Learning From Others; Like The Greats – And Using The Rule Of Proximity

The Difference Between Cause And Effect

It’s human nature to look to people for guidance who’ve already walked the path we wish to take—colloquially described as ‘standing on the shoulders of giants.

We can take inspiration from their achievements and learn from their mistakes. And solace in knowing that we can do it again if it’s been done before.

There’s a catch, though. As Naval Ravikant said, “You can’t imitate your way to greatness because you can only copy the effect, not the cause.”

What he’s saying here is that while the effect, the outcome is possible to achieve again, the cause or the way to get there likely won’t be the same.

When we look at another’s achievements through the lens of, say, an autobiography – we’re looking at a particular moment in time. And because autobiographies span many days and years, the actions you choose to imitate may no longer be applicable.

The world we’re interacting with today is likely largely different from years gone by.

Then when you account for laws, cultures, languages, and even internet speeds. Imitating actions and thoughts from another person’s life could produce dramatically different outcomes for us.

The bigger the differences in time and environment, the more likely the cause and effect relationship breaks down. In summary – what worked for them, at that time and in that environment may not work for us.

I don’t think this means we should write off learning from others entirely. We just need to take a more nuanced approach, which I’ll attempt to explain in this essay.

Learning From Others – How The Greats Do It

You shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the greats of entrepreneurship spend obsessive amounts of time studying and learning from the greats before them. In Steve Jobs’ and Elon Musk’s biographies, they mention 10’s of different idols that they borrowed ideas from.

I’ve noticed, though, that our greats didn’t copy their great’s actions – just their thinking and behaviours.

That isn’t to say that copying a particular method or action of a great is useless – more on that shortly. But a lesson we can take from our greats is that adapting behaviours and thought processes is likely more useful than copying their first marketing campaign.

These ways of thinking and behaving are called heuristics.

Heuristics: is any approach to problem-solving or self-discovery that employs a practical method that is not guaranteed to be optimal, perfect, or rational but is nevertheless sufficient for reaching an immediate, short-term goal or approximation. Where finding an optimal solution is impossible or impractical, heuristic methods can be used to speed up finding a satisfactory solution.

Heuristics take advantage of the lindy effect. They are thoughts or behaviours that have worked for generations of people, sometimes millennia, so there’s enough evidence to suggest that they will work for us.

For example, a marketing heuristic is – that it is better to tell people what you can do for them than tell them what you do.

Marc Andreesen (founder of Netscape and famed investor) sums this point up nicely. There are 1000’s of years of history and lots of smart people who ran plenty of experiments on how to create businesses and new technology and new ways to manage – they ran these experiments throughout their entire lives; at some point in time, someone put these lessons down in a book for very little money and a few hours of your time you can learn from someones accumulated experience. There is so much more to learn from the past than you often realise. You can productively spend your time reading experiences from great people who’ve come before you.

The main takeaway here is understanding how they think and behave is more valuable than following their actions when learning from greats.

Learning From Others – Why Tactics Fail

And now we get to the nitty-gritty stuff.

Most of you, myself included, love learning about the tactics, methods, and hacks – whatever your preferred label is- to 10x our revenue or add $100k to your bottom line.

These headlines are irresistible because they promise us specific results (effect) that we desire. But like we talked about earlier, the further you move away from the point in time and environment that a method first achieved a result, the more likely it won’t produce the promised effect.

So this is where I propose that we move away from the greats and learn from those just in front of us.

Heuristics due to Lindy are as close to evergreen as we can get – they can cross time and environment with ease. Whereas tactics are green and, more often than not, get worse over time.

Worse still, the ones that do work and have worked for, say, a few years get copied so heavily that they too eventually become ineffective – especially in marketing. Remember, marketers, ruin everything.

Even though hacks and tactics, on average, over-promise and under-deliver with a filter, we can find the most useful ones.

Learning From Others – Finding The Right People To Learn From

And herein lies the answer to one of the great mysteries of building businesses. How do I get what worked for others to work for me? It’s called the proximity filter.

Perhaps this is counter-intuitive, but we are better off copying people’s actions two steps in front of us, not ten. We’re better off copying people’s actions two steps to the side, not ten.

It’s like a classic scene from Scooby-Doo, where Scooby and Shaggy are trying to solve another mystery by following the wet footprints of a monster through a haunted house. If they follow too closely, they get caught; they lose the trail if they’re too far behind.

The sweet spot is finding people roughly six months to two years in front and in our industry or a small step across.

I wouldn’t want to learn from an insurance salesman veteran if I started a cafe. I’d want to learn from someone two years into their journey, operating a highly customer service-oriented physical store.

On the other hand, if I were launching a herbal tea brand, I’d like to find people who recently started a direct to consumer perishables brand.

When I was struggling with my gym, I didn’t ask other local gym owners for advice – competitors aren’t so keen on that. Instead, I asked a gym member who founded a performance marketing agency with a personal training background. He gave me practical, tactical marketing advice on building our first marketing funnel – which we still use today.

The best part about these people is they’re more accessible and happy to help, being all too familiar with your struggles as they’ve just been through them.

Many business folks reach a certain point and get comfortable. But if you want to cling to someone for the long haul, find others or resources that are continually pushing the envelope – as they learn something new, so do you.

Wrapping Up

So and only so, if you want to and or need to find and copy the methods that are most likely to get you specific short-term results. Then hunt with proximity in mind. The closer the practitioner’s journey is to yours, the more likely their methods will work for you.

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