When Usain Bolt won the gold medal in the 2016 Olympics for the 100-meter sprint he did so at a time of 9.81 seconds. Justin Gatlin came in second at 9.89 seconds and the eighth-place finisher came in at 10.06 seconds. Usain Bolt is widely considered the best sprinter in the world, and justifiably so. He’s the first athlete to win gold in the 100-meter sprint in three consecutive Olympics. It’s a truly magnificent feat that will likely go unrepeated for a long time.
I’m a big fan of Usain not just because he’s an amazing athlete, but because he’s from my mother’s home country of Jamaica. He is indeed a great sprinter. However, the difference between his time and the eighth-place finisher was a mere 0.25 seconds. To put this in perspective, it takes about 1/3 of a second to blink your eyes, which is 0.08 seconds longer than the split between first and last place in this particular race.
Usain Bolt’s victory illustrates the concept of marginal advantage. Having the marginal advantage is (in most cases) all that’s needed to separate the winners from the losers; the victorious from the not-victorious. Is Usain good? Yes, of course! But the better question is “Howmuch better was he than the other runners in the heat?” My answer is, just a liiiiiiittttlebit better; and that was all he needed to succeed.
Similar to the Olympics, in the business world today there is an ever-increasing level of competitiveness amongst participants. Whether it’s a promotion at work, a prospective job, or a sales opportunity – we are always competing. In the field that I work in, investment performance alone isn’t always the determining factor to winning a client’s business. There are other factors that come into play. The question then becomes this: “In a world that is flattening, and talent is more widely dispersed, how do business professionals today gain the marginal advantage to get ahead and stay on top?” I’m not sure there is a black and white answer to this question, but I do have a few thoughts on the matter.Some of the basics that most people already know to do are educate yourself, practice your craft, and have strong people-skills. People who are competing at a high-level understand these are things you must do at a minimum just to stay relevant. However, when I look out across the spectrum of individuals who’ve excelled beyond the competition and seem to always keep the marginal advantage, there are three characteristics that stand out:
- They Have an Unwavering Belief in Themselves
One of the most fascinating paradoxes about the human condition is the ability to create our own boundaries and limitations on what we believe we can achieve. This works both to our advantage and disadvantage. People who understand the power of the human psyche are good at managing their belief system such that their belief in themselves is constantly growing. Successful people believe they are capable of achieving whatever they focus on, despite roadblocks, setbacks, or failures.
2. They are Tirelessly Persistent
Individuals who are tirelessly persistent do not let the way the feel dictate what they actually do. People who are able to maintain the marginal advantage consistently put in the work regardless of whether they are tired, stressed, scared or scarred. They just continually “show up” when others won’t.
3. Their Ability to Execute
Gaining the marginal advantage isn’t about doing one thing really great from time-to-time; it’s about executing on the small thingsall the time. One of the places you see this ring true the most is in sports. There are numerous professional athletes that weren’t born with raw, physical talents, but they excel because they’ve mastered and execute on the basics. In the professional world, it’s no different. People who rise to the top professionally are those who consistently execute on the small things and are willing to do more than what they’re asked or being paid for.
I could compile an endless list of people in sports or business that exhibit any one of the three characteristics above, but I’ll leave it up to you to fill in the blanks with whoever you want. The main point of this post is to get you thinking about “what is marginal advantage?” and “how significant is it?”
In Usain Bolt’s case, the difference between first and last was 0.25 seconds. And while this is an anecdotal example, it illustrates that raw talent and athleticism by themselves aren’t always the biggest differentiators between the successful and unsuccessful. A person must also have a strong belief in themselves, be doggedly persistent, and have the discipline to consistently execute on the basics.
While there are likely other intangibles at play that I did not mention, the key is to figure out what you can do to gain the marginal advantage and from there, put all your effort into it. Remember, in a field of near even competition you don’t have to be sensational to win – you just have to be a little bit better than everyone else. Cheers – KM