The Unfair Advantage

With thanks to a great engineer.

As a kid, when I was taking math finals in school, one of the rich kids had an electronic calculator. The rest of us had slide rules and logarithmic tables. What struck me was that he was forced to surrender it at the door before entering the exam hall. You see, this being a very proper British establishment that believed in a level playing field, they thought it unfair that he should have that technology available to him compared to the paper and pencils the rest of us had. An attitude which has a lot to do with Britain’s fall from world leadership, this young prat’s use of technology was deemed unBritish. It was my first exposure to what I later came to know as the Unfair Advantage. What has not changed one iota since then is the resentment the owners of the Unfair Advantage engender in the deprived masses without.

The concept of the Unfair Advantage was made famous by a great American race car driver and mechanical engineer named Mark Donohue. His education and analytical engineering skills, something not possessed by any of his competitors, allowed Porsche to develop his race car, the 917-30, to a peak of perfection which saw it win all but one of the CanAm races in 1973. The format was subsequently changed and the car obsoleted, but Donohue had shown that having an Unfair Advantage was a winning formula.

Donohue’s Unfair Advantage – the 917-30.

I learned a lot from Donohue and have always been seeking the Unfair Advantage in whatever I do, be it business or pleasure.

Take Harvard, where I would like my son to get an MBA many years hence. He is male. Unfair Advantage. 98% of Fortune 500 CEOs are men. He will be over 6 feet tall. Unfair Advantage. Over 70% of Fortune 500 CEOs are over 6′ tall. He will have the best education up to that point. Unfair Advantage. While the hard scrabbling ghetto kid can win, the odds are long. My son is white. Unfair Advantage, like it or not. There are four or so black CEOs in the Fortune 500. My son is an American. Unfair Advantage. He has access to teaching and technologies most would die for though few can afford. My son will have a substantial trust fund (if I don’t blow it first) which will allow him to take risks the poor cannot afford. Unfair Advantage. At an American Ivy League school, even if his academic accomplishments are mediocre, he will leave with one of the best possible Contact lists on his iPhone. Unfair Advantage. It’s who you know …. My son lives in San Francisco which, with just two or three other US cities, offers access to culture and diversity. Unfair Advantage. Sure there are some successful people in Mississippi, but he will never have to suffer the miseries or lost opportunities of growing up there. My son is also physically very beautiful, for which he can thank his mother. Unfair Advantage. How many ugly CEOs do you know?

So some of his Unfair Advantages are genetic – height, skin color, genes, looks, while others are man made – wealth, education, technology. But while I have no more idea whether he will be successful than any parent ever has, I have maximized his chances within the currently white dominated rule system by maximizing his Unfair Advantages.

In photography, technological change has always brought with it an Unfair Advantage. However, unlike with education where wealth correlates highly with access, the Unfair Advantage in photography lasts a brief time. Color film gave Life magazine an Unfair Advantage over its competitors then suddenly it was cheap and everyone had it. Life magazine folded. Early adopters of digital had an Unfair Advantage. They could process and deliver images faster than the film users but before you could say CMOS sensor, everyone had digital and it was dirt cheap. Kodak folded. The Unfair Advantage was gone and had become a necessity. Unless you want to be a target for hilarity, no self respecting professional photographer would be seen dead using film unless, that is, he is so successful that it can be shrugged off as a charming eccentricity. “That’s Bruce, man. That’s the way the dude rolls.”

When technology suffers one of its frequent seismic changes, the early adopters are scoffed at by fools like this – in today’s WSJ:

Not one moment’s thought has gone into that piece of nonsense, written by a guy who drives looking in the rear view mirror. What he does not know and likely will never understand is that, armed with an iPad, my eight year old son has a massive Unfair Advantage. He can both consume and create using the device in ways not a single one of his classmates can. By the time they have all caught up because they don’t get it, or their parents don’t get it more likely, or they are waiting for ‘the bugs to be worked out’, or because they want feature this or feature that, Winston will have had a one year lead on them which they cannot recover. His Unfair Advantage is conceptually identical to Mark Donohue’s.

Thank you Mark for teaching me one of the most important things I ever learned, and it’s not something I picked up in the storied corridors of academe. You can buy Donohue’s book from Amazon and, yes, it’s titled The Unfair Advantage.

One of Winston’s many Unfair Advantages.

Genetic determinism is a fact of life. Get over it and choose your parents well.