“Someone who is exceptional in their role is not just a little better than someone who is pretty good. They are 100 times better.”
The mental model you have of your own potential will largely determine the level of success you obtain.
Due to years of misguided schooling, our default model of human performance tends to resemble the bell curve.
The bell curve is characterized by a few high performers at the top, a lot of average performers in the middle, and very few low performers at the bottom. The bell curve is an appropriate model for many things, but it does not accurately represent human performance. It actually leads people to vastly underestimate their potential and aim too low.
Research by Ernest O’Boyle Jr. and Herman Aguinis, consisting of 633,263 researchers, entertainers, politicians, and athletes in 198 samples, found that performance in 94 percent of these groups did not follow a normal distribution. Instead, these groups fall into a Power Law distribution.
In a power law distribution, people are not “normally distributed.” There are a small number of people who are hyper-performers, a broad group who are good performers, and a small number of low performers.
In contrast to the bell curve, the power curve accounts for the critical fact that the highest performers aren’t just a little better. They’re exponentially better.
In other words, the range of performance and results is far, far broader than the bell curve implies. And there is not a mathematically fixed amount of room at the top.
But why should you care?
THE CURVE IN YOUR MIND INFLUENCES YOUR RESULTS
Thinking through the bell curve
Imagine yourself on the bell curve in the 95th percentile of your peer group—pretty impressive. You’re way out on the right side, where it is starting to get skinny and improvement comes from incrementally squeezing out the last few drops of progress. You’re pretty much capped out, and to move up it is a zero-sum match where you must knock down or overtake someone else.
Thinking through the power curve
Now imagine yourself on the power curve at the 95th percentile. You’re just where the curve is starting to get steep. Despite the fact that you’re already at an elite 95%, you still see there is room to improve your results two to ten times… or more.
You’re not capped out. You’re just getting started. Instead of hunkering down to play it safe and protect your turf, you continue innovating and improving. And your results grow disproportionately.
The bell curve model leads people to focus on their rank or standing relative to their immediate peer group. Whereas the power curve model leads people to focus on their results and highest potential.
Choosing How Much Room You Have to Improve
Just as one cannot learn when they believe their cup is already full, those who believe they are at the top of their game are unlikely to make significant progress.
Your approach to improving your performance, results, or situation is deeply affected by how much room you think there is to improve. For instance, you may be able to move up 5% by buckling down and working 5% harder. But, if you are going to 10X your results from an already successful level, you simply don’t have the time and energy to work 10X harder. Exponential growth comes from fundamental and deliberate changes, like upgrading beliefs or strategy, collaborating, or professional coaching.
If you’re only thinking in terms of non-scalable improvements, like working longer or harder, you’re unlikely to breakthrough to new levels.
The bell curve anchors our focus on the average, creating a subconscious gravitational pull toward the middle. In contrast, the power curve anchors our focus on the exponential results ahead of us, creating a gravitational pull in the right direction.
Your results will not exceed this size of your thinking. And most people are thinking far too small about what is possible for them.
ARE EXPONENTIAL RESULTS REAL?
If you’re working in an assembly line or an environment that does not allow innovation, exponential results are unlikely.
But in areas that involve a combination of skills, such as 94% of the groups studied by O’Boyle Jr. and Aguinis, 10X differences are the norm.
I won’t review all the studies on 10X results across various fields here, but the summary is that many studies have examined productivity or performance across disciplines and a 10X difference between average and top performers is the norm rather than the exception. These results have been observed in writing, football, inventing, police work, and other occupations.
In short, research solidly supports the 10X model.
Alan Eustace, Google’s Vice President of Engineering said, “One top-notch engineer is worth 300 times or more than the average.” He says he would rather lose an entire incoming class of engineering graduates than one exceptional technologist. Many Google services, such as Gmail and Google News, were started by a single person.
Bill Gates said that there were a handful of people at Microsoft who “made” the company and if they left there would be no Microsoft. Successful people and organizations understand 10X results. It’s how they operate.
So we see that some people are 10X more successful than their peer group. But how does an individual make a big leap from “traditional success” to exponential results?
HOW TO MOVE FROM SUCCESSFUL TO HYPER-PERFORMER
Most smart people progress to the steep part of the curve and get stuck there, never breaking through. There are three reasons why:
First, they’re often a big fish in a little pond and don’t realize how much more growth is available to them. So they focus on making tough, incremental improvements instead of significant ones.
Second, smart people fail to break through because they focus on easy, linear changes instead of fundamental changes. It is easy to move from nine hours of work to nine and a half hours. But this type of change doesn’t scale. Each time you add an increment of work, the marginal benefit gets smaller, until working longer actually costs you more value than it generates. The most common strategies for improving results are the least likely to create significant improvement.
Third, their early success has reinforced their habits and beliefs. So they keep doing that for which they have been rewarded. They fail to realize that what works best on the flat part of the curve is not effective on the steep part—where the exponential results happen. Instead of changing their beliefs (upgrading to more effective ones), they do more and more of the same and over-apply their strengths. For instance, a drive for perfection is great in areas that require it. But when applied to everything, it means you will get poor returns on your time and energy investments. Working harder, longer, or taking on more yourself has physical limits and tends to be counterproductive at the steep part of the curve.
By applying the same old approaches, you’re likely to become burned out, overwhelmed, or simply stuck.
High potentials have a need to continue making progress. When additional effort does not create progress, this is the definition of frustration and it is particularly unpleasant for high potential people.
The Point of Opportunity
Although the steep part of the curve is where most successful people stall out, that is also the point at which the most massive leaps are possible. In other words, successful people tend to stall out right where their greatest opportunities present.
The single biggest factor in stagnation or exponential results
There are three major traits common to those that break through:
(1) Consistency: routinely showing up and doing the work,
(2) Focus: not spreading one’s energy over too many areas, &
(3) Seeking & acting on objective feedback.
Which is the largest factor? The last one—objective feedback. Think about it—if you already knew exactly what to do and how to do it, you’d already be where you want to be.
The strength and willingness to let others help you improve your performance is far and away the greatest factor. Nearly every great athlete, entrepreneur, actor, singer, or high performer in any field has a coach or a team of coaches.
No matter how smart you are, you’re not smarter than everyone around you. Objective people will have important insights about your actions and goals that you simply will not have.
People that breakthrough are adept at finding and allowing the right people to help them.
Why don’t smart people capitalize on objective feedback when it has proven so powerful and effective?
Mainly, successful people don’t know how much better they could be doing. If they knew exactly what they could improve, they’d change it. They feel like they are at maximum effectiveness. But in truth, they have significant blind spots they simply can’t see that will be fairly obvious to attuned outsiders.
Imagine you had a team of experts designed to propel you to maximum impact and success in your chosen field. What could you achieve? Are you there now? If you believe you would be at a better place than you are now, you must acknowledge that you are not presently at maximum effectiveness. In truth, you are probably nowhere near it.
Embrace the Paradox
To keep progressing, you need to change the thinking and habits that have helped you succeed so far. This is uncomfortable and usually requires deliberate effort and structure.
Traditional success is characterized by more hours, obligations, and stress.
Exponential success is characterized by greater impact, growth, and freedom.
Take your pick.
Old Habits Vs. New
The willingness to work hard is an asset, but now you need to find ways to work less. You must delegate and eliminate, and reallocate that energy to strategic thinking.
Productivity no longer cuts it. You must shift your focus to being effective.
Saying yes to everything used to help you, but now it will sink you.
As a successful person, the overwhelming risk is not that you won’t work hard enough, but that you’ll work too hard, not rest enough, burn out, or reduce your health and energy levels—your most fundamental assets. Burnout is gradual so we don’t realize how much less effective we’ve become.
Discipline is now more valuable in getting you to work less, not more.
In short, eliminate, simplify, triage, and delegate to do fewer, but more important tasks. This means learning to let things go, accept things you cannot change, and focus where you can have an impact.
Perfectionistic tendencies likely helped you in school and early career. But as you move along the power curve, it means no focus and poor resource allocation. It is small thinking, and it will kill your progress at this level.
Choose Your Path
The bottom line is to choose your path. The power curve model is more representative of reality and more conducive to exponential growth. It also requires a willingness to consciously adapt and evolve, best done through objective feedback.
For every person that achieves 10X results on their own, 100 others could as well through coaching or mentorship.
Where do you feel you are presently on the power curve?
With the right strategy & support, what results could you achieve?