How to Have Impact: Operating at the Margin and Beyond

In 1942 Howard Hughes set out to build the world’s largest aircraft, the Hughes H-4 Hercules. With a wingspan close to 100 meters and a weight of 180,000 kilograms, it was questionable whether the gigantic bird would ever take off.

The Hughes H-4 Hercules – 2 Nov 1947

The Hughes H-4 Hercules – 2 Nov 1947

What’s just as uncanny is that most of  the aircraft’s structure had to be constructed using wood, since a world war had restricted the supply of steel. A few years later, when Hughes had to testify before the US government (the aircraft was partially funded by the tax payer), he remarked:

“The Hercules was a monumental undertaking. It is the largest aircraft ever built. It is over five stories tall with a wingspan longer than a football field. That’s more than a city block. Now, I put the sweat of my life into this thing. I have my reputation all rolled up in it and I have stated several times that if it’s a failure, I’ll probably leave this country and never come back. And I mean it.”

Hughes operated at the margin: When he wasn’t wooing beautiful actresses or breaking air speed records, he was busy developing the world’s first communication satellite and designing a moon lander that contributed to the success of the Apollo mission.1 The billionaire loved reaching for the edges. However, these attempts also came at a cost.

For example, legend has it that when qualified pilots refused to perform a dangerous aircraft stunt for a movie Hughes was directing, the stubborn billionaire decided to pilot the manoeuvre himself. He pulled off the feat but also crashed violently shortly after. Hughes almost died in the accident. And though some say he kept bits of the wreckage to remind him just how close to death he had come, the event did not diminish his appetite for risk.2 Indeed Hughes went on to have more brushes with death, and in less threatening scenarios, brushes with bankruptcy (he lost $90 million – no less than $400 million in today’s money – in a failed helicopter venture.)3

Operating at the Margin

Whenever I come across stories like those of Howard Hughes, Marilyn Monroe, Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, I’m reminded of a quote by the poet T. S. Eliot:

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”

That’s what operating at the margin is about. It involves reaching for the edges, pushing the limits, and breaking new ground. Marketer Seth Godin calls it edgecrafting, or to it put more plainly, finding an edge. Here’s an entrepreneurship example offered by Godin:4

“You must go all the way to the edge . . . accepting compromise doesn’t make sense. Running a restaurant where the free prize is your slightly attractive waitstaff won’t work—they’ve got to be supermodels or weightlifters or identical twins. You only create a free prize when you go all the way to the edge and create something remarkable.

[Remarkable things are] the cheapest, easiest, best designed, funniest, most expensive, most productive, most respected, cleanest, loudest [and so forth.]”

That’s what operating at the margin in business can look like. More generally, operating at the margin is when you move past a cushy status quo to pursue something extra—ordinary. Of course, you might fail spectacularly – in fact you will probably fail more than you succeed – but unsuccessful grand efforts often leave a trail of stepping stones that enable other forms of achievement in the future. The giant airplane that Howard Hughes built, for instance, ended up flying just once, and for a mere 50 seconds.5 But without his ambitious contribution to aircraft history, efforts in the sector could arguably have been more timid in the years that followed.

A Hypothesis on How to Have Impact

These observations bring me to paraphrase Theodore Levitt: the world is driven by what happens at the margin.6 Put more precisely:

“. . . what’s important is not the average . . .  but the marginal . . .; what happens not in the usual case but at the interface of newly erupting conditions.”

Indeed, it is the ‘stubborn courage’ of a few, as Nassim Taleb puts it, that “disproportionately moves the needle” when it comes to change and progress.7

So here’s some practical advice. If you want to have impact in the world, operate at the margin. Pursue a ridiculously ambitious project or two in your lifetime. Stand for something you deeply care about. Have the courage to go against the grain. You will polarise people (some will love what you’re doing and others will hate it) but what you won’t have is indifference. You will have impact.8


Thanks to NatalieGiftedDino, and Renee for reading an early draft of this essay.

Notes

[1] http://www.inc.com/articles/2004/12/jamessteele.html

[2] https://selvedgeyard.com/2009/03/10/howard-hughes-odd-behavior/

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/1977/11/13/archives/hughes-documents-disclose-big-losses-in-last-decade-two-court.html

[4] http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2013/09/edgecraft-instead-of-brainstorming.html

[5] https://acesflyinghigh.wordpress.com/2012/03/21/the-hughes-h-4-hercules-aka-the-spruce-goose/

[6] https://hbr.org/1983/05/the-globalization-of-markets

[7] http://www.fooledbyrandomness.com/minority.pdf

[8] Operating at the margin can be used for both good and bad.

How to Get a First Class Degree

successfully-earning-online-bachelor-degree

In my final year of University, I managed to go out 2-4 times a month (in terms 1 and 2), co-founded and run an entrepreneur’s society where I acted as the Vice President and despite maintaining a fairly active social life and being involved with organizing numerous society events, I still managed to graduate with a first class degree in Accounting and Finance (2010), taking home the prize for the highest dissertation mark, as well as sharing a prize for the highest mark in a challenging Finance module.

Could it be that I am some kind of super-smart-naturally-talented-student? Not really. My IQ is only slightly above average and on numerous topics, I had to ask my classmates for help, whereas in other areas I resorted to 12 hour days in the library in the final term to really grasp the more difficult topics. To a number of friends, the fact that I got a first was surprising because in my first and second years (where I had a lot more non-academic pursuits), I actually averaged a mid-level 2.1.

Some people think that to get a first, you either have to be naturally very smart, or you need to spend every living hour in the library. I would argue that both of these premises do not need to hold and that a student of average intelligence can do extremely well without leading a boring student life where they spend every free moment studying.

Reflecting back on my time at University, I have identified a number of behaviours, ideas, and principles that helped me succeed, and I believe that if other students adopt them, their chances of achieving a first class would be greatly enhanced. These are as follows:

1. Choose the ‘Right’ Degree.

This is perhaps the most important of all the points but yet also the most ambiguous. The ‘right’ degree could be a subject area you enjoy, one where your strengths lie, or one you believe will help you enter a certain field of work. Either way, you should do a degree in which finding the motivation to work your ass off is not a problem. To me, this is a key factor in determining the ‘right degree’.

2. Have the ‘Right’ Mindset.

When people ask, what are you aiming for, you may lie and say; “I am aiming for a first so that worst comes to worst, I will get a 2.1”. But when you talk to yourself, never beat around the bush. If you want a first, you must believe that by putting in the effort, you will get it. As corny as it sounds, positive self-talk works. Believe that by putting in the effort you can do it, and you will. Think otherwise, and you will probably not get a first.

3. Get Study Buddies.

What worked really well for me was that I had a core group of friends with whom I went to the library and study zones with on a regular basis; not necessarily to work and study together in a group (we only did this once or twice a month for 2 hours to discuss some topics), but to know that we were not at it alone. We would go into the library and sit in a quite zone to work solo, only getting up to ask each other questions when we were really really stuck. The main advantage of having such buddies is that they can motivate you to work harder and to focus again if you start to get lazy. For example in the final term, there were days when I would get up to leave the library early, only to sit back down after being mocked by a friend: “You only been here 6 hours and you are leaving already?!?! You are getting lazy man!”. Having study buddies also means you can moan about how hard things are and do a bit of venting about the struggle from time to time, which is healthy.

4. Don’t Study at Home; Study at University.

80%-90% of my studying was done at University in a quiet zone. You have to get yourself in a good environment to study effectively. It’s like going to the gym. You work harder there than you do at home because in a gym you see other people sweating it out on the bench and treadmills and automatically you are motivated to push harder. Therefore, stay at University as long as you can to cover all the work that needs to get done such that when you get home, you can relax and enjoy the rest of the night.

5. Attend All Lectures in the Final Year.

I will admit, I did not attend all of my lectures and missed quite a few in years 1 and 2. But in your final year, you should aim to attend all lectures and take as many notes as you can. When taking notes, it does not matter if understand them at the time or not, write them down anyway. As you return to revise, armed with more knowledge, those once illusive notes will begin to make sense. Also, by attending all lectures, you will pick up hints as to what could come up in the exams. The lecturers usually emphasize these topic areas, or say things like, “this would make a nice exam question”. If you have to miss a lecture, then ask a friend to record them for you on a usb recorder to listen to later, or at least copy some notes from a friend.

6. Have a Healthy Body.

Tony Buzan, a world leading expert on the brain and learning who has experience advising Olympic athletes suggests that having a healthy mind requires a healthy body. This means that you should aim to get enough sleep, drink plenty of water, and minimize the amount of junk food in your diet. In terms 1 and 2, I would hit the gym 3-4 times a week and in term 3, I cut it down to 2-3 times a week. Spending time on the treadmill and lifting weights made the crucial revision period near the end of the year less monotonous and boring, and I felt much more energized after breaking a sweat.

7. Maintain an Active Social Life.

In the first and second terms of my final year, I went out on most Saturday nights and hardly ever said no to invites to parties, as long as they were on days that did not result in me missing lectures. Human beings are very social animals and it appears that the more we lock ourselves away to study all alone and isolated, the more we become miserable and this ends up affecting our work. If you are not the going out type, there are many other things you can do with friends and family on the weekends. Having a day, once a week, where you can simply relax and enjoy the company of friends and family can do wonders for your efforts in achieving a first.

8. Always Do More.

Do more than is expected in all the work that you do. For example, do more reading. This is particularly important in subjects that involve essays and a fair bit of writing. I recommend however that you first understand and learn all that is taught within the syllabus and then complement that information with additional knowledge that you may not be expected to know. For example, when I was revising certain topics in my final year, I would go the the eLibrary and search for all journals and articles related to the topic, pick out the interesting ones and with a pen in one hand, start to read them while taking notes. Lecturers are always impressed by a student who mentions relevant knowledge not taught directly in the lectures.

If you made it to the end of this rather long article and found it useful, perhaps you can help me assess whether it would be appealing to write a much more extensive purchasable guide as an eBook.  This would be over 100 pages long and consist of more detailed strategies, ideas and motivational tips to greatly increase your chances of getting a first class. By voting below, you can help me identify the level of interest.

[Voting Expired]

Book available on Amazon

Morning People vs Evening People

earlybird

Many generations ago, the work ethic of successful rice farmers in Southern China revolved around the following proverb: “No one who can rise before dawn 360 days a year fails to make his family rich.” We are all familiar with other similar proverbs, among them, the well known English saying: “the early bird gets the worm.”

So here I am reading this month’s issue of the Harvard Business Review when I come across an article titled “The Early Bird Really Does Get the Worm“. In it, Christopher Randler, a professor of biology at the University of Education in Heidelberg, Germany, discusses his scientific quest which puts such proverbs to the test.

In a number of studies, including one where Randler surveyed 367 university students, he found the following:

“Though evening people do have some advantages—other studies reveal they tend to be smarter and more creative than morning types, have a better sense of humor, and are more outgoing—they’re out of sync with the typical corporate schedule. When it comes to business success, morning people hold the important cards. My earlier research showed that they tend to get better grades in school, which get them into better colleges, which then lead to better job opportunities. Morning people also anticipate problems and try to minimize them, my survey showed. They’re proactive. A number of studies have linked this trait, proactivity, with better job performance, greater career success, and higher wages.”

So how do you know if you are a morning person or evening person? And can you alter your “chronotype” (the preference for morningness or eveningness)?

In answering the first question, Randler points out that morning people have a the tendency to wake up around the same time on weekends as they do on weekdays, while evening people tend to get up at later times on the weekend. For example, in Randler’s study of college students, he found that evening people on average will wake up two hours later on the weekend than during the weekday.

As for whether you can change your chronotype, our efforts are limited because around 50% of it is determined by genetics.

Randler admits some obvious limitations to his findings and other research in this area. The data merely shows a correlation over a large sample, so you do get morning and evening people who deviate from the above characteristics. Additionally, the exact reasons why morning people are more proactive are yet to be determined. Randler suggests that perhaps it is because they get up early and have more time to prepare for the day—as the successful rice farmers in Southern China did—or it is the result of something more inherent, such as the personality trait of conscientiousness (a tendency to show self-discipline and a love for schedules). As a morning person, I suspect that proactivity stems from something more inherent because there are many mornings where I get nothing done, and equally, many evenings where I accomplish a lot.

The diagram below highlights a number of traits that morning people enjoy but it is conceivable that there are those of us who fall somewhere in-between, sharing some of the traits that evening people have (both the negative and positive). For example, I tend to enjoy writing and reading in the morning, while I enjoy music production (an activity I feel more creative in) more in the evenings and well into the early mornings (9pm-4am). Which side of the following diagram do you fall on? And do you find that you have any of the following traits?

Source: Harvard Business Review (July-August 2010) pg. 31 Note: This diagram appears to miss out on some of the negative aspects and dangers of being a morning person; such as not getting enough sleep in some instances.