Survival, Success, and Significance: Part 5

In the previous entry in this series about survival, success, and significance, we discussed how it is, that survival can come to be confused with success. We discussed the “Red Queen Effect” of running faster and faster to stay in the same place, and how that can further amplify the conflating of bodily survival and external success.

Here in this entry, we will look closer at an idea that is related to the problem of confusing survival and success. We will now examine why the marginal cost of replicating success, can spiral out of control.

Marginal Cost of Replicating Success

There is a concept in business known as the marginal cost of replication. Basically, it quantifies how much more it costs to reproduce some form of value you have already generated, beyond the first instance. The angle investor and founder of AngelList, Naval Ravikant, frequently speaks about the importance of creating value, that has low or no marginal cost of replication.

One of the reasons the digital era has been such a dynamo for generating wealth, is that digital businesses generally have some of the lowest marginal cost for replication, associated with the products and services they offer. Just think about it, Google does not need to buy a new server every time you do a search. Facebook does not need to send a delivery truck every time you want to read your news feed. Twitter does not have to print billboards and put them on buildings around the world, just to display a stream of what the world is thinking at some point in time.

That said, this is not always the case. There can be many scenarios where just to reproduce what you already have, takes an enormous toll in finances and other resources that are less replaceable like time and health. Having 5 houses might be great, if there is low marginal cost of reproducing the value you get from 1 house, and raising it to 5. If, on the other hand, each additional house has a large marginal cost associated with it, then this starts to change everything. Often, having more “success” comes with increasing and accelerating costs. If it takes more time, money, stress etc., to keep up with your life, then you are starting to get into the situation where you have to run faster and faster, just to stay in the same place. In other words, it can start to take more and more time, money, effort, attention, etc., just to maintain the lifestyle you’ve achieved as part of your external success. When that happens, you are veering into the dangerous regime of “The Red Queen Effect”.

Another insidious aspect of the “Red Queen Effect” is that as a side effect, it starts to make us conflate and confuse survival and success. We can start to get into very strange territory wherein this happens. You could objectively have a higher standard of living than kings in storybooks about ice and fire, but it may never be enough. You could be so over extended and over leveraged, that you are effectively living as if your physical survival depended, on maintaining this vast degree of fame and fortune.

This is not just millionaires and billionaires who get int the Red Queen Effect, we all do it to some extent. I just started off with more grandiose examples to make the point as obvious as possible. In the daily lives of ordinary men and women, think of how often we are mistaking a matter of external success, for a matter of actual survival. How frequently are we forgetting that a nicer car won’t help us survive any more than the older one we have? How regularly are we thinking that it’s essential to book an expensive beach vacation every year, when in reality we would survive just fine if we stayed somewhere local? How many times are we feeling like to survive, means to flex harder than other people on instagram, when in reality you would survive just fine, if 90% of your instagram followers disappeared?

We all fall into the trap of the Red Queen Effect of success, more frequently than we’d like to admit. So much of the time, what feels like a matter of actual survival, is revealed to be nothing more than the signaling of external success. The point is not to get down on ourselves about it, it is just to see that it is a dynamic that occurs, and one to avoid whenever possible.

To err is to be human; otherwise one would be a god among men, and I have not yet seen any evidence for an immortal god, nor for mortal men, to be treated as such.

Therefore, we do the best we can with the hearts and minds evolution has granted us. So, now we might ask why evolution would ever create creatures that confuse their own survival, with external success.