In a recent forum thread about starting a new business, someone asked about the best way to handle competition. How do you ensure that your efforts will pay off instead of merely jumping into a giant pool with everyone else and being unable to stand out?
My strategy for dealing with competition is the same no matter what field I work in. I’m sure you can apply it to your particular field as well, although there’s a good chance you won’t want to, since it isn’t easy.
In fact, avoiding what’s easy is precisely the solution. If you want to carve out a place in a crowded field, one of the best ways to do that is to tackle the hard problems within that particular field, the kinds of problems that quickly discourage other people and force them to give up.
Hard problems attract few competitors because everyone flocks to the easy problems first. But if you can solve a hard problem, you can create something uniquely valuable that’s difficult to duplicate. In fact, just being willing to go after the hard problems can set you apart from the crowd.
I’ll give you three personal examples.
Games Business Example
The first few computer games I released were very basic in design. They had some unique elements, but most were pretty generic looking. Lots of other people could have developed them. Those games never sold well, generating just a trickle of income.
Then I took a different approach. I set a goal to create a game that would be truly original, something that would have a very elegant, unique design. I spent four solid months designing this game, and the end product of all that work was a design doc that was only 5 pages long. Programming the game, making the levels, and doing the art, sound fx, and music only took two additional months. Many people could have programmed that game, but not many would have been able to come up with a design anything like it. The game’s unique design and gameplay became a strong selling point, and it quickly carved out a niche for itself in the crowded puzzle game market. The game sold well and won some awards too. I discontinued it in 2006, but I still get email from fans of the game today.
Those four months of design work were very tough. I had to pursue many blind alleys and consider a vast field of possible options. There was no guarantee of even finding the type of solution I was looking for. After 3 months it seemed like I’d made very little progress. But eventually everything converged to a very elegant design. Once the design was complete, even before any of the levels or other game assets were created, I knew I had something great.
I chose to compete in the area of design because I didn’t have the resources to compete in other areas. I couldn’t code 3D graphics like John Carmack, and I didn’t have the resources to compete with teams of professional artists, sound engineers, and musicians. My budget was pretty close to zero. I had to compete on the basis of creativity. As it turns out, coming up with a truly creative, elegant design is the “hard problem” of game development. You can throw tons of resources at art, music, and sound, and you’ll get good results, but you cannot guarantee a positive result no matter how much money and how many resources you devote to design. You’d be amazed that games that seem very simple on the surface may have taken months or even years of hard design work.
The wheel may seem like a simple invention, but for some early human it was probably the solution to a particularly vexing problem.
For this website I decided to tackle the hard problems of personal development, namely trying to identify the hidden order beneath the surface chaos in our lives. Although the results may often look simple, the thought and effort that goes into this work is extremely challenging.
You may notice that I rarely write about the easy problems of personal development, like how to get your computer to run faster, where you can download free ebooks, or how to save money on your mortgage. You’ll find zillions of websites discussing those topics. Instead I focus most of my energy on the high-level, timeless concepts. This is much harder work, but the upside is that it gives me an opportunity to make a unique contribution. Most people who try to do this kind of work for a while soon give up in frustration. It may look easy on the surface, but I assure you it is not. This is one reason my website continues to thrive in an increasingly crowded field.
Just because this work is hard doesn’t mean it’s painful. Tackling hard problems can be extremely rewarding, especially when the solution benefits others.
Book Writing Example
When I started writing my book, Personal Development for Smart People, I decided there was no way I’d write a generic “me too” book. For me the easy problem would be to create a book that was just a collection of advice about how to make improvements in different areas of your life. I quickly dismissed that option because lots of people can write such a book (and already have). There’s a centuries-old glut of such books. I see no point in adding to the pre-existing clutter. This just isn’t a hard enough problem.
So I decided to write a book that would be very, very challenging, something I’ve never seen done before. I set out to find the common pattern behind all successful personal growth efforts, to identify a complete set of core principles that would be universally applicable. Other people have tried to write such books, but they provide only partial solutions filled with gaping holes.
To define what the set of principles would need to look like, I outlined several criteria, all of which would have to be satisfied. These principles have to be true for anyone anywhere. They must be timeless, meaning that they can still be expected to work 1,000 years from now, and they’ll still have worked 1,000 years ago. They have to make logical and intuitive sense. They must work both individually and collectively, so they’re effective for any group of any size. They must work on the Moon as well as Earth. If I found myself alone on an alien world, I’d still use them. They must be culturally independent. They must work equally well for all areas of life — health, relationships, career, money, etc. They must be collectively complete, so no critical element is missing. And they must be simple, elegant, and beautiful.
So basically my goal was to define the hidden mathematics of personal development, the underlying structure beneath the surface chaos. I wanted to discover the personal development equivalent of prime numbers. This is extremely difficult because it means the solution has to be fairly general and abstract, but it must also have abundant practical applications.
I researched many different concepts and frameworks that took a stab in this direction but which always fell short of these criteria, everything from Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits to the Noble Truths of Buddhism. I wracked my brain again and again, asking repeatedly, “What is the underlying pattern?” There were tiny clues everywhere, but the full picture remained a mystery. The task seemed nearly impossible, and I had no guarantee there even was a solution. I ended up rejecting an almost endless progression of partial solutions. It was frustrating to find a solution that looked good at first, only to discover that it was full of holes.
It took me almost 2-1/2 years, but I eventually found the solution I was looking for, and it’s reducible to a mere 7 words, which inspired the first 7 chapters of the book. The other 80,000 words of the book are explanation, illustration, and application. Virtually all the book’s value lies in understanding those 7 core principles and how they interact with each other. Once I had the principles figured out, writing the book was still challenging but fairly straightforward.
The principles themselves are simple and will appear almost obvious when you read them. It’s only when they’re assembled in a certain way that the value becomes clear.
Once I figured out these principles, I started seeing them everywhere. Without exception I can look at anyone’s personal problems and describe them as a violation of one or more of these principles, and the principles automatically suggest a solution that is both logically and intuitively sensible. I can derive any other sound personal development concepts directly from these principles, including all of Covey’s 7 Habits and the core elements of the world’s major religions. These principles are the prime numbers of personal growth.
Because I picked the right problem to tackle, I’ve no doubt the book will have a significant impact on those who read it, and I expect it will endure for a very long time. In my mind that success has already occurred, even though the book is still many months from release. This was by far the most difficult project I’ve ever attempted. Once the book comes out, I can basically keel over and die happy. 🙂
It’s hard to think of anything more satisfying than coming up with an elegant solution to a really difficult problem. 2-1/2 years of hard work was a fair price to pay for this result.
How do you beat the competition?
You do the things that others don’t, won’t, or can’t.
Basically you need to find a way to apply your particular strengths to solve problems that are nearly impossible for most people to solve but which are easier (though still challenging) for you to solve. This requires developing an awareness of your strengths (see Discover Your Strengths for details). The hard problems that you’re best suited to tackle will probably look very different than the ones I’m suited for because we probably have different strengths and experiences.
You can apply this “tackle the hard problems” idea to any area of your life, not just business. Look around you for tough problems that other people can’t seem to solve but which you think you have a decent shot at solving. If you really put in a serious effort, what problems could you solve in your workplace, your family, your social circle, your community, etc?
You may not like the words “beat” and “competition,” and that’s OK because you don’t need to look at it that way. In truth you aren’t really beating anyone. Everyone is free to tackle hard problems, but relatively few will exercise that choice. So instead of beating the competition, you’re really just leaving the competitive pool behind and blazing your own trail. You’re actually choosing not to compete at all.
When it comes to competition, if you’re doing work that lots of other people could do just as well, you’re making a strategic blunder. Try to figure out what you’re capable of doing that makes other people quit, even if you still find it challenging. When other people start accusing you of becoming obsessed with an impossible problem, you know you’re getting warm.
What’s good about competition?
The benefit of competition is that it motivates us to identify our strengths and put them to good use. Even the cells in your body compete for resources when necessary, and those that prove their value get preferential treatment. This is a fair system because it increases the whole body’s fitness for survival.
Similarly, our economy tends to divert extra resources to those who prove they can provide significant value for the benefit of all. Some see this as a reward for hard work. I see it as a way to encourage continued value production from those who are already productive.
Of course an added benefit of tackling hard problems is that they help you grow. There’s little to be gained from doing what’s easy, and it’s a safe bet someone else will handle the easy stuff anyway. The real value lies in pursuing the thorny path, the one that scares away the timid adventurers.
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