Extraordinary results, ordinary acts

In this essay, I try to answer the following question: How can ordinary acts lead to extraordinary results, and how can an average person, produce results of a genius. But before answering that, let’s take a step back and see how I got the answer.

I like reading books, including autobiographies. Note I said autobiographies. I’m not a big fan of biographies not written by the subjects because when I read someone’s bio, I like to hear their voice. Non-autobiographies also tend to have a lot of hero worshipping, which I don’t find very useful.

My favorite were Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, Barrack Obama’s Dreams from my Father, Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime and Warren Buffett’s Essays of Warren Buffett and Tap Dancing to Work. All but the last are autobiographies. The last was written by Buffett’s long time friend. It also contains op-eds written by Warren Buffett for Fortune magazine, so Buffett’s voice is present in the book.

What I liked the most about these bios is they depict the authors as normal people who did normal things consistently for a long period of time and got extraordinary results.

But it would be naive to not acknowledge that these people have special talents. Madiba was very humble and courageous, Noah is very funny, Barrack has great oratory skills and Buffett has integrity and an eye for good investments.

However, the books also tell another story. The story of what these people did over many years and how it contributed to getting them where they are today. In his book, Mandela describes his childhood as a normal African boy in the village herding goats and working in the fields. This makes him accessible.

The same can be said for Buffett who started out with 10,000 dollars; Obama who started as a community organizer running in the streets and working with priests; Noah who slept on the floor in the same room with many other family members when he visited his maternal grandmother in Soweto.

Yet these people did something ordinary and special. No matter how ordinary their work was, they believed in and were loyal to it. It is this loyalty that led them to make necessary sacrifices and take necessary risks to make their work move on. Given how ordinary their work was, I can imagine the sacrifices they made would not make any sense to an outside observer, because it was not clear and I like to believe not even to them, that this work would yield such extraordinary results down the line. What they believed was it was the right thing to do.

Now, I know I’m no Barrack, but I can certainly learn something from him. I can use the same strategy he used to make the best use of my talents, whatever they are. Theirs seems to be the optimal strategy for anyone who wants to reach their full potential.

I don’t really need to be as talented as the people I have mentioned to benefit from this principle, it’s the best I or anyone can do despite their means.

Nowadays, what makes it to headlines are Silicon Valley geniuses who spend a couple of months in their parents’ garage and come out with a viral app that gets 100 million users and turns into a billion dollar business. It’s harder to relate to these stories. But in the books I have listed, the subjects are ordinary (seeming) people who walk with us everyday and do normal things but for a very long period of time because they believe in what they do and know no better way.

This was a turning point in my life. I stopped looking for a breakthrough. Instead, I started hitting the wall, one hit at a time until I see cracks and eventually the wall breaks. I forgot wanting to be a Zuck and come up with the next Facebook. I forgot overnight success. I forgot 100 million users. I forgot a billion dollar business. Instead, I focused on doing the job at hand right, and put myself on the hook to loyally do it for a long period of time, making the necessary sacrifices along the way.

One may ask, if it’s about the simple things, then why don’t the average person do it. Yes everyone can do it, and many do, but only for a short period of time. Very few stick to it to the end because it doesn’t look cool and people will think you are crazy when you take the necessary risks and make the necessary sacrifices. Actually, if everyone thinks what you do makes sense, they probably do it too and by definition, you become average. If everyone thinks what you do makes sense, you are likely doing something wrong that will hinder you from reaching your potential.

Once you start doing the ordinary things right, another powerful force comes into play. The compound effect. There more you have, the more you can get out of it. But when many of us think about the future, we think linearly and miss this opportunity. Look at Obama, while in college, the next best thing he did was be a community organizer, which led to Harvard which led to being president of the Harvard law review, which led to Senate which led Presidency. Note how each jump was magnitudes larger than the previous jump. That’s the compound effect. And the compound effect only helps those who stay in the battlefield.

Sometimes it will get challenging. It has to, otherwise persistence would not be a virtue. Narrow is the path to glory. Whether you take the narrow or wide path determines whether you make it or not. I recently saw a quote that says, “there is no traffic jam on the extra mile”, and another which says, “the harder I work, the luckier I get”. Many people just quit at some point and that is how they lose. We all know what is the right thing to do if we want to achieve one thing or another. Some are patient enough to do it and some are not. That’s where the difference is.

So focus on doing the obvious things right, for as long as you need to, consistently, and success is guaranteed for you.