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Friday, July 21, 2017

Lyft Drivers Have a Profound Understanding of Opportunity Cost

Your time is expensive so you had better use it the way you best know how.

“I’m sitting at home binging Netflix,” my Lyft driver explained, “when suddenly I think: I could be making money right now!”

Then she hops off the sofa to grab the next notification that comes in. She is out driving yet again. Instead of feeling like a wastrel, she feels productive, energetic, awesome. She loves her new life.

This is how my Lyft driver explained how her job has changed her outlook on the world.

“Now I understand how this works.”

The cost of what she is doing now is what she could otherwise be doing. Knowing this has changed her life.

Your time is expensive so you had better use it the way you best know how.

Yep. It’s called opportunity cost, one of the truly epic insights that economics brought the world. There is a cost to every action and even non-action because of the passage of time. And that cost is what you have given up in order to do what you are doing. Everything, then, becomes a tradeoff. You are “spending” the amount of money you would otherwise be earning by driving when you are watching Netflix.

Your binging isn’t free. You are forgoing income, provided the opportunity is there. It’s not different from writing a spending future money.

These costs are subjective in the sense that only you know what you would rather be doing – or at least you think you know. You can test this. You are reading this article right now, probably from your device. What else could you be doing? Reading a different article? Hearing a podcast? Talking to a friend? Working?

Your next-best alternative is the cost of reading my article.

That says to you as a reader: your time is expensive so you had better use it the way you best know how.

That says to me as a writer: I had better make this article valuable to you.

Improved Lives

It all seems obvious once you understand it. If you don’t understand it, you can go your whole life and not see it. You don’t see what’s real.

There are many obstacles to seeing this truth. One of the blinders is a work schedule that is regimented. Nine to five. Off on Saturday and Sunday. Two weeks vacation. If you live this way, you become accustomed to thinking that you’re just following the rules. An overly scripted life can cause you to miss the point entirely.

Just because the costs aren’t monetary doesn’t mean that they don’t exist.

But when you get a job with a ride-sharing service, the problem of opportunity costs becomes prescient. Sleep in on Saturday? You could be making money. Or: this extra sleep is costly. Drink an extra cocktail? It will take another 3 hours to sober up, during which time you will lose money that you could be earning by driving.

It would make sense that people who provide these ride sharing services probably become overall better people, less lazy, less self indulgent, less inclined toward substance abuse, more and more eschewing the couch potato life. More focused on the reality of their lives.

Nine to five, on the other hand, might tempt a person to believe: I just have to do what I’m told to do. There are no costs to partying hard all night and sleeping in with a hangover all day. What does it matter? You don’t have to be at work until Monday. But just because the costs aren’t monetary doesn’t mean that they don’t exist.

Want to kick a drinking habit? Get a job that pays you to be sober. Have a problem sleeping and watching too much TV? A job will fix that in a jiffy.

Again, nothing about the job changes the reality of life. It just puts a clear price tag on opportunity cost that makes it extremely obvious, pressing, and relevant to your life decisions.

It’s Why It Works

When reporters talk about ride sharing, they frequently talk about how the software slyly goads people into working longer hours, making pick ups that strain physical demands, foregoing friends and family to make money.

For Lyft drivers, the opportunity costs are obvious. There is beauty in this.

The truth is that it is not the software doing this. It is the drivers’ realization that when they are not driving, they are giving up income. Drivers laugh at themselves at how intense they become about all of this. This is not the fault of the company; it’s a choice that drivers themselves face.

It is extremely tactile because drivers are following apps. While working, they only have a few seconds to snag a ride request before another driver does. It becomes a game. And this habit continues after you give yourself time off (all drivers are essentially self-employed).

So you are finishing up the dishes and thinking about settling in for Game of Thrones. You habitually check your app. A ride request comes in just 0.2 miles away. You have to think fast. Tap, tap: you snag it and run out the door.

The driver I talked to laughed at herself for this behavior. And actually she loves it. She feels valuable and productive, and she is making money.

Opportunity Cost Is Everywhere

From the way the job is set up, opportunity costs are obvious. There is beauty in this. It reveals an underlying reality that we are otherwise inclined to deny. Everything has a cost. Every action has a cost. Every choice has a cost. Nothing in this world is free. Every choice you make is forgoing some other choice you have declined. Every choice has a cost. Nothing in this world is free.

This is true regardless of whether you drive for Uber or Lyft. It’s just that this job makes it especially real. Opportunity costs are always with us, every second of every day.

Now having finished my article. What have I given up to write it? Nothing as important as writing this piece. I made the right choice.