Not long ago, I heard this piece of advice from Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba and one of China’s richest man:
Don’t be the best. Be the first!
This advice is very profound. But it is also very counterintuitive and goes against the grain of conventional wisdom that we have learnt since we were children. If you want to succeed in today’s hyper-competitive world, you have to be a contrarian. Conventional wisdom will not work anymore.
What we were made to believe
Now, let us look at what we have been made to believe when we were young. In school, we had to compete against our peers to secure the best grades, the best schools and the best universities. After we graduated, we had to compete against our peers for the best jobs in the best companies. Then we were told by the best companies that they only hire the “best and brightest”. After securing our place in the corporation, we were subjected to “performance reviews” by HR where we were once again competing with our colleagues.
If we went along the entrepreneurial route, we found ourselves in competition with other peoples’ businesses. On the Internet, your business had to compete against the whole world to be among the top in search engines results. Then, if your business got aggregated, it had to compete against other businesses in the form of the dreaded ratings and reviews.
Everywhere you go, be it school, work and business, the competition is relentless. You believe that the only way out of this neverending treadmill is to reach the pinnacle by being the best.
Why you are on the road to the dead-end
But unfortunately, trying to be the best will lead you to a dead end.
First, if you are an entrepreneur and if your business has to be found on the Internet, you have a BIG problem. Being the best among your peers may work if the Internet is a meritocracy. But is that true? As I wrote in my book, The Google Trap,
Is the Internet a great meritocracy where the finest will automatically rise up to the top? This is the idea that believes that the Internet is a potent force that brings together the collective power of the ‘market’ to sift out the wheat from the chaff and bring the best to the top where it should be. In other words, you get what you deserve on the Internet. This idea is most pervasive in the world of start-ups, where ardent belief in this ideal is the only fuel that drives entrepreneurs to extraordinary effort. But does this idea reflect the reality of the Internet?
Today, as the line between the real world and the Internet get intertwined and blurred, lack of meritocracy on the Internet will have real-world implications on your business, professional and even personal life. If the Internet is not a meritocracy, the old rule of achieving success by being the best is increasingly irrelevant.
Secondly, as I wrote in my book, The Google Trap,
Once you understand this dynamic, you will begin to see why the Internet is so rife with winner-take-all phenomena. The winner gets bigger and bigger while the loser becomes smaller and smaller.
The Internet tends towards the winner-take-all outcome. There can be only one (or a few) winner. With gazillion number of competitors out on the market, your statistical probability of being the winner is close to zero.
So, here comes this provocative question: If you cannot be a winner by being the best, and if there can only one winner, is it worth the effort of trying to win by attempting to be the best?
Don’t be the best?
That’s where Jack Ma’s advice comes into place.
By being the first, you are, by definition, at the top. In business, this is called the “first-mover’s advantage”. In professional parlance, this is called “initiative”. In industry-speak, this is called “innovation”. By being the first, you define what the conventional wisdom should be. You are the top-dog. Those who will follow after you will have to compete for their way to come near you.
Let’s see how this apply to your professional life. At work, you create the most value when you are the first. As Seth Godin wrote,
The place where we can create the most value is when we do a job where exploration and a new solution is what’s needed. Not rote, but exploration. Which means we’re doing something that’s not been done before, something that might not work.
At work, most of the road is already defined by the “process”. If you follow the process well, you get a pat on your back by your boss. As the process gets more and more rigidly defined, the ‘best’ gets increasingly defined in terms of speed and efficiency in the context of making the least mistakes. If you do not have the energy to be fast, then you will have to devote more of your personal time to get the job done according to the defined process.
What if your colleagues are trying to be the ‘best’ by being speedy and efficient? It will result in intense competition towards exhaustion, sucking out the vitality of your life over time. The winner is the one who survives till the end, while the rest drop out with damage to their soul and body.
On the other hand, by being the first, you define what the “process” should be. If your process works better than the current one and produces better results, others will follow your process. When others follow your process, you now have followers. When you have followers, you become a leader.
If you are an entrepreneur, being the first is even more crucial.
As Seth Godin wrote in his book, Unleashing the Ideavirus,
At the beginning, the Internet was a vacuum. A Yahoo! or an eBay or an Amazon could walk in and propagate its ideavirus fast and cheap. Today, though, launching a new search engine or a new email service is hard indeed. Why? Because the vacuum’s gone.
By being the first, you are occupying a vacuum. By occupying a vacuum, the probability of your business unleashing an ideavirus is way higher than trying to be the best in a crowded space. Without the ideavirus, your business will be the victim of The Google Trap and languish in obscurity as a consequence. It will have no chance of achieving your dream of it becoming a winner or leader in the market.
Life is short. Don’t be the best. Be the first instead!