Why Being Great Is So Much Harder Than People Realize
This fascinating New York Times video changed the way I think about career success.
It shows the world records in the men’s 100-meter sprint between 1896 and 2012. Notice anything interesting?
There’s almost a straight line of improvement of over time.
Now, if you have any curiosity about how the world works, you have to ask yourself, “What’s going on here? What does this say about how greatness is achieved?”
In this article, I make the case that what we’re seeing here is a pattern that happens across almost all fields and industries: The amount to learn in order to be great is increasing exponentially.
- To get a quick start, competitors first copy the best practices of the top performers.
- Once they hit the best practice frontier, they then focus on experimentation. These experiments are often informed by best practices from other fields and new tools.
- Most experiments fail, but the ones that succeed become best practices and are copied by others.
- The body of knowledge that one must master in order to be great increases.
- Knowledge is always becoming outdated. However, occasionally, completely new paradigms arise where large bundles of old best practices become obsolete and early adopters create a bundle of new practices that create a new paradigm.
The history of running backs this up. Throughout the period when world records were improving, so too were the training paradigms: from intensity training to interval training to a focus on endurance. Each generation built upon the previous generation’s lessons and built new paradigms for training, technique, equipment and health. Or as Isaac Newton eloquently said:
“If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”
Running is a microcosm of what’s happening in the work world as knowledge explodes (social media content is doubling every year, digital information is increasing tenfold every five years, academic research is doubling every nine years). This explosion creates exponentially more “best practices” for us to build upon if we want to be great.
We must also learn more because our existing knowledge is becoming obsolete at a faster and faster rate. One academic study, for example, found that the decay rate in the accuracy of clinical knowledge about cirrhosis and hepatitis was 45 years. In other words, if you’re talking to a 70-year-old liver specialist who hasn’t updated his skills, you have a 50 percent chance of getting bad information. Engineering degrees went from a half life of 35 years in 1930 to about 10 years in 1960.
The explosion of knowledge and the corresponding decay make one thing clear: we need to put a bigger priority on constant learning — as big an emphasis as we put on getting our optimal daily dose of nutrients, exercise, and sleep.