What you see up there is not a CGI rendering from a movie. It’s a real animal. An inhabitant of the Australian desert called the thorny dragon.
Let’s call him Trey. Trey does a few very uncommon things:
- He collects dew drops falling from plants on his back, where they remain on his spiny, rough skin.
- Trey then sends those dew drops to his mouth via his capillaries with one simple “chewing” motion.
- This means he can literally “suck up” water by just standing in it.
- He follows a simple, one-item diet: ants. Trey eats nothing but ants.
- Lastly, Trey has a second, fake head on top of his real one, which he can present to enemies by bowing down and hopefully get away without much damage.
Pretty cool, huh? So how come you’ve never heard of Trey? I mean, he’s not the national animal of any country, there are few clips of him on Youtube and he hasn’t been on the cover of Forbes.
However, Trey, much like his fellow thorny dragons, has a lifespan of 15 to 20 years, which is an eternity in animal land. A few more evolutionary cycles and they’ll close in on the masters of longevity: turtles.
When we look for success, we usually turn to the commonalities of those, who’ve made it to the top. But what if we’re wrong?
Maybe, the only commonality of making it to the top is to not share many commonalities with others.
Maybe, what successful people do now is not what got them there.
Much like this weird little heir to the dinosaurs, not-yet successful people are almost guaranteed to be uncommon — but each in their very own way.
So, instead of looking for more of the same, I asked myself:
Which habits have I seen in myself and others, who are not-yet successful, but exhibit all the signs of being on the best path possible?
Note: I also considered “successful” people, as long as I could attribute a particular habit to them before they had made it.
After thinking long and hard, I came up with these seven things:
1. Thinking of yourself as an immigrant.
Gary Vaynerchuk talks about his immigrant background being to his advantage. I think even if you aren’t an immigrant, thinking of yourself as one helps with various things:
I’ve started doing it and it’s made me a lot less whiny. I have no problem to walk half an hour to get somewhere, eat lunch for $1, sleep just 5 hours a few times a week and wear the same pants 5 days in a row. It’s all about perspective.
I have a comfortable life. I can be grateful for it. Thinking of yourself as an immigrant keeps you hungry and humble at the same time.
2. Tackling important issues you have no idea about (yet) with confidence.
One of my favorite quotes is this one:
“I have never tried that before, so I think I should definitely be able to do that.”
— Pippi Longstocking (a character by Astrid Lindgren)
Some of the world’s greatest companies have been built by people who knew nothing about the industry when they started.
Sara Blakely founded Spanx merely because she was sick of wearing pantyhose in hot weather for her job. Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia hosted strangers at their place for rent because they couldn’t pay their own — that’s how AirBnB started.
I’m not saying these people were delusional. But if you find a problem that might be important not just to you, but to others too, then don’t let being a beginner stop you. You’ll have to research more, learn more, go deeper and study a ton as you go.
But if no one has done it so far, maybe it’s time for you to roll up your sleeves and say “someone’s gotta fix this, so it might as well be me.”
3. Outsourcing things not worth your time, even when you still have lots of it.
There are some things which have to be done, but have no relation to whatever you want to master. Things like taxes, certain administrative tasks, fixing your website when it breaks, etc.
Most people, especially when they’re just starting out, will do all these by themselves, simply because they have the time to. What they’re missing is the opportunity cost this comes with: You can’t do deep work while you’re taking care of details.
I’m not rich by any standard, but if it keeps me focused, I’m happy to spend money on a tax advisor, dry cleaning and WordPress themes that come with tech support.
It’s hard to suddenly switch into delegation mode and hand off everything when your company explodes. What’s uncommon is building this habit early, but it gets you there faster, because you’ll spend more time making progress on what matters.
4. Balancing two very extreme, opposite perspectives.
Successful people are extremes by definition, but most of them still fall on either end point of any given spectrum.
What’s very rare is someone who balances both — for example extreme ambition (I want to write a book that becomes a historic classic) with extreme humility (If no one ever reads my stuff again, I’ll be grateful for the people who have).
Opposites don’t have to contradict each other, as long as you have the right perspective at the right time.
5. Worrying about what people think of them after they’re dead, not while they’re alive.
The second part is not that uncommon, but the first one is. It’s not like future examples of success don’t give a shit about anyone’s opinion. They do, just not right now.
Their timeline of “I want people to think highly of me” is shifted to after their death. Be an outsider now, leave a growing legacy.
When you stop focusing on peoples’ opinions right now and start to really care about what they’ll say when you’re gone, that’s when you adopt the long-term thinking you need to win the right way — whatever game you’re playing.
6. Telling the truth when it makes no sense.
Being honest in situations, where it would make a lot more sense for all involved to lie, somehow has a funny way of benefitting us.
For example, when pitching a big food corporation for a yogurt startup, most founders would try to show off their (not-yet-existent) expertise about the market. That might be a good idea, because if they can pull it off, both the investor and they will profit from the deal.
A confident beginner would say “look, we don’t know all the details, but we know that this will change the entire game.”
Whether they get the money or not, their honesty somehow still opens the next door, no matter if it’s a reference, a new customer, a trusted advisor or another minor advantage they gain.
7. Using geological arbitrage.
Geological arbitrage simply means a good is priced lower in one area than the other, and you’re profiting off the difference.
I’m using the reverse of this right now: Moving to an expensive city has kicked my work ethic into gear to fully pay my own way through life.
This doesn’t have to be money or a physical good. It can be something intangible too, like time, or attention.
Living in Thailand and saving half your monthly expenses compared to Europe is smart. Opening an office in a town that’ll soon become a hot spot for your product is clever. Launching a dating-focused social network on just one college campus that’s full of smart, shy people and tech nerds is brilliant.
The reason not many people do this is because it’s a big commitment: sometimes it means you literally have to move.
Some of these are less uncommon than others. Either way, I hope these make sense to you, but then again, maybe they shouldn’t. Like Trey’s diet of ants only, not everything has to make sense, to make sense.
Just remember: While you’re watching those at the top, the thorny dragons of the world are hidden behind the scenes, making progress in silence.
Uncommon, unnoticed, unwatched.
And when you finally notice them, they might never be the same.