Unlocking Success: The Power of Marginal Gains in Achieving Your Boldest Goals
This is chapter 12 from the CHANGE JOURNAL », your journal for more clarity, productivity, and mindfulness in everyday life and at work.
The good old sayings from Grandma’s calendar sound dusty and stuffy today, right? Those pearls of wisdom include, “Many a little makes a mickle” or “A penny saved is a penny earned.” But thinking about it, they still have quite a lot of substance. In some way, they contain an efficient, highly up-to-date strategy. The likes of which have produced Tour de France winners and even Olympic champions.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
What may appear like petty-bourgeois modesty at first glance can be just the opposite and even turn out to help achieve the goals that you have set. Whatever those may be! The idea is to establish a somewhat distant goal. Its distance prevents you from reaching it with just a few steps — not even if you expend enormous effort. It could be quite an ambitious goal, perhaps a wish that has long been close to your heart, but at the same time, seemed way out of reach and too tricky to accomplish.
The idea is to move forward with it at a pace that doesn’t require significant effort, taking one step at a time. You may even think every single step isn’t mighty. But that’s not important here; after all, you’re aiming for something bigger — and that’s the key. In this strategy, every little step creates a marginal gain, a minor, secondary success. So each step does its job. You’re now effectively and continuously approaching your far-off goal, although it may have seemed unattainable for so long. And you’re getting there minus the frustration or overexertion. I don’t have to tell you how terrific that feels, right?
Sharing two very different examples, I want to illustrate how there’s more behind this concept than just hard work and patience. What makes it work are cleverness, tactics, and the beautiful effects of synergy.
In example number one, several teams start with something small and worthless, maybe a toothpick. They try to swap this toothpick for something better. So they may get a T-shirt, swap the T-shirt for a CD, the CD for a pot … and in the end, have a bicycle. Finally, all groups meet to compare who has experienced the most significant increase in value. The trick is to refrain from being excessive and not overreach. The biggest success is only possible with small gains.
Nevertheless, we still tend to request the bike immediately, simply because we are impatient and greedy. Out of disappointment over the lack of immediate success and our painfully slow progress, we no longer believe in the greater goal and lose our confidence in attaining it. If we take it step by step, anything is possible!
I find the second example even more fascinating: The British only had marginal success in cycling for decades — until Dave Brailsford took over the national team in 2002. He called his straightforward, albeit groundbreaking, concept the “aggregation of marginal gains.”
The goal was a 1 % improvement across the board. 1 % and no more. Brailsford’s hypothesis: If you improve everything by 1 %, these improvements will add up to an astonishing effect. The result: He created the most successful cycling team of all time.
“The sum of all marginal gains creates an enormous effect.”
How was that possible? In addition to the obvious, like nutrition, training, and technology, Brailsford and his team also included previously neglected areas: Special pillows and mattresses were developed (and used on tour). He also introduced a new way of hand washing to improve hygiene and help prevent illness. As part of this new holistic approach, the team discovered that the concept was a collection of adjustable screws that looked insignificant when viewed individually. But after making the final adjustments, they earned 18 Olympic gold medals and a ton of respect from professional circles worldwide. Then Brailsford continued the successful series with the Sky team — and again, they won four Tour de France titles. By then, Sir Brailsford was knighted by The Queen in 2012 for his merits. So there’s only one question left: What is your Olympic gold medal? Go for it — with marginal gains!
It makes a vast difference whether you improve 1 % per day or whether you get 1 % worse: