Those who know me will probably think that I got the title of this piece wrong. My friends know that I’m hyper-competitive and it is not usually ‘going first’ that matters to me, it is ‘being first’.
But I’ve been giving it some thought recently and it seems that in many arenas one leads to the other. Going first may very well be the secret to being first.
What does it mean to go first?
Going first can refer to a lot of things. Usually it is something that requires courage – by definition you are doing something different to everyone else if you are the first to do it. Sometimes it requires creativity or innovation to dream up new ways of doing things. Sometimes it simply requires you to be the first to put your hand up, speak up, or stand up.
You could go first by…
…being the first to smile at a stranger across the room. They may turn into your significant other, or a significant friend.
…being the first to volunteer for the hard projects. The hard projects create value, so you will be seen to be valuable.
…being the first the step up and lead. Someone will make their vision a reality – why not you? Why not your vision?
…being the first to fall in behind a new leader and follow. The support of the first follower is more meaningful than that of the next hundred.
…being the first to say ‘no’ to injustice, and to act on what is right. Often people are standing around and waiting for someone to set a precedent so that they can do the right thing too.
…being the first one to reach out in friendship. You never know what a difference you might make to each other’s lives.
…being the first to help. Whether it’s a word of advice or opening a tricky jar, we all need help sometimes.
‘Going first’ can apply to every area of human life, but what we will focus on is why it’s worth going first (especially if you are competitive like me).
Going first leads to being first
Ok, I’ll admit that for all my talk of ‘going first’, ‘being first’ still matters a lot to me. Winning feels pretty great.
At first these two phrases seem, perhaps not like opposites, but certainly not related. But why?
By stepping up and going first, you are more likely to be first – whether your victory is in sport, business, or even getting the girl or guy.
Here’s a few reasons why…
1) The primacy effect
Our memories work in unusual ways, we naturally remember what comes first whilst forgetting (or perhaps not even bothering to learn) most of what comes after. You would definitely know that Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon. You might even know that Buzz Aldrin was second (it’s a popular trivia question). Any idea who was third? You might remember what the first speaker at the conference said, but by the fifth speaker you can barely remember their name.
This phenomenon is called the primacy effect. Psychologists discovered it over a hundred years ago when they asked individuals to remember items from a list and found that people have the greatest ability to recall the first couple of items. Items in the middle of the pack tend to get forgotten. When applied to people the same effect applies – you’ll always remember more clearly the first person you’re introduced to, the first argument made, the first person to stand up and volunteer, the first person to support you. So go first.
By going first, you ensure that you will be remembered.
2) The courage effect
People admire those with the courage to go first when they lacked the courage to do so themselves. Historically, the first person into battle was honoured as the most courageous. Unfortunately, they were also one of the first to die so most of that honour was posthumous. Nowadays, you might be the first person to ask a question in a silent room, or the first to speak out with an ethical objection, or the first to volunteer for a difficult project, or the first to approach the attractive person at the bar.
Martin Luther King is an incredible example of going first. He was one of the first people to join the bus boycott in his community after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus. He was the first to plead for calm and non-violence after his home got bombed. He was the first to stand up and speak with a clear vision for blacks in southern America. Many, many other people followed Martin Luther King and endured far more significant consequences for doing so, but the person who is remembered is the man who went first.
By going first in a difficult task, you will be honoured for your courage.
3) The path of least resistance effect
It is perhaps not the most flattering trait of humanity, but we tend to have a natural inertia or laziness. Evolutionary it makes sense for a couple of reasons – innovation was energy intensive (the brain burns up to 20% of your energy and when food was a lot harder to come by on the tundra you had to conserve energy), innovation was dangerous (if that bow and arrow contraption you dreamed up doesn’t kill the stampeding animal you might wind up dead, or at the very least hungry), and innovation could make you a social outcast when belonging to the tribe was your only means of survival.
The same risks don’t hold us back these days, but we are just as likely to follow an established path than we are to carve our own. Business is a great example. The authors of Blue Ocean Strategy studied business launches in 108 companies. They found that 86% of launches were merely line extensions of existing products. It’s far more common to incrementally improve either your own or your competitor’s existing products than to go first with something innovative and new. The interesting part is that while true innovation only accounted for 14% of launches – it resulted in 61% of profits. Doing something new might be a risk, but if it pays off, it pays off big.
This effect can be seen everywhere. By going first you control the direction the herd will follow. It might be deciding where you and your friends are going to lunch today, being the first athlete to compete a difficult new skill at the Olympics, being the first to get up and dance at a party, or being the first to read a book and recommend it to others.
By going first, others will naturally follow you (or copy you) rather than spend the energy carving their own path.
4) The respect effect
Simply by going first, you are seen as more of an expert than those who come after. Society values experience, and in the absence of actually knowing how much work and study someone has put into something, we use duration as a proxy for experience.
Your winery has been in business for over 100 years – you must know how to make excellent wine. Your store was the first in a series of franchises – it must be the best. You wrote the first book on the subject – you’re obviously the most knowledgeable. You did the first study on a topic – that makes you the foremost expert. Regardless of who comes after, and inevitably there will be people who come after that are better and more knowledgeable than you, you will always be seen as a leader.
Tim Ferriss coined the term ‘lifestyle design’ and is now considered the go-to expert for millions of current and aspiring digital nomads and those looking to escape the nine to five. Others might be more qualified to speak on the topic, but he started speaking first and is thus the most listened to.
By going first, you are automatically seen as a leader and an expert in the field.
5) The head start effect
This is simple but powerful: going first gives you a head start. Depending on your field, that head start might be incredibly difficult for others to bridge. Think of the iPhone. Sure, Samsung and Google eventually caught up (and arguably their products might even be better than Apple’s now), but Apple had years and years of profits before their competitors got similar products to market. And not only did they have a head start on profits, but a head start on winning customers over. Pepsi is another great example, their company vision of ‘beat Coke’ even alludes to the fact that they are playing catch up.
In business we often call this effect the ‘first mover advantage’ and as we move into a highly networked economy it becomes even more important. So many of the biggest new businesses – think Facebook, Yelp, Uber – all rely on having a significant user base. Going first definitely gives you the advantage on signing up users before your competitors enter the market.
By going first, you guarantee a head start over the competition.
Going first is hard. And the world needs more people who are willing to do it. When the risks seem too great… remember that going first might just lead to you being first too.May 13, 2018