Why the secret of climbing higher is aiming lower

You know who gives terrible advice?

Really successful people.

Billionaires, celebrities, top ranking athletes.  You know, the very people whose advice we most seek.  The people whose advice is, supposedly, the most valuable.

I’ll get on to why this is, but first I want to outline why it’s important.

Human beings are copying creatures.  We spend all our time modelling behaviours we’ve seen elsewhere, in the hope they’ll make us happier, richer, smarter, and more attractive than we are now.  I’m doing it right now, in ways I don’t even realise, and chances are so are you.

We model behaviours as individuals.  And we model business behaviours too, seeking to emulate the most successful companies, and the leaders who guide them.

Considering this, we should be really careful about who we choose as our models: because the quality of our outcomes is going to be directly reflective of that choice.

And for my money, part of the reason most people struggle is because the models that are held up for us to copy… well… they ain’t it.

So why is this?  Why do the most successful people and brands often make bad models?

It’s all a question of scale.

You see as things grow, they change.  A big brand isn’t simply a “small brand, but larger”.  It’s an entirely different beast altogether.  It exists in a different environment, and plays by a different set of rules.  The behaviours that enable it to thrive are different from those that would enable a small business to thrive.

This is true in any field.

Roger Federer isn’t like an ordinary club tennis player, but “better”.  He’s something else.  He may know a lot about tennis in the abstract, but he has very little understanding of what it’s like to be an ordinary amateur player, and so the things that work for him won’t necessarily work for them.

Now of course this isn’t to say that a Federer, or a Fortune 500 CEO, would’t have anything to teach a wannabe in their field.  That’s not the point.  The point is that they make ineffective models for people looking to emulate them, because the context they are adapted to is just so different.  If you mimic them out of context, your behaviours won’t fit, and you won’t thrive.

I myself have suffered in various ways from “modelling too high up”, and it’s cost me dearly.  Here are two examples:

  1. When I first started Basic Arts we were at the peak of what we might call the “aloof” agency era, when the top creative agencies were disappearing up their own arses and playing “hard to get” with clients.  For example I remember a few of them had websites which were literally just a phone number and nothing else – as if being minimally courteous and helpful was “beneath their genius”.  Coming from this world, I naturally thought this was super cool, and so tried to capture some of this in my earlier marketing efforts – something which was stupid on multiple levels: firstly because I didn’t have the reputation to support such a high risk game, and secondly because it didn’t even work for the top agencies that tried it (just look at how adland has sunk since…).
  2. Until very recently I’ve been extremely reluctant to be active on Linkedin – not for a well thought out strategic reason but because I didn’t necessarily see my intellectual idols doing it.  “If it’s beneath them, then it’s beneath me!”.  Again, stupid.  Literal celebrities in their fields don’t hustle to build their platform because… they’re celebrities.  They already have platform.  That’s the definition of celebrity.  And besides, even then many of them do work hard to nurture their platforms regardless.  The truth is that for someone in my game being a Linkedin bore is a no-brainer, and in the short time I’ve been doing it I’ve already seen how effective it can be – so it pains me to think what I could have achieved if I’d been doing it for the past 5 years.

The way such poorly thought out modelling is likely to manifest is in pride.  In feeling that you’re somehow “better” than a certain grimy activity that people in your situation would normally do.

What this actually means is that your models are better than it – as is their prerogative, they’re top of the totem pole – but you are not.

Unfortunately it seems to me that this kind of foolish pride is pervasive in all walks of our culture, because we are continually saturated with stories of the greatest most outlier-ish success.  Our points of comparison aren’t our neighbour, our colleague, or the company across town.  They are Kim Kardashian, Elon Musk, and OpenAI.

This drops us into the no-win game of constantly trying to close the chasm between ourselves and them – which in practice means overreaching, seeking to run before we can walk, and embracing grandiose pretensions that don’t serve us in the here and now.

So what is the antidote to all this?

It’s simple.

Don’t model yourself on the best.  Model yourself on those a little bit ahead of you.

If you’re a consultant earning £100k, learn from the consultant earning £300k – not McKinsey.  If you’re an SME chocolate brand, model yourself on the brands who’ve just broken through, not on KitKat.  If you’re an 36 handicap golfer, model yourself on an 18 handicapper – not Rory McIlroy.

It seems obvious when put like that, but it’s actually quite hard because “models from the top” are easier to come by than “models in the middle”.  It’s the big dogs who get interviews, book deals, and our attention.

If you’re lucky you might be able to find accurate accounts from the very best of what they did when they were in your situation.  I was recently listening to the audiobook of Matthew McConaughey’s Greenlights, and was quite taken aback by his accounts of his life before he was famous – it’s clear in hindsight that he was behaving in ways that made his eventual success extremely likely, if not inevitable.

But even then, the danger is that you’ll be modelling what worked 5, 10, 20 years ago, and not what will work now.  The model that is only 1 year ahead of you is by definition more “up to date”.

We should also be mindful of the fact that the higher someone travels, the more that luck and other non-replicable factors enter into their achievements.  Outlier success always contains an element of randomness.  Perversely this means that people at the very top are in some ways “worse” at their craft than the people below them – they just have some magic X factor that gives them the edge, and which means we should discount them from our analysis.

(The world number 100 tennis player is almost certainly “better at tennis” than Roger Federer, precisely because he’s achieved that status without the un-replicable advantage of being Roger Federer!)

All this doesn’t mean giving up the dream, and it doesn’t mean settling for mediocrity.

You’re still on the ladder to the top.

It’s just you’re grabbing the rung right above you, rather than groping pointlessly for the one in the far distance.

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