You Don’t Need to Be the First

Our society has an unhealthy obsession with novelty.

Individuals and organizations chase opportunities to be the first—or at least the first among their peers—to do even the most trivial things. So when it comes to their careers and businesses, it’s no surprise that they’d want to stand out. This has certainly led to many foolish, impulsive decisions.

It has also, however, held people back.

I’ve advised business owners to consider offering a certain service, to which some have reacted: “But a lot of competitors already do that.” Likewise, I’ve suggested to friends to build their personal brand around a certain skill or topic. “But that’s so-and-so’s thing,” they say, “I’m not nearly as good at it.”

Many people feel that they are too late to the game. They regret missing out on early opportunities and think that they’re too far behind to catch up. But several untested assumptions underlie this mentality.

Assumption #1: The early bird gets all the worms.
Truth: The first-mover advantage is largely a myth. Successful companies often trail pioneers by years. They enter after the market has been developed, once customers have come to accept the product and distribution channels have been worked out. Having had time to observe, they imitate what works and eliminate what doesn’t. Continuing our avian analogy: In a V formation, it’s the followers that benefit.

Assumption #2: Doing the same thing as others means you’re not creative.
Truth: So what? Are you building a career (or business) or an art exhibit? Differentiation is important, but it’s not the goal in itself. If others are doing something too, that offers some validation. It suggests that there is a need for, or at least interest in, such an offering or content area. If you can do it better—and for business owners, faster or cheaper—then go for it. Stay focused and differentiate on quality.

Assumption #3: You are a good judge of others’ progress.
Truth: A quote attributed to Einstein says: “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” Those lacking experience tend to overestimate others’ skill. If you’ve never done partnered dancing, you may be impressed by novices doing basic moves. But if you are a dancer yourself, you would recognize substance from show. This applies to career and business as well. People are often intimidated by their uninformed perceptions.

Assumption #4: Progress continues at a constant rate.
Truth: Anyone who has tried learning a new skill knows that progress isn’t linear. For most activities, the initial steps are the easiest. With six months of piano lessons and practice, you’d be better than most people. But becoming proficient takes longer, and going from good to great requires years of dedication. Most people plateau and stop investing in getting better. So it is with personal branding and with many businesses. You don’t need to outperform them on every measure. Often you need only to outlast them.

That’s not to say that you should blindly attempt everything. No, you need to do your due diligence. But knee-jerk reactions of being “too late” or “too old” shut the door on opportunities that may warrant further exploration.

This is the fourth post in our series: Challenging Your Self-Limiting Assumptions.