“People can fall in love with gaming, music, ballet, a sport, or some other form of art or entertainment, develop a lot of expertise, and become impressively good at it, but then the question is whether or not that should become their life’s vocation,” says Wayne Grove, Ph.D, professor of economics at Le Moyne. Is it wise to pursue such long-shot careers since the chances of “making it big” are incredibly small and exceedingly risky? And, if one does, how much time and money is appropriate to spend in their pursuit?
To answer these questions, Grove studies tennis because unlike in fields such as music or art, there are definitive, clear-cut rankings, beginning in 1990, of international tennis players ages 13 and older. “I can look at the historic data and see how many top 13-year-olds in the world are now professionals, and how many 14-year-olds, and so forth, and really try to determine how risky it is,” explains Grove. “We look at all this data and see how many of them actually became pros in tennis. Then we see how much money they earned and if they really earned enough to be financially successful.”
In the process of analyzing these data, Grove discovered that being a top-ranked 13-year-old tennis player does not indicate success in tennis later in life. This is because at such a young age, many outside factors can affect one’s performance. A top-ranked 13 year-old girl, for example, may be the best simply because she is ahead of others in terms of physical development, or perhaps because her intellectual development was more rapid than others. However, the closer one gets to 18, the more important their ranking becomes in predicting future success.
The very top-ranked players in the world at age 18 have a reasonable chance of making it big. However, Grove strives to understand why players whose rankings indicate almost no chance of earning a living as a professional tennis player still continue year after year to pursue a career in professional tennis. This same question applies to almost all aspirants to “winner-take-all” labor markets.
“Income skewness seems to be key,” Grove says. “Skewness is how unequal the distribution is. In tennis, the average salaries are very low, but the superstars—Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Nadal Djokovic, Maria Sharapova—earn hundreds of millions of dollars.” Seeing how much they could be making in the pros seems to encourage some 13-year-olds to continue pursuing their long shot dreams.
Grove stresses just how important it is for children to pour their time and energy into their hobbies, truly enjoy them, and work hard to develop expertise. Since the chances of becoming the next Serena, LeBron or Beyonce are so miniscule, those who decide to pursue a long shot career must create a backup plan. For aspiring tennis players and most others, college is the best way to continue developing their expertise in pursuit of their dreams and also to create a serious Plan B.
Regarding careers, Grove encourages his students at Le Moyne to learn about their interests and abilities and to have work experiences. “For the students who come in my door freshman year, what I always say is: you have three summers between now and when you graduate,” says Grove. “You want to learn a lot about yourself during those summers, and a lot about job opportunities. If you think you want to be in the world of banking, or publishing, or insurance—use those summers to explore those career possibilities.”