Being Fast Isn't an Advantage Anymore

There's no comparative advantage in being fast anymore.

A comparative advantage is when you're better at something than all of your competitors due to your environmental (or otherwise) advantages. For example, Canada has a comparative advantage in producing maple syrup as compared to Dubai (for pretty obvious reasons). It'd be really stupid for Dubai to try to match Canada's maple syrup output considering they are situated in the middle of a desert and Canada is inundated with maple syrupy goodness.

Applying this idea to personal productivity, it used to be that you could have a comparative advantage in productivity and effectiveness if you were super fast in responding to requests and dealing with information. Before everyone had smart phones you could gain a significant advantage over other people by quickly returning emails or looking up information. Awhile ago, it would have taken some serious skills and dedication that not everyone else would've had. You would've reaped the rewards of having a comparative advantage. You would be seen as more productive, get the promotions, the adulation, and everything else that comes with being seen as a high performer. Dealing with multiple streams of information quickly and efficiently used to be something that got you noticed.

Not anymore.

Now, almost everyone can multitask pretty well. Anybody with a smart phone can respond to emails instantaneously or look up random tidbits of information at a moment's notice. Today's technology has flattened the playing field when it comes to dealing with information efficiently. Sure, some people are better at it than others, but overall there's no significant advantage to be gained by being "good" at handling lots of information.

Where's the new comparative advantage then? As multitasking and instantaneous communication become the norm, how can you stand out? I think the new comparative advantage will go to those people that can cut through the noise of always-on information and think deeply, with full concentration, and high levels of creativity, for a sustained amount of time. Almost any kind of work that ends up being new or noteworthy requires somebody (or a team of somebodies) who eliminated distractions long enough to wrestle with some hard questions. It's not easy to do -- especially since the normal operation of our society is doing an excellent job at eradicating the skills that make this possible.

As a former student of history and a self-proclaimed history nerd, I read a lot of biographies. A hobby of mine has been to take note of the people in these biographies who have done amazing things and try to find points of similarities. Obviously, they all had different styles for doing remarkable work. However, I have found one common factor that seems to unite anybody who gets a biography written about them -- they had a very developed ability to focus. Cutting out distractions and diving deep into a problem seems to be a nearly universal skill that remarkable people have.

Unfortunately, I think this ability is being swiftly destroyed. Is that worrying to anyone else? One of the only unifying characteristic of people who do great things (in my admittedly amateur research) is being largely removed from our society! Constant distractions, notifications, instant gratification, and constant streams of information allow us to never develop our ability to focus if we don't choose to do so.

That's why I think that those people who are cultivating this ability are going to reap the rewards of being a rare commodity. Being able to focus and think deeply will get you noticed in a sea of people who are skimming along the surface. The ability to dive deep and come back with important insights, creative connections, or innovative solutions is going to be something that is reserved for those who have honed their concentration and focus.

This is part of the reason why I think meditation is going to become an increasingly "normal" thing to do over the next 50 years. While still somewhat in the domain of the mystical, meditation seems to be the single best way to develop the ability to focus. Working out is the best way to strengthen your body and meditating seems to be a great way to strengthen your mind. I hope to see the day where meditation is taught in an effort to inform people about healthy living just like eating vegetables or getting enough sleep.

Let's stop acting like we live in a world where multitasking and being constantly connected will give us some kind of advantage. It's old news by now. Almost everyone can do it. What almost everyone can't do, however, is truly think.

What are you going to do to make this comparative advantage work for you?