Staying at the top

The definition of the Lindy effect: “The Lindy effect is the idea that the future life expectancy of some non-perishable things like a technology or an idea is proportional to their current age, so that every additional period of survival implies a longer remaining life expectancy.” 

Or in other words: the longer something has been around, the longer it will stay around.

Some examples of the Lindy effect:

– “Classic” books like the Tao Te Ching, The Art of War, Herodotus’ Histories and Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War will remain in print far longer than the latest business bestseller.

– Email communication has been around longer and will survive longer than the slew of messaging apps like Slack.

– Old disciplines like philosophy and mathematics will continue to be studied longer than new disciplines like neuroscience.

But the Lindy effect doesn’t apply everywhere. And it especially doesn’t apply to your career.

Authority or position in a field is ephemeral. Those who are at the top don’t stay there for long. They may stay in the vicinity, but they don’t sit atop the peak for an extended period of time. Think of tennis. We’re at the tail end of a great era. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andrew Murray and Novak Djokovic. Four great players, all battling for the top spot. One year, it’s Federer who’s unstoppable. Another year, it’s Nadal. There’s a constant jostling for the crown of “World’s Best.”

But the longer you spend at the top, the more likely you are to fall. Either as a victim of your own mistakes, or because your superiority has given everyone beneath you a chance to learn how to do it better. 

What can you do about this? Unfortunately, not much. The most obvious thing is to never make a mistake. But the obsession with never making a mistake inhibits the very behaviour required to sustain your position. If you can’t make a mistake, you become risk averse. If you can’t make a mistake, you can’t operate at the cutting edge of your craft. If you can’t afford to make a mistake, you’re vulnerable.

Another option is to eliminate the competition. Either literally, or by moving into a category with sparse competition. Do something that very few people can or will do. This is typically the result of a combination of skills. Consider Peter Thiel’s thoughts on creating a monopoly, and Scott Adams advice that it’s better to be good at multiple things, than the best at one thing.

Yet another possibility is to obscure your methods and processes from those in the same arena. Make yourself, how you do what you do, completely invisible. That doesn’t mean just concealing your actions, it means creating fake trails and propagating misinformation and myth. This is a slippery slope because it’s so hard to pull off without negative consequences. Mythification is an art in itself.

There is one way you can not have to worry about the above three remedies to the inevitability of your fall. If you do this, you can make mistakes, you can compete with others, and you can be transparent about how you do what you do. All you have to do is learn and adapt faster, and more often, than everyone else. 

Simple right? Not really. But staying at the top is a perpetual struggle. Against yourself and others.