It Helps to Get Better

There’s an old joke about two people hiking in a forest who encounter a hungry bear. One person immediately says: “Let’s run.” The other person replies: “That’s useless. You can’t outrun a bear.” The first person makes clear his plan: “I don’t have to outrun the bear. I only have to outrun you.”

Aside from the laughter, the message here is simple: Even if you’re not the best, there’s tremendous value in performing even a little better than those you’re up against.

We see this simple truth played out every day, in many different situations, in the form of what we call the Pareto Principle. It describes situations in which the rich get richer, in which top teams like the Lakers and the Celtics win far more NBA Championships than all the rest, in which successful companies dominate their industries, and so forth.

Once you recognize why it helps a lot to get even a little bit better, you can learn to take advantage of the Pareto Principle:

Win a Little, Win a Lot

Imagine a simple competition between several plants, growing side by side. If one plant grows a little faster, or is a little hardier, or can make a little better use of the nutrients in the soil, it wins out in the continuing plant competition for light and sun, and it better survives animals, fire, and other depredations.

The result: it thrives more than the other plants, perhaps living longer, and certainly having more opportunity to spread its seeds. Over many generations, its tiny advantages result in large-scale dominance over its rivals.

Advantages Tend to Snowball

It‘s much the same process in many other situations. For example:

  • Politicians who win an election by a tiny margin gain the advantages of incumbency, which help them more easily win again and again in future elections,
  • Companies that attract just a few extra customers have more income to improve their products, services, and marketing, which helps them gain even more market share and grow toward domination in their industry,
  • Individuals who turn in better work results are often rewarded with additional resources and opportunities to take on more important challenges, which allows them to accomplish even more.

Like a snowball rolling downhill that can grow larger and larger, slightly extra performance often attracts more of whatever it takes to perform even better in the future.

Get Better at Getting Better

The basic process underlying the Pareto Principle – slight improvement facilitating more improvement – provides a really good reason for you to consciously get better at getting better.

As with a gifted athlete who begins to excel at a young age, intrinsic gifts alone are only one factor that contributes to future success. They’re necessary, but not sufficient.

People who rise to the top of their game tend to be those who – not content with the easy results they obtain through their natural abilities – worked and studied hard to get better.

That’s why most top performers have:

  • Mastered all the fundamentals and skills they could gather from top performers who came before,
  • Strengthened their natural gifts through diligent effort and practice,
  • Improved on their weaknesses through intentional exercise and drills, and
  • Deepened their understanding by reviewing and analyzing every experience on their way up.

The truth is, the path to success doesn’t require that you bring to the table a large initial advantage. In fact, the results of getting better than others at whatever you’re trying to do are so huge that to finally prevail in your work and your life you may not even need an initial advantage.

Experience shows that the person who works hard at getting better has a good chance of ending up on top, no matter where in the pack s/he starts.

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