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Ox, The 20 Mile March and Quantum Leaps

In our luxury travel business, we put a lot of emphasis on our ability to “think outside the box.” In fact, it’s foundational to one of our core values. The ability to talk to a client, hear what they are saying… but also know what they are not saying, and think more creatively about the exact solution that would fit their needs.    

It made me think of where the wording came from, and what it really meant.  


ChatGPT, any ideas?  


“The origin of this phrase is often linked to a specific puzzle known as the 'nine dots puzzle'. The challenge of the puzzle is to connect nine dots arranged in a three-by-three grid using only four straight lines without lifting the pen from the paper and without retracing any line.  


The solution to this puzzle requires the lines to extend beyond the imaginary boundaries of the grid, which metaphorically represents thinking beyond conventional boundaries or "outside the box". This puzzle was popularized in the 1960s and 1970s and has been used in various management and psychology books, workshops, and training programs to exemplify creative thinking and problem-solving.”  


Ok, that makes sense. Now, when you think of “out of the box” thinkers, a few people come to mind. Elon Musk. Steve Jobs. And, if you’re South African, Rassie Erasmus. All people lauded for their crazy, visionary ideas and innovations.   

However, do we pay enough attention to the unsexy stuff? The build, the background stuff, the daily grind that enabled those moments of transition?  


When Jobs returned to Apple as CEO after a decade-long enforced exile, he did three particularly unsexy things: One, he rejigged the incentive packages in the form of stock options to retain key staff at the diminished shared price. Two, he fired most of the legacy board that had run the company into the ground (as well as thousands of employees) and brought in folks he knew could assist in revitalizing the company. And three, he cut the product lines by 70% and refocused on only FOUR core products.   


Only then… only after he had returned Apple to profitability, only after they had recaptured the hearts and minds of their loyal customers with a few beautiful and functional products, did the really sexy stuff start.   


I’m reading Elon Musk’s biography. And boy, did he make a lot of mistakes along the way. Make a number of enemies. But somehow, here we are. Space. Electric Cars. And owns the world’s dominant platform for news, and who knows what he’s going to do with that? But when I read his story, it’s clear the defining characteristic is not his vision or intellect… sure, those are part of it. But it’s his relentless drive to get every single detail right, his absolute trojan work ethic and his inability to quit. Over time, this has led to his outsize success.   


And what about Rassie, our celebrated Springbok rugby coach? A look at his past indicates over a decade of working with players at all age levels who would become critical members of the Springbok squad. Siya Kolisi, Makhazole Mapimpi, Kurt-Lee Arendse, Eben Etzebeth, RG Snyman… he only took the top job in 2018, but he had built relationships and momentum with his team for almost a decade before that. It feels like a miracle was accomplished in turning a team that was nowhere into repeat world champions… but to illustrate the point, let’s focus on the hero of the semi-final against England, Ox Nche.  

The prop forward shot to international stardom on the back of a bone-crushing and career-defining scrummaging performance that helped turn the game around. This was late 2023 – and yet, the first time Rassie picked him, in an innocuous game against Wales in the USA(!) in 2018, it was not a spectacular start. The game was a money-grab to fill a struggling organization’s coffers. Our top players had more important things to do, and Rassie basically threw the game but decided to blood some raw talent that day. Some other players picked for a debut that day? Kwagga Smith, hero of the last World Cup, and Mapimpi, the hero of the final in the previous one. Lots of heroes in waiting, isn’t it?  


Back to Steve Jobs, and Apple.   


One could say Apple took a quantum leap forward with the iPod. But did it? MP3 players existed already. Same with the iPhone. Smartphones were around. But it was the innovative navigation of the iPod and the touchscreen of the iPhone that made them revolutionary and launched those industries.   


Quantum Leap is a term used for a massive leap forward. But it is often misappropriated from the science. It actually denotes an electron leaping from one energy state to another – but this ISN’T OBSERVED BETWEEN THESE TWO STATES.  


So we have a teeny tiny molecule that moves between one state and another. But you have to look really really hard to spot it, and there is no discernible difference made to anyone or anything.  


Look, it’s still cool. But my point is, Quantum Leaps are small changes. Hardly noticeable. In the way we use it in popular rhetoric, we see a sudden and massive shift in technology, performance/attitudes. The internet. Social Media. Industrial Revolution. You name it. But all of these things were a long time coming, and the sudden shift wasn’t that sudden. It was built on a thousand small movements that culminated in a massive, noticeable acceleration. It's like trying to push a giant rock down a hill - you’ll struggle for a while, but once gravity kicks in, boy oh boy, watch out.   


Steve Jobs, Rassie, Musk. These are guys who understood the end game and worked with deliberate intention over decades. Doing the small things right, pushing through when outside forces wanted to derail them, and little by little, putting in place the building blocks, despite early setbacks, to eventual outsize success.  


Jim Collins talks at great length about the 20 Mile March and the idea of S.M.A.C. in Great by Choice. And in Atomic Habits, James Clear makes a few of the same points.  


Little by little, hey. Eat the elephant one bite at a time… 

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