How Seeking Marginal Gains Can Lead You To Success

Tom Stevenson
Jan 9 · 5 min read

At the 2008 Summer Olympics, the Great British track cycling team won seven of the ten gold medals on offer at the games.

Four years later at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, they improved this haul to eight out of ten.

If you had never watched track cycling before, you would assume that Great Britain had been a world leader on the track for a number of years.

However, you would be wrong.

At the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, the track team took home just two out of the 12 gold medals on offer at the games.

The turnaround from average to brilliant in four years is nothing short of outstanding.

The success was borne from a desire to seek small continual improvements that would multiply into big ones over time.

They took the principle of improving by 1 percent every day and ran with it.

We saw the result of the success in the medal hauls at the Olympics, but what we didn’t see is the process that allowed the athletes to achieve this.

Champions are made behind closed doors. The work they put in behind the scenes is what allows them to perform on the big stage.

Without a watertight process, they would not be able to scale the heights they do.

When it comes to success, having a process, even one that brings small improvements, is essential if you want to succeed.


Marginal Gains

At the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, the Great British track cycling team won a solitary gold medal.

Jason Queally’s success in the time trial was the first gold medal they had won since Chris Boardman won gold in the individual pursuit at the 1992 Olympics.

The last time Great Britain won a gold medal in cycling before Boardman had been when Thomas Lance and Harry Ryan won the Tandem event at the 1920 Olympics. In those intervening 72 years, British cycling had been left behind.

Their performances were so bad, one of the top bike manufacturers in Europe refused to sell their bikes to the team, due to the fear it would hurt sales if the British team were seen to be riding them!

That all changed when Dave Brailsford was appointed as British Cycling’s new Performance Director in 2003, ahead of the 2004 Olympics.

Brailsford’s brief was to improve the team and bring home some gold medals. To achieve this aim he decided to follow the philosophy of the ‘aggregation of marginal gains’.

They would search for tiny improvements in everything the team did, in the belief that those small gains would snowball into larger ones over time.

Brailsford summarises the approach as follows:

“The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improve it by 1 percent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.”

Brailsford homed in on areas that you would expect in regard to improving cycling performance such as adjusting bike seats to make them more comfortable, using a wind tunnel to help the riders adopt the optimum position on the bike and rubbing alcohol on the tires to improve their grip.

But Brailsford also looked for improvement in areas that were unexpected, which led to them being overlooked.

He spoke to a surgeon about the best way to wash your hands to prevent catching a cold. They tested which type of pillow and mattress provided the riders with the best night’s sleep, an idea they had come across from the Royal Ballet.

The combination of optimising performances in all these areas was that they accumulated into a massive improvement in the team’s performance at the 2008 Olympics.

From two gold medals out of twelve to seven out of ten in the space of four years is an incredible achievement.

While it may seem hard to believe that tiny improvements can lead to dramatic success which the British team achieved, following the rule of 1 percent and marginal gains is a surefire way to improve your output.


A Blueprint For Success

The issue most people have with success is that they assume there is a single defining moment which paves the way for one to be successful.

This is a gross overestimation of how success works and ignores the part improving by 1 percent every day has to play.

We have this idea that to lose that weight, to run a successful business, you need to make an incredible effort almost overnight for it to happen.

The simple truth is that you don’t need to take drastic action if you want to achieve great success.

David Brailsford knew this and that is why he followed his philosophy of the aggregation of marginal gains to achieve phenomenal success with the British Cycling team.

Improving by 1 percent might not be noticeable, but the improvements will become apparent in the long-run.

If you were to improve by 1 percent every day for one year, you would be thirty-seven times better than you were when you began!

The same is also true if you start to go backwards. Getting worse at something each day will see you slide to a far worse position than the one you started in.

At the start these choices will have next to no impact, but as you continue on your path, for better or worse, the results compound. As a result, you will find a big gap between those who make good decisions and those who make bad ones.

We like to think of success as being achieved through grand statements and bold actions, when the reality is more nuanced.

The simple truth is that most of the significant things in our lives are the result of small actions and decisions that we take on a daily basis. They aren’t stand-alone events.

It was Aristotle that stated:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act, but a habit.”

To achieve great things we have to habitually do the small things that enable us to get there.

Commit to improving yourself by just 1 percent each day and when you look back after a few months, and then years, much like the British Cycling team, you will be unrecognisable from what you were before!

Tom Stevenson

Written by

I like to write. I like to travel. https://www.thetravellingtom.com

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade