I spent my childhood summers at an overnight camp in northern Ontario. When I was sixteen, I learned an unexpected lesson in the counselor-in-training program. I spent that summer shadowing counselors in various camp activities to see which ones I could lead if I came back as a counselor the following year. Many activities were hard. In archery, you had to suffer mosquitos and make sure the kids didn’t shoot each other or run off into the forest. In sailing, you had to maintain finicky equipment, teach complex skills, and rescue the kids when they got blown across the lake. But one activity was easy: snorkeling.
The snorkeling area was off the shore of a small island, out of view of the camp’s main waterfront. This meant that the counselor leading the activity could let the kids relax if they weren’t in the mood to snorkel. For the kids and the counselor, snorkeling wasn’t about snorkeling. It was about taking a break from the other activities. When I shadowed the counselor who was that summer’s ‘head of snorkeling’, I realized he had the best job in camp. He spent most of his day sitting in the shade, playing music from his iPod on a portable speaker. I asked him how he landed the job, and more than a decade later I still think about his answer: “I asked for it.”
It turned out that nobody else wanted to be the head of snorkeling that year—or, if someone did, they never asked for it. So the position went to the one person who did ask. All these years later, most of my own jobs have followed the same pattern. When I wanted a particular role, I assumed that many other people wanted it too. But after inquiring about the job, I learned that actually I was one of very few qualified applicants. I have been through this enough times that when there is something I want, I ask myself: am I in a head-of-snorkeling situation?
The more I reflect on this pattern, the more I appreciate that it applies to many situations beyond job applications. I have seen many examples in the lives of my friends. One friend asked someone on a date who he assumed had many suitors, and found he was the only person with the courage to ask. Another friend emailed his favorite author, expecting his message to be one among a flurry of fan mail, and received a long and thoughtful reply indicating how rare it was for the author to receive that kind of message. Another friend asked to perform at an open mic night, thinking there were few spots in the lineup, but actually the show’s organizer had been struggling to find performers. The essence of a head-of-snorkeling situation is that someone wants something they think is in high demand, but in fact they’re one of few people seeking it out, so they can get it by just asking.
As for my own life, I now realize I’ve been in many head-of-snorkeling situations without knowing it. The only way to find out if I’m in one is to ask for the thing I want, but I often neglect to do this because I worry it would impose a cost on others. What right do I have to ask for things just because I want them? But I shouldn’t worry about this as much as I do. This is clear to me when I remember the guy who asked to be the head of snorkeling. The camp director, who received that request, was happy to receive it. After all, someone had to be the head of snorkeling. If nobody had asked, the position might have gone to someone who didn’t even want it. This would have been a worse outcome for everyone. So the guy who asked for what he wanted did not impose a cost on anyone, but rather he helped to solve a coordination problem.
Head-of-snorkeling situations occur partly because we have imperfect information about each other’s desires, and partly because we all have different desires to begin with. When you think about it, it’s lucky that we don’t all want the same things. It means each of us can often get what we want without having to compete with each other. All we have to do is express our desires and see how things shake out. In our own way, we can all be the head of snorkeling.
Thanks to Meg Inman and Matthew Jordan for editing this essay.