The Broadway Paradox

Matthew Butterick, font designer and author of Practical Typography1, mentioned an idea that deeply resonated with me in his email list. Unfortunately, there’s no web version to link to.

The Broadway Paradox states that despite having the best actors, producers and equipment in the world, most Broadway plays are rubbish. Production companies don’t look for mediocre talent, they all want the best talent to perform mediocrely rather than middling talent to perform mediocrely.

This has echos of David Graeber’s bullshit jobs. The managerial classes want to hire people — and only the best —  for prestige rather than utility. Deeper psychological motives beat out mere profit.

Regardless of the underlying reason, there’s something going on here.

The paradox is even more absurd in the Ukrainian IT industry. Salaries are two to three times higher than equivalent jobs outside of tech. This diverts talented and creative people away from almost every other industry. It’s an internal brain drain of sorts.

And companies demand the best people to do mediocre work. Employers fight tooth and nail to get the best designers only to micromanage and burn them out within a couple of years. Senior developers do the job of a junior because exclusive companies “only hire seniors”.

The chance to do meaningful work fades and the best eventually leave altogether. In a saner system, they never would have entered IT. Instead, they’d happily be doctors, teachers, artists or really anything else.

There’s something tragic about forcing the best people to do a lousy job.

  1. I’ve bought the book and can’t recommend it enough. I keep promising to treat myself to one his beautiful fonts someday.