- Tom Birchard
The Red Queen Effect
Updated: May 1, 2021
My wife Ashley regularly makes reference to old Disney movies and then gives me a hard time when I’m not familiar with what she’s talking about. She questions what kind of childhood I was leading if it didn’t involve constant consumption of Disney movies, and here I thought playing outside was a better way to pass the time. So in honor of our 3 year wedding anniversary which is coming up in a couple days, I thought I’d try and impress her with this post. In the Disney movie “Alice in Wonderland”, Alice comes across the Red Queen who says, “Here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” On the surface this seems like a simple quote in a fictional story, but I think this concept has some broad reaching implications.
The concept of the Red Queen Effect is most often applied to companies trying to stay ahead of the competition through innovation and continuous improvement, while often finding that despite all their best efforts they are just staying in place or even regressing compared to others. I think the same thing applies at a very individual level. If you aren’t continuously focused on your own personal learning, growth, and development, it’s very likely that over time (and often quicker than you think) you’ll be passed by in whatever aspect of life you want to apply this to.
I think that because sports are so quantifiable and measurable, it’s often easiest to demonstrate a concept like this in that context, but the implications extend far beyond sports. Some of you may be familiar with Bryson DeChambeau who won the 2020 US Open in golf. DeChambeau led the PGA in driving distance in 2020 averaging 323 yards per drive. If you rewind just 40 years to 1980, when they started tracking this statistic, Dan Pohl led the tour in driving distance averaging 274 yards per drive. Now there are several reasons for this dramatic increase in driving distance, ranging from club and ball technology as well as the strength training protocol and just general golf strategy of DeChambeau himself (see picture below). Suffice to say though you’d have to be “running pretty fast” just to try and keep up with this rapid improvement and I think if you watch a lot of different sports, whether it’s basketball, track & field, or football…you see the same effect.
Since coming across the idea of the Red Queen Effect, I’ve thought about it a lot within the context of work and business. In her book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”, Carol Dweck contrasts the fixed mindset with the growth mindset that some individuals have. It sounds simple but I see a lot of people operating with a fixed mindset, whether that be related to their upbringing, education or lack thereof, or just luck of the draw that they feel hasn’t been on their side. At the speed the world is changing and evolving, I don’t think any amount of innate talent or even a head start in life, can make up for the downside of a fixed mindset. Like the Red Queen says, you better be working pretty hard just to stay in the same place.
I do think there’s a balance between constant learning and being grounded in some of the timeless first principles that don’t change over time. A concept like momentum originates from physics but once you understand it, can be applied to many areas of life such as athletics where a basketball player gets on a hot shooting streak to getting your day off to the right start with some sort of a morning routine to build that early positive momentum. Deeply understanding first principles can often compensate for not having a full understanding in highly specialized area and reasoning from those first principles will generally lead to good decision making.
When I first started my working career I was certainly more naïve and likely more of a perfectionist. As I’ve gotten more experience and the scope of roles have increased, I now find myself tending more towards “progress over perfection.” When discussing a highly nuanced and complicated situation, I often try to get to the root by asking the simple question of “are we trending in the right direction now?” If the answer is yes, I’ll often take that and trust but verify, but if the answer is no we definitely have to dig in further. I think the Red Queen was right that we often need to run pretty fast just to stay in the same place, but that also means we can’t stop or we’ll certainly get passed by because the world isn’t static, things are constantly changing and advancing around us. I’ll close with a quote that I think ties into this well from the inventor of the polio vaccine. Jonas Salk said, “When things get bad enough, then something happens to correct the course. And it’s for that reason that I speak about evolution as an error-making and error-correcting process. And if we can be ever so much better – ever so much slightly better – at error-correcting than at error-making, then we’ll make it.”
Recommendations from last two weeks:
· Article - Something of Value by Howard Marks – Warren Buffet has said that when he sees a memo from Howard Marks come through he drops everything to read it. As such I try and read most of them and this was my favorite in quite some time as it really helped to reframe the age old debate of growth vs. value as it pertains to investing strategies.
· Podcast Episode - Zack Fuss with Patrick O'Shaugnessy on Invest Like the Best – If you have even a modest interest in business I’d highly recommend listening to this episode. They talk extensively about Domino’s which on a basic level is a business everyone can understand, but as they get into the nuances of the business model it’s really fascinating to listen to. I’d never heard of Zack before but this conversation is worth the listen.
· Article - Life is Short by Paul Graham – I’ve recently stumbled upon Paul Graham’s blog and this post is several years old, but the concept is timeless. I think the idea of life being short and focusing on what really matters probably resonates with me more as I’m about to become a father, and I like the way Graham talks about how to try and evaluate what actually matters.
· Quote – Empower yourself to create a healthy relationship with media. Dip your toe into the river to stay informed, but don’t get swept up in the current. by Tamara Levitt
 The PGA Tour's average driving distance has skyrocketed since 1980 (golf.com)