Researchers Lauren McCann and Gabriel Weinberg write in their book Super Thinking
that the concept of an arms race
can help you avoid the trap of unproductive status-seeking.
As McCann and Weinberg point out, an arms race is a “race between two or more countries to accumulate weapons for a potential armed conflict.”
But you can use the concept to understand any type of escalating competition.
For example, many people go into debt trying to keep up with their social circles (or social circles they aspire to be in) by buying bigger houses, designer clothes, and fancier cars.
This dynamic is the basis of the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses,” which comes from the name of a comic strip that followed the McGinis family. The McGinis family was obsessed with matching the lifestyle of their neighbors the Joneses.
These are all examples of arms races over status.
But there are at least two problems with arms races:
- There’s usually no clear end to the race.
- All sides in the race burn through resources that could have been better spent elsewhere.
Avoiding arms races as an individual means not getting sucked into keeping up with the Joneses. Instead of using your income on unfulfilling status symbols, spend it on things that make you fulfilled. Maybe that’s taking a class or going on a family vacation.
As an organization, avoiding an arms race means differentiating yourself from your competition, instead of pursuing a one-upmanship strategy over deals or features. One way to do this is by focusing on improving and communicating your organization’s unique value proposition.