A few weeks ago, I was able to spend a little time with my 12-year old niece who lives in Singapore.
For those of you who know Singapore, you know that it is an incredibly competitive place academically. Standards are the highest in the world, but it’s very difficult to test into the top schools, and many families spend huge amounts of time and money to get their kids tutors for every subject that will show up on their various placement exams. Every time one kid does something new to get an edge, everyone else will quickly follow suit. It’s like an incredibly demanding race, and everyone is running on one giant treadmill where you need to keep increasing your speed just to stay in the same place.
It’s a grind, and my niece is falling into line. She tests well, studies hard, and thankfully, maintains a really healthy perspective throughout. But I gave her a homework assignment for the next year (Singaporean parents love homework). I wanted her to make 2 decisions that are completely contrary to what most other kids do to try to get ahead. These don’t have to be big, and they might not work out (and they might not be about work at all). But she has to give it a shot and see what happens.
I really think that asymmetric returns in any professional or personal endeavor come from making non-standard calls. Mike Maples frames it in 2×2 fashion with his “non-consensus right” framework. Peter Thiel calls them “secrets”, or put another way “an important truth that very few people agree with you on”.
Most of the time however, people don’t pursue unconventional truths. I notice this all the time with investors and entrepreneurs alike. We are all more like 12-year old girls in Singapore running hard, but standing still. It might look a little different different – at NextView, we often call it “chasing heat”. Chasing the hot company or sector. Being a fast follower when a certain business model or new innovation becomes apparent as a big and successful thing.
But chasing heat rarely works. Our time horizons are too long (sectors get hot because of successful companies that were started 5+ years before). Competition gets too fierce too quickly to be a fast follower (see my post on why fast followers are actually leaders in disguise). Instead, what usually wins is a combination of contrarian thinking AND the conviction to persist (sometimes for years) in the face of naysayers. It’s hard to do. It’s scary to get off the treadmill when it seems like you are going to be left behind by your peers.
But it’s also the only way to run a different sort of race, and actually get anywhere.
Personal note: Although the Singaporean girls might be running hard but standing still relative to one another, it’s still clear that they are not standing still relative to students in the rest of the world. Even though I’m being a bit critical of the system in this post, I think the country’s commitment to excellence in education is very, very admirable. Most countries and families could learn a thing or two from the Singaporean education system and would be blown away by what my niece and her peers are able to handle.