Average is deadly

How our beliefs can hold our business back

In 1939, George Dantzig was late for his statistics class.

Entering the classroom, he saw two math problems on the board and, assuming they were homework, he wrote them down to solve that night.

While the problems were certainly more difficult than he was used to, after a few days he came up with the answers and turned them in, apologizing for the delay.

But George was surprised when his professor soon tracked him down to share his overflowing excitement.

“As it turned out,” Katy Milkman wrote in How to Change, “George had solved two ‘unsolvable’ open problems in statistical theory because he believed they were merely difficult homework assignments with known answers.”

The lesson?

“Because George believed he was supposed to find a solution, he did.”

Whether we believe it or not, our beliefs affect our actions and our abilities.

And because our potential is limited by our beliefs, if we believe our business is stuck, it is.

Maybe you’ve said, or heard, something like, “I can’t charge more in this industry. It’s all commodities.”

Or, “In my market, clients expect to be pitched. I can’t avoid pitching and presenting.”

Or something as simple as, “I can’t diverge from the best practices of my industry.”

These limiting beliefs lead to limited actions.

We assume that the answer is to do what everyone else does, like lower our prices or increase our advertising spend to capture more of the market.

Or we think that, to increase our revenue, we need to improve our pitches and presentations, or just get more meetings where we have the opportunity to sell and put on a show.

And we’ll soon find ourselves in a comfortable spot—fitting in. Doing what everyone else in our industry is doing, and struggling in all the same ways.

But while fitting in and following the industry norms can feel comfortable and safe in the moment, we have to reckon with the fact that being average is deadly.

We all know the statistics: In the course of four or five years, half of businesses are likely to close their doors. Which means the average business won’t make it to its sixth year.

Average is the enemy.

To succeed in the long run, we must be different, and we must organize our business to set itself apart, not to fit in. We have to take our limiting beliefs and interrogate them.

Take your belief about where your business is stuck and demand an answer from yourself: “Is this belief 100% true?”

Ask yourself what would need to be true for your belief to be a fact.

For instance, it would need to be true that no one has done it or ever could do it.

That in the history of all industries and all businesses, nobody has ever had a similar challenge to yours and solved it in a profitable, satisfying way.

Or that there is some physical, civil, or social law preventing it from being possible.

Is it really true, or did it just feel true?

Now, ask yourself what would need to be true for your belief to be wrong.

What would need to be true for it to be possible to set yourself apart in a commoditized market?

To get clients and customers without traditional pitching, presentations, and proposals?

To draw customers to you, rather than always seeking them out?

It would need to be true that you’re seen as different. That you’re seen as an expert in a specialized field of your own making.

It would need to be true that you’re seen as unique, separate from the pack, and uniquely skilled to help your clients solve a real challenge in their life.

It would need to be true that you’re not average, you’re extraordinary.

Is it true that your industry has limitations, or is it possible you’ve let a belief limit your potential?

Right now, today, you might not feel capable or confident enough to stand out, do things differently, and attract clients based on your unique merits—based on being different, not the same.

But try to believe it’s possible for someone to do it. That it’s not a law of nature that prevents us, it’s only our fear, or our feeling that we don’t know the right path forward.

We don’t have to change all at once, or even today. We just need to try to acknowledge that it’s not impossible, it’s merely hard.

But our job isn’t to find things that are easy, our job is to find difficult things we like doing. Our job is to find challenges that we’re uniquely situated and capable to solve.

We have to find tricky problems that no one without our unique combination of interests, skills, and experiences can solve as well as we can.

And we need to find the clients with that problem, not the problem they stated in their RFP or the problem our competitors have identified and built their businesses to address.

That’s how we escape a commodity market. That’s how we avoid expensive pitches. That’s how we set ourselves apart.

And that’s how we do what we love, for clients who love what we do, every single day.

It’s not average, it’s not typical—it’s different. And different is the only thing that works.

But if you still can’t believe that you can do it, at least try to believe that it can be done. Even if it’s difficult.

As an ancient philosopher once wrote, don’t “assume it’s impossible because you find it hard.”

Instead, “recognize that if it’s humanly possible, you can do it too.”

Believe you can do it, and you can.