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Surviving versus thriving
Charles Darwin reputedly said that it is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change. When I apply my mind to this approximated version of his claim, it makes sense, and I agree that one should embrace change in order to survive.
However, how do we go beyond surviving to thriving? My research and my personal experiences have led me to propose that the difference between surviving and thriving is made up of small, smart and mostly proactive adaptions that give us marginal yet significant gains. Let’s call these adaptions, inches. People who thrive play a game of inches.
I have concluded that most people want to go beyond surviving to thriving. By thriving I mean they want to be successful, significant or remarkable in some way. This application goes beyond business and sports people, to a range of others like caregivers, politicians and environmentalists. However, I acknowledge that those struggling with very harsh conditions or with mental health concerns and thus operating outside consensus reality may, temporarily or permanently, be excluded from the notion of wanting to thrive.
Competitive advantages help you stand out
I have also concluded that for most people to become successful, significant or remarkable they will need a distinct competitive advantage, something that makes them stand out from the crowd in a positive way. This is something that acts as a differentiator between them and others pursuing similar outcomes.
This advantage is usually admired by others, unless the observers are suffering from achievement envy. For some this stand out competitive advantage may be highly stressful and therefore undesirable. This phenomenon is called FOSO i.e. the fear of standing out. For them to benefit from standing out they need to develop the skills to manage the stress and the possible resentment that could accompany this, at times, lonely place. As is commonly said; “the tallest trees catch the wind.”
The human polar bear created a unique competitive advantage
Lewis Pugh is an example of someone who stood out when he created a unique competitive advantage. Lewis achieved success through enduring extreme cold water conditions and now displays passion for environmental sustainability.
I met Lewis when as a junior schoolboy he joined the Clifton Surf Lifesaving Club in Cape Town. Extremely driven and hungry for personal accomplishment, Lewis trained hard and showed extraordinary willingness to go the extra mile. However, no amount of training was going to be enough to make Lewis a serious contender for top honours in competitive surf lifesaving. Top competitors were usually of Olympic standard. This did not seem to deter Lewis who trained more than most, as well as helping to teach others.
It quickly became apparent that Lewis was willing to spend more time in the bitterly cold Atlantic Ocean than his peers. I suspect it was this discovery that motivated him to develop and foster the unique ability to endure icy water conditions. Enduring cold water enabled Lewis to stand out among the others. Eventually this led to international fame as an environmentalist and earned him the nickname ‘human polar bear’.
At the 2015 Rugby World Cup, England stood out, and for the ‘wrong’ reason. They were the first host nation to be eliminated in the early stages of the competition. In 2012, at the London Olympics, England stood out for a better reason. They increased their medal count, achieved four years earlier in Beijing, from forty-seven to sixty-five. Did England find better athletes over the period of four years? I don’t think so. I am reliably informed that the English management analysed every aspect of performance to identify where their athletes could capture small margins. According to Jonathon Edwards, former Team Great Britain Olympic athlete, capturing those tiny margins became the mantra of the team management (Kelso, 2016). In other words they squeezed more inches out of existing athletes.
Usain Bolt, the Jamaican sprinter, always stood out. Whenever he competed he was the inevitable favourite to win a 100 or 200 meter race. At the 2015 Athletics World Championship he prevailed once again. On closer examination of his winning time, in the 100 meter dash versus the times of the rest of the field, I asked, “Did he win by tick-tock; was it a tick or a minuscule t?” The difference in time between Bolt and fourth placed Bromwell was “t”. Or in precise timing terms it was 0.13 seconds. Let’s call this small percentage the inches that make the difference.
Sport scientists, like University of Free State Professor Ross Tucker, claim the winning margin between a gold medal sprint winner and the fourth placed competitor is usually extremely small. Tucker writes that there is a 0, 5% difference between immortality and anonymity (Tucker, Immortality and anonymity, 2013).
However, the difference in success status is huge. The winner gets fame and fortune, the medalless fourth placed competitor usually remains anonymous.
The inches we need are everywhere
In the movie “On Any Given Sunday”, Al Pacino had the role of a NFL team coach. He gave an impassioned speech at half time in a crucial game about the inches that make the difference between winning and losing. He claimed, “In life or football, the margin for error is so small. I mean one-half a step too late, or too early, and you don’t quite make it. One-half second too slow, too fast, you don’t quite catch it. The inches we need are everywhere around us. They’re in every break of the game, every minute, every second. On this team, we fight for that inch. On this team, we tear ourselves and everyone else around us to pieces for that inch. We claw with our fingernails for that inch, because we know when we add up all those inches that’s gonna make the f*****g difference between winning and losing, between living and dying.”
Al Pacino may be right that the inches that make the difference are everywhere, but can we identify them? Michael Lewis author of “Money-ball” points out that we don’t know many of the areas that we can improve our game because we are blinded by day to day activities, and have unquestioningly accepted conventional wisdom. The book opens with Lewis quoting athlete Mickey Mantle, “It is unbelievable how much you don’t know about the game you have been playing all your life” (Lewis, 2003).