I trying to meet right now?”
Don’t believe me? Imagine you’re starving to death, and have $1,000,000 cash in a suitcase but no possibility of finding food before you die. Someone else has an apple. How much are you willing to pay for it?
Leverage is founded on need.
Now, let’s look at the ‘job market'.
Try to forget everything you know, and let’s start from scratch:
Person A, John, has been painting houses in LA for friends of friends, and getting paid in ‘cash’ (via Venmo). This is all the ‘paid work’ he does right now. He has no savings, no trust fund, etc., but he lives frugally with three roommates in a two bedroom house in Elysian Heights and spends most of his money on kombucha (he doesn’t drink alcohol). He’s also a musician, who plays in a grindcore-country band whose last concert had one person he didn’t recognize at it, a big step forward.
John is really good at painting houses, and has been getting asked by more people (friends of friends of friends) to paint their houses than he can take on right now.
He’s not exactly ambitious, and he’s comfortable with his current income/expense level (the band is his priority). He’s not worried about ‘saving’ for the future/emergencies/etc.
That being said, he doesn’t like saying no to people, especially friends of friends of friends (so just ‘not responding to their ask’ isn’t an option, since he’d eventually run into them in town and they’d be like, “Dude, why did you ghost me when I texted you?”)
He’s also slightly intrigued by what he could do with more money—like buy some real houseplants, which he really wants but doesn’t currently have the money for. (His room is filled with fake plants and looks like an urban jungle, but he can imagine how cool and peaceful it would feel to have real plants in the room.)
So, what are John’s needs right now? And are they being met?
An Exposition / Quantum Economics
John’s needs are, currently, minimal, and they are ‘more or less’ being met. His current needs are comprised of:
continuing to ‘make enough money to maintain the status quo’ (there is inertia here, so he doesn’t have to do anything new to meet this) — no real need here
not wanting to say ‘no' to new people who are asking him to paint their houses, especially people in the community who he’s likely to run into — so there’s a mild need here to ‘meet their needs’
But there’s a small dilemma: John literally can’t do all the work he’s being asked to do, and doesn’t want to say no to the new people.
John is intrigued by the idea of having more money, so he can get those real plants he wants — mild need for more money → plants → satisfaction, peace of mind, relaxation, etc.
In summary, John’s ‘need equation’ (grossly oversimplified) looks something like this:
+.75 benefit to (continuing to) satisfy current relationships (remember there is inertia here), -.75 harm if he dissatisfies current relationships (via taking on new relationships and failing at everything)
+.10 benefit to satisfying new relationships (by taking them on, new work), -.10 harm if he dissatisfies new relationships (via saying no, which he doesn’t want to do)
+.15 benefit to having more money from new relationships to buy plants to be happier at home, but no real harm from not having this extra money and not getting the plants (since he’s feeling ‘okay’ as is, in life — in other words, the extra money → plants is a “nice to have”, with no real utility ‘harm’ if it doesn’t happen
Basically, when he weighs the options in his mind (he doesn’t do this exact math but his ‘thinking’ is something like this), he realizes:
I have to continue to satisfy the current relationships
I have to say ‘no’ to the new relationships
I have to find someone else to satisfy the new relationships
He thinks about this third step and breaks it down.
What can he do? He can:
Recommend/refer them to someone else who paints houses—but he doesn’t know anybody else, doesn’t know how to find them (he could go on Yelp, etc.), but he takes painting houses really seriously, as well as his reputation around town, and doesn’t feel comfortable ‘recommending’ someone he doesn’t know/hasn’t worked with personally, as he thinks this could backfire and do ‘more harm than good’ to his reputation, etc. So, he’s actually more comfortable saying ‘no’ than even recommending someone else he doesn’t know!
That leaves the only other option (other than just saying “no, sorry” outright, which he doesn’t want to do):
Hire/‘vet’/train someone else to paint these new houses, with him ‘supervising’ them. He thinks about this. If he had the ‘perfect person’, he could say ‘yes’ to these new relationships, send the ‘other person’ to paint them, and then occasionally ‘swing by’ to check out how the ‘new person’ was doing, make sure everything was going smoothly, iteratively train them up/give them pointers/etc. to make sure they were doing as well as or even better than he would, etc.
In other words, in this case, everyone would win. He’d be able to:
Keep his current relationships (he’d keep painting the existing houses himself)
Be able to say yes to new relationships (he imagines that these friends of friends of friends who are reaching out don’t really care if it’s him, literally, who shows up at their house to paint, vs. another person, as long as ‘he’ is the one they are dealing with, ‘hiring’, paying, etc. Him being the ‘point person’ allows him to feel like he’s saying ‘yes’ to the new clients, even while sending someone else to ‘do the work’) — This is the definition of capitalism, BTW
So, hiring someone else seems like the best option to him.
How much would you say John ‘needs’ to hire someone right now?
Let’s say his current ‘need’ to hire is .17.
+.10 benefit for being able to say ‘yes' to new relationships, plus roughly 1/2 (hedging) of the +.15 benefit of getting the money to buy the plants he wants. With -.10 harm if he can’t hire someone, since he will then have to say ‘no’ to the new relationships. (Not getting the +.15 benefit of having more money to buy the plants would not be an additional -.15 ‘harm’, since that was just a “nice to have”—there is no real ‘harm’ without it.)
This is not an exact equation, but more of a proxy for what’s going on inside John’s mind.
Point is, John is somewhat motivated (.17) to try to hire someone—enough that he’s going to actually work on it over the coming week. But he’s not losing sleep about it, and won’t be super upset if he can’t. (Recall that he will experience a real but mild pain of -.10 from having to say ‘no’ to the new relationships, if he can’t find someone to hire within a reasonable timeframe.)
So, he starts to figure out how to find someone to hire within the next week.
Back to the Story
On the other side of the ‘equation,’ there is this guy, Peter.
Peter is a friend of a friend of a friend’s friend that John hears about after texting a few people, “Do you know anyone who might be interested in helping me paint houses? I’ll pay them, obviously.”
John’s friend Mihael says that Peter is a “really nice guy,” but no one knows what, if anything, he ‘does for a living'. He lives alone in a big old house in Highland Park, which may or may not be his family’s house (it turns out it is—his parents died 5 years ago and left him the family house, as well as their insurance policies, which amounted to a little more than $2 million cash after taxes).
Peter is a pretty shy, ‘stay-at-home’ guy who goes out occasionally to bowl alone at the local bowling alley, where he met that mutual friend who eventually recommended him to John.
Why did the friend recommend him to John? Because it turns out Peter has been fixing up/repainting his family house and had told that friend all about the work he was doing in really excited detail. It was clear that Peter really loved fixing up houses, so that friend had thought of Peter when John asked him ‘know anyone who would want to paint houses?’
John gets Peter’s number from the mutual friend and texts him. They meet up—Peter invites John to swing by his house, which Peter thinks is a little weird, but he shows up because meeting IRL is the smart move here, necessary if he’s going to ‘hire/work with’ this person.
When John shows up, Peter is working on the house outside, high up on a ladder, redoing the siding. He looks really competent. He comes down and shakes hands, but doesn’t make eye contact. He’s nice, shy, and clearly excited about fixing up/painting houses.
John watches him work. He sees that Peter is already better than he is at painting—check 1. John knows he’ll have to keep doing all the ‘business’ stuff, since Peter will be incompetent/unable to ‘talk to’/schedule with clients, etc. But John is actually happy about that, since he takes his relationships with clients (and his own reputation) really seriously, and wants to remain the ‘point of contact’.
Again, John not only expected but wanted to be the single ‘point of contact’ for future clients, to ensure that it was his reputation that was growing in the community. So, hiring Peter appears to be a double-win for John.
He asks Peter if he wants to work for him painting some houses. He says he’ll pay him generously, 50% of the total amount he quotes clients. But, surprisingly, Peter doesn’t even ask for more details about the money.
A Pause / Quantum Economics
How much does John ‘need’ Peter to say yes, at this moment?
Well, this is the perfect situation for John, who can now ‘see’ (in his ‘mind’s eye’) everything working out perfectly and being a win-win-win for everyone—him, Peter, clients. He’s starting to fantasize a little bit: about saying yes to the new clients and satisfying their needs, growing his reputation and business within the community, more money, and the new plants.
So, John’s ‘need’ to hire Peter is now up to around .25 (from .17 before he met Peter), with up to closer to -.25 harm if Peter says no (since John can now clearly see the ideal outcome in his mind, he’s gotten a mental/emotional ‘taste’ of it, and will now experience more pain if it doesn’t happen.)
That is, John’s ‘need’ for this to all happen—for Peter to say yes, for all the great things to happen downstream, etc.—has increased from roughly .17 to .25. He wants it all more than he did before, because he can a) see its probability of actually being possible higher/more clearly than he could before, and b) feel the pain of it not happening more than he could before.
So John is willing to do ‘whatever it takes’ to get Peter to say yes.
Back to the Story
But Peter just politely says “sounds cool”, but he has a ton of work to do on his own house and doesn’t think he has time to help paint other people’s houses.
He says this like it’s not about money (which it’s not for him—remember, he has the inheritance), nor is it about ‘wanting to please the new clients’ (since, unlike John, it’s not ‘his’ reputation/business on the line), nor is he concerned about displeasing John by saying ‘no’ (since they just met, and Peter doesn’t really worry about ‘letting other people down’ anyway).
However, John (correctly) infers from Peter’s tone of voice that he’d want to say yes, in theory—that he thinks it’d be fun to help paint houses because he genuinely likes painting houses, but that it’s literally just his finite time/energy that he’s thinking about, and wants to ‘conserve’ to focus on fixing up his own house.
John realizes all this, subconsciously, in an instant. He can ‘see’ that Peter doesn’t have any real incentive to say ‘yes’ to him, at that moment—and offering more money isn’t going to be much (if any) ‘benefit’, since Peter is mainly concerned about time/energy/focus.
A Pause / Quantum Economics
Now, how much does Peter need this ‘job’ from John?
Basically, 0. With a potential tiny -.05 ‘social’ harm for saying ‘no’ to John—but, again, Peter barely knows John and doesn’t worry about these sorts of community/external ‘optics’, being a pretty (comfortably) solitary guy.
So, what is the balance of leverage (need) here?
John is at -.25 harm if he can’t get Peter to say yes, and Peter is at, maximum, -.05 for saying no.
So, the leverage tips away from John by -.20.
Back to the Story
John feels this ‘leverage (need) imbalance’ and starts to get a little nervous. Not annoyed or irritated, just nervous. He wants this to happen and can ‘feel’ the fantasy of his perfect ‘employee’, his happy new clients, his growing reputation in town, and his new plants slipping away.
He doesn’t think he can find anyone else as ‘good as’ Peter, in any reasonable amount of time. He thinks about having to say ‘no’ to the new clients, and he doesn’t like the feeling. He’s squirming a little, now, internally.
Let’s jump out here. Perhaps indefinitely, because this story can extend forever.
Abstracting Up / Quantum Economics
What is the point of all this?
The point is, here, in this very specific micro-scenario of John and Peter, the potential ‘employer’ needs the ‘person’ (I’m not going to say ‘candidate’ because there’s no ‘applying’ happening here) a lot more than the ‘person’ needs the ‘employer’/job/work.
How often does this happen in real life?
All the time. We just don’t notice it. Because we talk about people as “candidates” (which they’re often not, unless they’re literally ‘applying for a job’) or as “supply” (in the so-called ‘supply-demand’ equation of the ‘labor market’, where people are ‘supply’).
But forget about these ideas of ‘job-candidate’ and ‘supply-demand’.
What we have here is Need A (via Person A, John) vs. Need B (via Person B, Peter). Don’t abstract it away and get confused by fancy economic terms, company names, etc.
Underneath all these market dynamics and points of leverage are just people, because only people have needs. Companies don’t have needs, because companies aren’t a thinking/feeling thing, just a legal intersubjective idea.
So, let’s transform this story into a very similar but seemingly ‘bigger’ scenario:
Person A, from Google, is looking to hire a software engineer. He has a certain need to do this, just like John did above.
Person B, a software engineer, is sitting at home painting her house. She has a trust fund and $2 million cash in the bank. She hasn’t worked for anyone else for 2 years. She’s happy and content and not worried about money. She has certain needs, obviously—for meaning, meaningful work, human connection, etc.—but it’s not about money.
Person A can’t find anyone else who looks right for this very specific and very esoteric job. He thinks Person B is one of the few people (‘needles in the haystack’) who could do it. He is worried about losing his job if he can’t ‘deliver’ the right person for this role (he’s been chastised for ‘underperformance’ recently), and doesn’t have any savings in the bank, and is very worried about money and the future.
Person B is vaguely interested in going ‘back to work’ to work on cool/fun/meaningful projects, but has no particular interest in Google (isn’t totally ‘against’ it but also has no particular positive connotations/fantasies about the company, working there, what her ‘friends would think’, etc.) and, again, she doesn’t ‘need’ the money.
Who has more leverage here? What is the balance of need?
Person A, from Google, needs Person B a lot more than Person B needs Person A.
So, in this case, just like John wanted to figure out how to ‘entice’ Peter to say yes, Person A will feel compelled to try various things to ‘figure out’ how to ‘entice’ Person B to be interested/say yes to this job.
This is not usually how we think about the job market, but this happens all the time.
Resetting the Dynamic
Forget the terms you know—it’s a so-called “job seeker’s market”, “employers’ market”, etc.
Most of these terms are designed to abstract away—to dissolve and hide in plain sight, ‘under the hood’—implicitly assumed power dynamics which are often not the case but whose intricacies and personal/situational variances we don’t notice because we don’t allow ourselves to think in an open-minded ‘first principles’ kind of way where we can even see the dynamics at work ‘beneath’ the (assumed) status quo.
In these cases (and in many cases, when viewed ‘case by case’), the person ‘trying to hire’ needs the other person more than the other person needs the job/work/money/etc.
We ignore these cases at our peril, because ignoring them allows us to assume a one-way, generic, usually ‘top-down’ dynamic in the ‘job market.’
I Command You to Think for Yourself
These stories are not intended to be a ‘first world’ fantasy of a handful of ‘outlier/trust fund kids’ who don’t need jobs/money—that’s not what I’m talking about. They are used only to illustrate this point:
We need to look closely at the many times the ‘leverage balance’ is flipped (where the potential hirer needs the person more than the person needs the job/money/etc.), as well as how the underlying (motivational) needs on both ‘sides’ vary from one situation to another. There are no ‘generic constants’ that apply equally to everyone on both ‘sides’ at all times.
Resetting our view of the so-called ‘power dynamic’ is incredibly helpful to restore the conceptual ‘balance of power’, so we can now think about the ‘job market’ on a level playing field, as an arrangement of real people in various situations who need certain things more or less, depending on their specific situation and needs—removing the overarching and implicit assumption that people are always “candidates” who exist as “supply,” as if they are apples that can just be fit into crates and sold to the highest bidder.
People’s needs extend far beyond money, and, although money is (often) a major factor, we can’t think clearly about market dynamics without first establishing a theoretical level playing field ‘between’ ‘both sides’—a sort of economic tabula rasa—and only then start to think about variables, imbalances, leverage, etc. on a case-by-case basis.
In other words, we can add up all the unique, case-by-case bases to see the ‘current overall market dynamics.’ (Even McKinsey agrees.) We can extrapolate up from individual needs to overall market dynamics, but we can’t extrapolate down, from assumed ‘market dynamics’ to individual people’s situations, experiences, and needs.
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