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The Case of the Irrational Buffet

Foreword: Hi, thanks for clicking on this article! Although you may or may not know me, I’d like to tell you a story. But before I start, I have a small request. Please clear your mind. Whatever you’re stressed, thinking, or excited about, just park it to the side for the next 10 minutes. In order for this article to make any sense and help you in any way, I need you to give me your full undivided attention (this is quite important for effective visualization on your end). In return, I promise you’ll take something away from it. It may not be life-changing (or if it is, please let me know!), but it may still inspire you to think about a real problem with the world today.

Okay, let’s begin.

Throughout my life, I’ve realized that adults are remarkably similar to children in many ways. One of those ways will help get my message across today: they both like stories. Whether it’s a bed-time story for a 5 year-old getting tucked in, or war stories from inspirational speakers like Olympic gold medalists or billionaire tech entrepreneurs, stories touch us in ways textbooks, instruction manuals, and corporate PowerPoint presentations never will. I’m going to tell you a story about a curious buffet where the customers are hyper irrational. As you read through, you may wonder “What the hell are these people doing and why?” or “Is the author’s head just in the clouds? What is his point with this nonsense?” I guarantee it will make sense by the end.

There is a buffet restaurant in town. It’s got literally everything in the world. The restaurant owner is an ultra-rich billionaire and avid foodie. So he created this concept of an “every kind of food in the world possible” buffet. It’s the size of a massive warehouse with multiple floors of cuisines from around the world. Hearing about this wild new concept, you decide to go see for yourself how this is even possible. Assume you’re able to afford the entry price. When you get there and walk through the front door, sure enough, you witness the glorious food kingdom. It’s true, it really is impressive. There are mountains above mountains of food for as far as the eye can see, and you’re just on the ground floor! But then you notice something odd… There’s not much variety in the food on the customer’s plates. There’s a lot of sweet potato, lentils, some chicken breast, some broccoli, and a few other desserts, but that's about it, and a disproportionately high number of customers have the same things, despite the endless possibilities around them.

Puzzled, you walk up to one of the customers, a lady. She’s got sweet potato and lentils, a lot of it.

You ask her: “Hi ma’am, sorry don’t mean to bother you, but I’m curious about something. How come you have 10 plates of sweet potato and lentils?? You paid a hefty price to get in, and there’s all this amazing food here. Look at those baby back ribs over there, or what about the seared Wagyu beef flown in from Japan this morning?! Why are you only eating sweet potato and lentils??”

She looks up at you, unenthused, as if she’s answered this same question many times before, and replies, “Well, before coming here, I asked my friends who have been here what they got, and this is it. So I figured this is a safe option. I don’t like taking risks, you know. What if I try the beef and I don’t like it? I haven’t heard of many people trying it. But many people have tried the sweet potato and lentils, so I figured this is what I’d get.”

“Do you at least like them?” you poke, hoping for some logic.

“Not really, they're pretty bland. But hey, everyone’s having it right? Besides, this stuff keeps me full. It gets the job done.”

As she explained herself, you stared at her with shock and awe. You think to yourself, “Is this lady serious? How could she not at least try other items? How will she ever know she wouldn’t like them?” Surely, there’s a more reasonable explanation for this behavior, one that you can comprehend and accept. So you approach another man who has a similar mix of food items. To your disbelief, he had a similar line of reasoning.

“Well, can’t you just get up, and go get a small plate of something else? Foie gras? Sushi? You could try them, surely?” you adamantly suggested, now beginning to doubt your sanity.

“I mean, I don’t know… I have so much of this food left. I don’t think it’s a good idea to waste it all,” the man replies plainly with a shrug.

The buffet is a metaphor for the universe of all the possible career paths one could take, and the unhappy customers with the sweet potato and lentils are the people stuck in jobs they don’t like, but which are secure and pay the bills. Analogous to the way one could just get up and go sample a different dish at a buffet, people can try basic exploratory actions such as job shadow, take on a short-term internship, or simply do a bit of research online to learn about a job or function. Even easier, just as how a customer could ask another who’s having roast beef how it tastes, people can ask for a coffee chat, an informational interview, or a call to understand what's out there.

The buffet is a metaphor for widespread symptoms I see in the world today. People stumble into jobs because they were told that's the safe path. "It's steady and pays well." But is it right for you? If only people were more curious and observant about the options out there, they may just discover and ultimately have in front of them a plate of food (read, career) they actually enjoy.