25th July, 2021
This week, an Olympics theme …
One of the things we love to be in New Zealand is world class.
As I’ve written previously:
The expression “world class” gets casually thrown around, like a frisbee at the beach on a sunny afternoon. But most people who use it actually have no concept of what it means.
This is relatively easy to understand when we're talking about sports.
Imagine running 100m in 20 seconds.
(Most of us are much slower).
And then let’s further pretend that we could sustain that pace for a full marathon distance (42.195km). We’d still be finishing more than 30 mins behind the current world record holder, Eliud Kipchoge.
Calculations like this put the performance required to be genuinely world class in context.
In sport there is an obvious and massive gap between the elite few and everybody else. For the enthusiastic amateur it’s tempting to bridge that gap in our minds and imagine that we could be a contender, but that doesn’t often stand up to much scrutiny. Very few amateurs call themselves world class.
In business there is also a massive gap between the elite few and everybody else. But it’s not so obvious, so it’s more tempting to think we can just fake it till we make it.
It seems so easy to start a company and dream big. Anybody can do it!
But we don’t become world class by calling ourselves world class.
We only achieve that by competing with the best in the world.
If you’re going to claim your ambition is to be “world class” then you better be prepared to also tell us who is currently best in the world and what it will take for you to match their performance. Otherwise you’re just saying words.
If you call a dog’s tail a leg, how many legs does it have? Still four, because calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one.
One way to be world class is to target a very narrow niche.
Eight women (+ one small person shouting instructions) together in a long skinny boat, with one oar each, going backwards the fastest in a straight line for 2km.
Man who can put (not throw!) a 7.26 kg ball the furthest from a circle without stepping out of the circle in the process, with each contender getting three attempts then three more attempts if they are one of the leaders after the first three.
Man who can swim free style plus three other definitely not-free styles 100m each in succession the fastest, where each 100m consisted of two lengths of a 50m pool, starting from a standing start on a small platform positioned at one end of the pool.
All three of these Olympic events represent strong medal possibilities for New Zealand in Tokyo which will be correctly celebrated if they eventuate.
And, if you dig a little deeper, there are infinite niches!
The world record for a marathon dressed as a snowman (☃️) is a tempting 3:46:12.
The world record for a three-legged marathon (i.e. two people tied together) is, 3:07:57 (depressingly, better than my personal best time over that distance 😩).
If you prefer larger team sports, the world record for a marathon in a five-person costume (a 🐉, obviously) is 4:21:30
But perhaps my favourite world record of all is the 4x100m retro relay:
Three more examples of niches:
Software to help you learn to play a keyboard, pad controller, or electronic drum kit
A customer research platform, using social network targeting to reach specific audiences
Premium air + freeze dried fruit snacks (Feijoa, Gold Kiwifruit, Boysenberries etc) natural or dipped in fair trade chocolate
Remember when Paul Callaghan said he thought that the areas where New Zealand would be successful would be weird and impossible to predict in advance?
This is exactly what he was talking about.
And yet, we continue to put a huge amount of time and money into trying to predict in advance. We have whole government departments working on it.
All three of the examples above are start-ups I’ve invested in. You might wonder: why do I care about electronic drumming, public polling or delicious snacks?
It’s tempting to think that we should start with the things we care about, and direct our efforts into trying to create successful businesses in those areas. But one of the lessons that we should take from sport is that the reverse is true:
We care about the things we are good at. Retrospectively.
Consider how much we all cared about pole vaulting before Eliza McCartney won a medal in Rio in 2016, going from unknown to star of Air NZ safety video in one leap.2 I watched that live and saw a group of some of New Zealand's most ardent sports administrators transition from mild confusion to giant fans over the course of a single evening.
So, if you want to be world class:
Find a niche. Understand what it takes to dominate that niche. Do that. #WorldClass.
In 1963 the TVNZ Mobil Song Quest was won by Malvina Major.
She went on to have a great career as an opera singer, performing internationally, and eventually earning the title of Dame.3
To the victor the spoils, right? As the NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt famously said:
Second place is first loser.
It's well documented that the silver medalist is typically the least happy of the three medalists. One possible explanation for this is that silver medalists compare themselves to the gold medal winner and wonder what could have been4, whereas bronze medalists compare themselves to the lower place-getters and are happy to have won a medal at all.
Success is relative. To be considered successful you just have to do the things that most people don't. If your goal is to be the best, then doing the things that everybody on the planet except for just one other person doesn't is ... quite annoying apparently.
The key to happiness is low expectations and unsuccessful friends.
So, spare a thought for the poor woman who finished second in that singing competition back in 1963.
Her name: Kiri Te Kanawa.
BONUS: Enjoy this Spotify playlist of UK Christmas #2s:
The bronze medal is one of the best ones because you just snuck in there and you're stoked — Eliza McCartney
One of the things we love to do in New Zealand, perhaps even more than be world class, is to punch above our weight.
After all we live on a tiny island a long way from anywhere, so it’s hard to compete on absolute terms. But, turning our small population to our advantage, we can punch above our weight on a per capita basis.
(I’m not sure if there is any other country in the world that cares as much about winning on a per capita basis as us - you might say we are world class at caring about winning in as per capita basis!)
Ten in individual events5
Five teams of two and one team of three
The twelve members of the woman’s Rugby Sevens team
Those 18 medals were enough to place us 19th on the overall medal table. But, more importantly (to us) 4th overall on the per capita medal table, behind Grenada, Bahamas and Jamaica6 and just ahead of Denmark.
The awkward reality for the team of five million is that a very small group of people make us great. On a per capita basis.
The rest of us punch well below our weight.
Speaking of 4th place...
The media is very good at highlighting the per capita medal table. I'm sure this will be true over the next few weeks too. However, something that doesn't get nearly as much coverage is those who finish in 4th place.
At Rio in 2016, in addition to the 18 medals won, there were nine other events where NZ athletes finished 4th, just missing out on a medal:
Cycling: Men's Team Pursuit
Cycling: Woman's Team Pursuit
Cycling: Woman's Omnium
Equestrian: Team Eventing
Rowing: Woman's Single Sculls7
Rowing: Lightweight Woman's Double Sculls
Rowing: Woman's Eights
Sailing: Nacra 17 Mixed Team
As you'd expect larger countries that are not a long way from anywhere had more 4th place finishes than us (China: 26, USA: 20, Great Britain: 17 etc).
But, let's apply our preferred sort order to that table:
We finished 4th more that anybody else on a per capita basis.
Punching above our weight! 😳
Top Three is a weekly collection of things I notice in 2021. I’m writing it for myself, and will include a lot of half-formed work-in-progress, but please feel free to follow along and share it if it’s interesting to you.
I’ve been linking to this for years now. But if there was ever an appropriate time to read it and consider it, then the opening week of an Olympics is it!
Strictly speaking she was given the honour of Principal Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 1991 and in 2008, after the previously abandoned royal honours system was restored, "accepted re-designation" as Dame Grand Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.
This was the second time Emma Twigg finished 4th at the Olympics. Fingers crossed she can excise those demons later this week!
No 4th place is awarded in boxing, tae kwon do or judo - both losing semi-finalists in those events are given Bronze medals.
Also special shout out to China, who finished 4th in every category in Badminton - Men's and Woman's Singles and Doubles and also in Mixed Doubles.