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  • William Seah

The Paradox of Life: Become an Outlier by Assuming You Are Not The Exception

So often we’ve been told that hard work is all that we need to succeed. Rags to riches stories encourage us to strive harder and believe that we can achieve greatness. And when we don’t succeed, what does that mean for us? Are we lesser than others? Is success purely due to effort?

Malcolm Gladwell writes that success is the result of accumulative advantage. That success, while dependent on hard work, is also reliant on our history and our own advantages, such as family background, family economic situation, or even the advantage of age.

In his book Outliers, Gladwell studied the birthday effect. He found that Canadian hockey players who were born earlier in the year were advantaged. This is presumably because they are born months earlier than the others - developmentally, this meant that they were physically bigger when the time came to be selected for the team (the kids are selected young). Because they are selected, they are given more resources which spill over into their non-hockey lives.

While there are counterarguments and evidence that show that the effect of such early advantages is not that strong, such advantages can have a large impact on our life. Apart from the month you were born, genetics is also another factor. Michael Phelps is perhaps the most famous swimmer in the world. And while we celebrate his effort (being an Olympic swimmer is a very demanding feat), we might also do well to remember that he has a body that is better suited for swimming than the average human being. Certainly, the physique alone is not enough for success; it needs effort. But the effort, without the ingredients, reduces the odds of success. It is these small nudges, coupled with effort, that result in success.

How about us? Does this mean that if we are smaller than average, younger than our batch, or weaker than others, we are destined for the sidewalks of mediocrity?

No. I believe that we have strengths and are destined for success. I believe we can all grow to be better people every day. But we should not measure our success based on the achievements of others. To paraphrase, a fish who is measured on its ability to climb a tree will always feel worthless. James Clear encourages us that in life, we can choose the tests we take - even if they play to our strengths. We can choose to design a life that grades us on our strengths. Why not? Successful people are successful because they play to their strengths. Warren Buffet didn’t try to be the world’s best runner. He won the “ovarian lottery” (by being male) and he played to his strengths, including his ability to assess companies.

What can we learn from all this? Rather than envy how others seem to be better, focus on your own strength and develop that area. The outliers did just that; they played to their strengths. Yes, they had some accumulative advantage which meant they were more likely to succeed in a certain area, but you too have some accumulative advantage that you can build on. Outliers build on what they were good at. Even though athletes seemed to be built for their sport, in most cases, they only had a bit of an advantage in it, but focused their efforts and built on it.

How can we build on our strengths?

My suggestion is to consider the things you have done well and without much effort. These are probably areas that you have some natural advantage over. Then invest time and effort to grow in these areas. That said, not all advantages are obvious; sometimes you need to explore different domains before you find one that you are naturally good at and have an interest in.

Once you find something you have some affinity for, strive and grow. Even talented musicians don’t rest on their laurels; they willingly wrestle through difficult pieces and learn. Push yourself to do the hard things in that domain.

I believe that if we find the areas that we enjoy exploring more, we are prepared to devote effort and grow in our capabilities in these areas. We might never be the best in that area, but we will certainly be better than we were yesterday. I like to say that the only person I really need to be better than is my yesterday self. And I think the best way to do this is to really play to your strength.

How can we apply this to finance?

But not everything in life fits our strengths. In our personal financial journey, for example, there are many different challenges, ranging from budgeting, saving, investing, and insurance, on top of our daily work. Some people are fascinated and spend time and money to develop their own personal finance philosophy. These people do extensive research and develop their skills. However, like any domain, it takes time and effort to develop such skills. If it's not your interest, then consider instead getting a financial coach to help you manage or develop the skill. It doesn’t mean you release the entire financial plan to your coach, but you might have certain gaps that you wouldn’t want to develop and can leave that to your coach.

What matters is whether we are prepared to invest that time and effort into doing a task, into developing a skill. And if we are not, it is fine to outsource that role, if it means we can focus and develop other skills. Sometimes, it is just not our natural advantage.

Outliers are people who build upon their advantages. We might not be the winner of Physical 100 on Netflix, but we can be better than our yesterday’s self if we focus on building ourselves up. And the easiest way is to build on our advantages.

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