Numbers Game

“We lose money on every sale, but we make it up in volume!”

It’s the econ nerd in me, but I love that joke.

I was reminded of it yesterday when I saw someone comment online about applying for jobs being a “numbers game.” This is old, terrible advice, and it goes more or less like this: the way to land a job is volume, volume, volume. Apply to as many things as you can and something will eventually stick. the person giving this advice actually advocated NOT customizing the application or doing anything special, because it “just wastes time” and this is a numbers game.

I’m not going to tell you that this is terrible advice. Of course it is. I’m going to tell you why.

In order for something to qualify as a “numbers game,” a few conditions have to apply. One, the outcome has to be more or less determined by chance, rather than skill or effort. Roulette is a numbers game. Play it enough times and you’ll win, but there’s no way to play roulette “better.” You can’t affect the actual spinning of the wheel or where the little ball lands. Two, putting up volume has to be the actual best use of the time that can be spent on the activity. The best way to sell Girl Scout cookies might just be to generically pitch everyone that walks by your booth (just ask my daughter), rather than trying to craft a tailored pitch to every individual. And three, the chance of any random attempt getting you the result you want has to be positive.

So that doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as a “numbers game.” Just that job applications absolutely don’t fall in that category.

Imagine someone said to you, “building a house is just a numbers game. You just gotta gather all the wood and nails and stuff and throw ’em off a high cliff, and eventually they’ll fall in the shape of a house. Reading blueprints or carefully planning your approach is a waste of time, because it’s just a numbers game. If you can throw a pile of building materials off a cliff two or three hundred times a month, you’ll eventually get a house.”

You’d think that person was stark, staring mad. You’d be right. One, the outcome of whether or not building materials turn into a house isn’t up to chance – it’s determined by skill. Two, your time would be MUCH better spent learning carpentry and construction and applying those skills than just throwing building materials at random. And three, there is of course absolutely zero practical chance that this process could ever result in a house, even if you tried it a million times.

“Finding a wife is just a numbers game. Don’t bother learning anything about them or talking to them or anything, that’s a waste of time. Just walk up to every woman in town with a diamond ring and ask them to marry you. If you propose two or three hundred times a month, you’ll find a wife.”

Now, this analogy is actually a little closer to treating the job hunt this way. Why? Because there actually is some chance that you can find a wife this way – or at least, a better chance than the odds of a random pile of building materials landing exactly in the shape of a sturdy one-bedroom rancher. But consider – is the wife you find this way likely to be a good fit for you? Consider the kind of person who would accept a proposal from a total stranger. Consider that you know absolutely nothing else about them, and might not even want to marry them if you did.

That’s what happens when you treat important activities as numbers games. Even if you occasionally “get lucky,” how lucky did you really get? Rather, you probably got a very bad deal that won’t last long and you’ll be back to throwing pasta at the wall to see what sticks in no time.

The tired claim of “it’s all a numbers game” comes from a place of frustration and anger. Nobody likes rejection, and frequent rejection can take a major mental toll. One of the absolute worst things to hear when you’ve failed a bunch is that there’s something different you should do. Of course, that’s the best thing that can happen! If there’s something you can change, you can still succeed. If there were absolutely nothing you could improve and you were still failing, then that would unfortunately mean that you’re simply unable to do the thing you’re trying to do. So finding out there’s room for improvement is awesome news.

But it doesn’t feel like awesome news, and I get that. So what most people do is defensively blame the world. They say that the outcome is a result of luck instead of effort in an attempt to absolve themselves from the shame of their failures. It’s natural to want to blame a capricious universe instead of working to get better, because we often would rather be absolved of fault, even if that meant sacrificing the opportunity to be better. So this is a natural response, but like many of our natural instincts, you have to fight it tooth and nail to become better.

Most things worth accomplishing aren’t numbers games. They’re the result of effort, intelligence, and boldness. This isn’t a game of roulette – it’s your life. It’s worth putting the effort in.

Image result for roulette wheel

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