In 1974, a shaggy-haired Swedish tennis player named Björn Borg won the Italian Open. He was 17 years old. Weeks later, he won the French Open–becoming the contest’s youngest champion in history, then at 20 years old, he won Wimbledon.
Like many champion athletes, Borg began playing at a young age. He’d practiced hard for several years by the time he started winning titles, but he also had less experience–thousands of hours less–than his competitors at the Opens.
Researchers on expertise have shown that most world-class experts in cognitively complex fields–chess, soccer, computer programming–spend a minimum of a decade of “deliberate practice” before reaching the top of their respective games. This “10,000-hour rule” is well-documented in academia, nearly to the point of scientific law.
But every once in a while someone comes along and creates step-function improvement in a sport or industry, apparently shattering the “rule” and upping the ante for the rest of the field. Often the people who do it are impossibly young, like Borg. They bring the average time-to-mastery down and sometimes beat the rule entirely.
Ilie Năstase, Borg’s opponent in the ‘76 Wimbledon finals inadvertently explained how such breakthroughs happen when he complimented Borg’s performance. “We’re playing tennis,” Năstase said. “He’s playing something else.”
The game Borg was playing involved a two-handed backhand stroke that the world hadn’t seen before. “Basically I started playing double handed on both my forehand and backhand side because my first racket was very heavy,” Borg told CNN in 2011. This stroke gave him unprecedented topspin and an unfair advantage over opponents.
As young Borg’s outrageous wins accrued, other players started imitating his new strokes. They had to in order to compete.
This is how–as fans of Moneyball know well–a minor league baseball player named Billy Bean managed to turn the underpaid and sub-par Oakland Athletics into champions by making coaching decisions based on statistical calculations over conventional tactics. It’s how the relatively inexperienced Dick Fosbury won his gold medal in the 1968 Olympic Games by jumping over the high-jump bar backwards instead of the traditional way. Each of these–and by definition, other breakthroughs in history–beat the average not by simply practicing more, working harder, or paying more dues, but by playing a different game.
This rule-bending mentality abounds when you look at innovation in business. Costco, for example, broke records in a cutthroat industry by turning grocery shopping conventions on their heads:
- Customers pay just to get in.
- Customers are forced to buy more per-item quantity than other stores and are given fewer choices (4 toothpaste brands vs dozens available at many stores).
- Low-skill employees are paid generously high wages.
- The return policy is atypically liberal.
- The company embraces unions and only advertises through its own magazine.
Costco’s house brand, Kirkland, breaks every business school rule of branding by housing a superfluous variety of products under one roof while insisting on being a “premium” brand. Costco’s stock performance over the last 20 years, compared to the S&P 500 and chief rival Walmart (Sam’s Club) is striking:
Many of us compete by simply trying to play the existing game harder, when history shows that breakthroughs happen when we break “rules” that aren’t rules.
I call this mentality, “smartcuts.” There’s no question (scientific or otherwise) that world-changing progress requires hard work. No one ever changed the world by cutting corners. But few change the world by thinking the same way we’ve always thought. As psychologist Edward de Bono put it, “You cannot dig a hole in a different place by digging the same hole deeper.”
This explains why, as I document in my book Smartcuts, research shows that the fastest-rising and highest-ranked presidents of the United States often have unlikely career paths. Generals and philanthropists and police chiefs, it turns out, are more likely to play president by fresh rules–and be open to new perspectives–than “lifers” who are good at digging the same holes in the same places.
It’s why the youngest Fortune 500 CEOs and companies that go from zero to billions in five years tend to reject classic success advice like “pay your dues” and “gain a first-mover advantage.” Its why Apple sold more gadgets when it started removing buttons when everyone else was adding complexity.
The flip side of changing the game as a less experienced competitor is that once you pave a smarter road, others are quick to drive it. Borg’s records were eventually broken by younger players who perfected his techniques (and got more practice at earlier ages). Fosbury was quickly surpassed by taller, higher-jumping athletes who’d trained longer and harder than him. Yet–Costco and other innovators remain in the business of rearranging rules and develop world-class skills in the process.
They get their 10,000 hours of practice and beyond–of course. But they stay ahead by using their heads.
Shane Snow is the author of Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success. Follow the weekly Smartcuts Column here.