In what appears to be a winner-takes-all world, those without an advantage will struggle. But the key to success is hidden in plain sight all around us.
Pick up a magazine and read an article about someone featured on the cover.
In most cases, you’ll get the distinct feeling that the person being profiled is better than you. It may seem that they are harder working, smarter and more determined than you will ever be.
And it’s easy to buy into the idea that success is all about the individual – the extraordinary person. But is it true?
Let me ask you:
Could Arnold Schwarzenegger have run Apple just as well as Steve Jobs did?
Could Steve Jobs have been a convincing Conan the Barbarian?
Can a polar bear survive in the desert?
Look closer at those who have achieved dominance in a particular domain. You’ll see that their advantage, skills and talents are intertwined with the area that they dominated .
It isn’t just about the individual. What we need to consider is the connection between the individual and their environment.
The Dodo’s Strength
What do a dodo, a mammoth and a Glyptodon (a giant armadillo the size of a small car) have in common?
Yes, they are extinct.
But equally they all survived on this planet for millions of years before their demise.
The dodo (possibly 8 million years)
The mammoth (5 million years)
The Glyptodon (2.5 million years)
Given that modern humans have only been around for about 200,000 years, that means for all our pretensions of superiority, the giant armadillo stuck around on the planet for 12 times longer than we have so far.
Each of these animals was able to survive for such long periods because they evolved to survive in their respective environments. And when they became extinct, it was a change in their environments (generally the appearance of a superior predator – man) that did them in.
Human society is also in the midst of a massive environmental upheaval brought about the globalizing effects of the Internet.
Why Most Graphic Designers Still Live With Their Parents
20 years ago, you could be a graphic designer who could barely draw, had no concept of artistic composition and who used Helvetica font for everything and as long as there was no other graphic designer in town, you might have been able to make a decent living.
But now competition is not about who lives in your town. Because of the Internet, every graphic designer is competing with the best from all over the world. And if they can’t compete with the best then they have to compete with the cheapest.
In other words, if you’re average but not dirt cheap, you’re doomed. And this is becoming true of more and more industries.
Staking out a competitive position that you can defend is becoming increasingly difficult and yet increasingly important.
The Rise of the Giraffe
In life, success and longevity don’t always go to the fastest or the strongest.
Imagine, millions of years ago, a bunch of animals that look like giraffes but with short necks (let’s call them proto-giraffes) standing around on the African savanna. Everyone’s fairly happy and all seems uneventful and normal but because of a random mutation of DNA one of these animals is marginally different from the others. He has a slightly longer neck.
No one thinks anything of this until drought strikes and suddenly his uniqueness becomes a strength.
With food becoming scarce, once all the leaves on lower branches are cleared, he is able to survive by eating the taller leaves that are out of reach of his now starving colleagues. Not only does he survive, but importantly, his long neck is passed on to his children.
And when the next drought hits, his long-necked children also have an advantage over other proto-giraffes. In fact not only are they more likely to survive, but their advantage makes them more desired by mates .
Over many thousands of generations, each drought thins the ranks of the short-necked and clears the way for longer and longer necked proto-giraffes. The average length of necks in the herd goes up over time, until millions of years later, you end up with modern day giraffes.
There are a few things to note here.
Firstly, the appearance of giraffes could not have happened without adversity. There needed to be food shortages that led to low-lying leaves being depleted.
Secondly the development of the long neck of a giraffe is built on the graves of his shorter-necked colleagues. They died to make way for the long-necked to dominate.
This doesn’t just apply to giraffes; it applies to all living things. We are all the result of a cut-throat knockout tournament. Each of us exists now, because the adaptations of our ancestors gave them a survival edge over others who didn’t have the adaptation.
Thirdly, the development of a long-necked giraffe did not require any thought, planning or design by a giraffe or anyone else. It was a chance mutation (a longer neck) and chance events (a drought with food shortage) that created selection pressure that led to animals with the long-neck adaptation to survive and reproduce while the short-necked died.
In an alternate universe the same process might have produced a bulletproof giraffe or one with wings.
What we end up with is an animal that is uniquely suited to its environment due to a specific adaptation.
In another part of the world like the Arctic Circle, the giraffe’s adaptation would be useless. Conversely another animal finding itself in the giraffe’s environment may be similarly unfit. Think of a giant tuna on the savanna .
Each organism occupies a particular place in its environment (aka a niche) that is determined by its adaptations which give it a competitive advantage.
This is true of all organisms and entities in any environment.
The Key to Competitive Advantage
In any competitive situation that comes up in your life, your outcomes are determined by the interplay of these two elements:
1. Strengths and
In this case, strengths include any characteristic you have that if you use it, can deliver a better result. This can be as varied as a company with a secret new technology, a doctor with excellent bedside manner or a single guy with an exceptionally chiseled jaw.
And we can define the environment as the space in which competitive activity takes place. This could be a physical space (like an animal’s habitat), an online marketplace (like an author selling books on Amazon), a workplace where people are willing to kill each other for a promotion, an industry with several companies fighting for market share or a competitive sport.
If you look at any situation in your life where you’re struggling, it all comes back to this:
You succeed to the extent that your strengths match your environment.
And you fail when your strengths are mismatched with your environment.
You are no different to the giraffe whose survival depends on its adaptation being uniquely matched to its environment.
The Singing Nobel Prize Winner
Imagine that you’re a recent Nobel Prize winner going through an identity crisis. You decide to enter a reality show singing competition, attracted by the possibility of music megastardom.
Confident in your superior intellect, you take along a packed lunch, stand in line with 5000 teenagers and dream of a Top 40 hit duet with Katy Perry. But when your turn comes up, Simon Cowell tells you that “you sound like a hyena passing a kidney stone”.
Sadly, in your arrogance stemming from your Nobel Prize win, you forgot to check if you can sing, and as it turns out, you can’t.
It doesn’t matter how worthy your Nobel prize is, if you can’t sing, you’re going to fail. The mismatch between strengths and environment determines the outcome.
How Not to Get a Promotion
When we reduce this idea down to its simplest level it seems ridiculously obvious. For example, if the environment is cake-baking, then obviously the strength required for success is cake-baking skills.
But it becomes less obvious in other situations.
Consider a person who wants to further themselves at work. It may seem obvious to them that working hard (turning up to work an hour early each day and being the last to leave at night) is the best way to career advancement.
However, they then become disappointed, angry and homicidal when they are passed over for promotion. It turns out that at this company, walking the manager’s dog (a prize winning Shih Tzu) and getting him a soy latte (the manager not the dog) every morning is a quicker route to promotion.
In this case the worker has misread what is happening and applied the wrong strengths to their situation. It’s also notable that the approach of being a hard worker may work well at another company, but just not at this one. This accentuates the need to assess your environment accurately.
And the more complex the environment becomes, the harder it is to figure out which strengths are applicable and useful.
Pushing forward in a situation where there is a strengths / environment mismatch is a recipe for frustration and failure. Animals faced with the same situation are at the mercy of random DNA mutations to avoid extinction. You on the other hand, have a huge advantage. You have the ability to recognize the nature of the mismatch and to potentially do something about it.
Specifically you can:
– Develop your strengths
– Change (or narrow down) your environment (or leave it for a better non-adjacent one)
Animals can also migrate to change their environment, but they are restricted to the adjacent one. A grizzly bear in the Pacific Northwest faced with a new housing development encroaching on its territory might be able to move further into the forest to escape them, but it couldn’t catch a flight to Tokyo and open up a sake bar in Ikebukero.
How to Compete With Someone Better Than You
One person, no matter how attractive they are, will never be considered attractive by everyone. No company serves everyone (even Amazon started off focusing on books and still doesn’t sell everything ). And no animal can survive in every environment without some modifications (even the cockroach ).
Instead survival usually involves selecting a narrow part of the environment to target.
Imagine that you’re being “wrongly” sued after your exclusive Manhattan seafood restaurant allegedly gave food poisoning to 50 people. Sure, the fish was 25 days old, but your chef tells you that “no one uses fresh fish these days”.
A friend recommends a couple of people she knows as potential lawyers for your defense.
The first one graduated summa cum laude from Harvard Law and is a named partner at a top New York firm. He wears $3000 suits, has a $500 haircut and sometimes gets mistaken for Harvey Spector. On the downside, his firm has no specific experience in food poisoning cases.
The second one barely graduated from community college, dresses like the lawyer from “The Night Of” but his practice specializes in defending seafood restaurants in food poisoning lawsuits and you’ve heard from third parties that he has an excellent track record.
If money were no object, whom would you choose? If you said the smaller firm with the specific expertise, think about how remarkable that is, given the caliber of the first attorney.
What this demonstrates is that there are factors that equalize competition. Otherwise, the world would be inhabited by the strongest and the fastest and no one else. But as we saw with the giraffe and now the seafood lawyer, if you stake out a particular part of the environment, you dramatically increase your chances of survival.
This brings us to the Hutchinsonian  concept of an ecological niche which says that every single environment has a multitude of variables associated with it.
Rather than competing over the full range of the environment, different competitors occupy different spaces with respect to each variable.
For example, you can start a company that aims to be the cheapest. But price is just one variable that the market judges products by. Other variables could include convenience, availability, reliability, technology, whether the company is endorsed by Bill Cosby or not, design, distribution and there are many, many more.
Two companies may be identical with respect to one variable but will differ on others. For example, two smartphone companies might have similar functionality, but one’s products have a reputation for better design while the other’s products have a reputation for exploding.
A company that chooses to only compete on price is closing itself off from many other opportunities to survive in the market.
By the same logic, an employee who wants to increase their value to the company they work for can target specific variables like specialized product knowledge, connections within the industry or the ability to bake those shortbread cookies everyone at the office loves.
And this lends itself to relationships too. It may be hard to be the perfect spouse, but paying attention to the specific things your partner values is achievable.
How to Start a Dating Site (or Facebook)
But what if your goal is to dominate the entire market like Facebook? Well, even Facebook didn’t start off targeting everyone.
For any company starting a network, the value of it increases as more people join. But before it reaches critical mass, networks struggle to convince the earliest customers to join. For instance, the first phone must have been a tough sell when no one else had a phone. And what would be the point of joining a new dating site if no one else had joined it yet ?
So how do you start? One strategy is to dominate a small market initially, since it’s easier to get network effects with a localized group. This is exactly how thefacebook.com started out by being exclusively for Harvard students. Dominance of that market (which took about a month) then made it easier to spread to other Ivy League schools and onward from there.
Similarly if you want to demonstrate value as a worker at a company, your best bet is to, initially, become the go-to expert on one specific aspect of the business. This is easier than trying to be a master of everything.
On a general note, most new technologies (not just networks) don’t initially try to target the entire market because it would be ruinously expensive. Instead they first focus on the segment of the population who are eager to try new technology (innovators and early adopters ).
To Get Stronger, Be Like Ikea
As I mentioned earlier, you have the ability to influence both the choice of environment but also the development of strengths.
However the strength you choose must be relevant to and help you dominate the niche you are in. For instance, if you’re single, you’re not helping your case by learning Klingon.
And even if the strength is helpful, is one strength enough?
Yes, if you are able to develop it to a world-class level, way beyond the abilities of your competition (which is of course extremely difficult and can take years to execute). Or, if you pick such a narrow niche that competition is practically zero (which would usually mean it’s not a valuable niche).
In practice, one strength will not be enough to dominate a niche.
So a valid approach is to think of your entire skillset and start employing what strategy writer Richard Rumelt calls a “chain link system” . This is when you link up different strengths in such a way that it is the combination of them that creates an impenetrable advantage.
The example he uses is Ikea, which has such a formidable edge over any other players in the furniture retail market. This is because of such things as the purchase of large areas of real estate for their superstores, in-house manufacturing, an extensive catalogue, 75-cent hot dogs, an advanced logistics system and brand supremacy.
One competitor might be able to replicate one of those areas but would find it difficult to do all of them at the same time. And yet that’s what would be required to compete with Ikea head-to-head and is the reason why no one has managed to come close so far.
This approach can be applied on an individual level too. Sometimes to do this, you will need to develop new strengths. but you also may already have all the ingredients to dominate your niche and just hadn’t thought about it in these terms.
For instance, when I opened up my clinic in the middle of central London, I moved the odds of survival (in a very competitive environment) in my favor by a. Offering a behavioral approach to weight loss (based on changing habits and lifestyle rather than dieting), b. Focusing on long-term, sustainable weight loss rather than short-term fixes, c. Leveraging my ability to write articles and books (which most people dislike doing or can’t do) to explain my method.
Had I just opened my doors and promised a generic quick-fix approach, what reason would anyone have had to see me compared to someone else?
The Giraffe VC
To find the best skill-set combination to apply to your environment you need to take a flexible, trial and error approach, similar in some ways to how natural selection works. In our earlier giraffe story, there were actually lots of random mutations in all the animals, but it just happened to be the one that led to a longer neck that turned out to be useful (and this was only uncovered due to adversity).
Likewise you will need to try different things and see which things turn out to be strengths and which do not, because it’s often hard to predict. Think like a venture capitalist. They are prepared to have most of their investments crash without a trace, as long as one turns into the next Dropbox or Airbnb.
As with any trial and error process, what’s required is a structure to your efforts. You don’t want to drift along aimlessly. Instead you need a plan for regular review of what’s working and what isn’t. And when something isn’t working, be ruthless in eliminating it.
The ultimate result of this should be the targeting of an opportunity-laden environment with the right blend of strengths to exploit those opportunities.
Each of us is now competing with people from all over the world, so it’s becoming more and more important to find a competitive advantage. With any competitive situation, it comes down to finding a match between these two things:
You need to find the right environmental niche and then develop the strengths needed to dominate that niche. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but the alternative is ending up like a short-necked giraffe.
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1. What about luck? Luck is probably the biggest factor in world-beating success. There are plenty of authors as talented and hardworking as Stephen King or JK Rowling who are still waiting tables, washing cars or writing TPS reports because they never got their lucky break. But because of “survivorship bias” we look at the people who succeeded and ignore all those who were exactly like them but failed. It’s worth considering however, that to be in a position to use luck, you need to get the basics right. This is what this article is about.
2. The longer neck became a signal of better survival prospects and hence was sought after.
3. Could tuna compete with lions on the savanna? A possible method: The Other Guys (2010)
8. As per the diffusion of innovations theory
9. The chain link system is mentioned in the book: Good Strategy / Bad Strategy.