Welcome back, everybody. I’m Greg McKeown. I’m the author of Essentialism and also Effortless. Many of us have heard that knowledge is power, but I think that’s wrong. What has the most value is unique knowledge. The key is knowing what no one else knows. By the end of this episode, you’ll be able to understand not just why but how to create the unique knowledge that can produce extraordinary residual results for you in your life. Let’s get to it.
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In the run-up to the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico, most people assumed that high jumper Dick Fosbury would place dead last. He was, after all, a gangly 21-year-old civil engineering student with mismatched running shoes and questionable athletic ability. The media called him the two-legged camel and described his jump as airborne seizures, and he was being dismissed entirely as a curiosity. Ever since his sophomore year in high school, Fosbury had struggled to learn the dominant high jump technique of the time.
Incredibly, this technique hadn’t changed since the first recorded high jump event in Scotland In the 19th century, jumpers approached the bar either from the side or face-on and took off from their inner foot. Slight variations on these techniques had resulted in equally slight improvements in the world record, which had inched up slowly and in tiny increments.
Over the years, using the standard approach, a younger Fosbury had failed to jump even the five feet needed to qualify for his high school track meets. Someone bet him that he couldn’t jump over a stuffed leather chair. He lost that bet and broke his hand in the crash landing. His coaches urged him to try harder, but the more he practiced this method without seeing any results, the more frustrated he grew.
Finally, Fosbury decided to try a different approach. He knew that the rules required only that competitors jump off one foot. They said nothing about how you got over the bar. So, he began to apply his growing knowledge of engineering to experiment with other ways of doing the high jump. One such experiment involved approaching the bar backward, headfirst curving his body over the bar, and kicking his legs up in the air at the end like a parabola.
Critics were not impressed. One newspaper captioned Fosbury’s photograph “World’s Laziest High Jumper.” Another declared, “Fosbury Flops Over Bar.”
All the while, Fosbury sharpened his technique. His new “J” shaped approach gave him more speed. He began rotating his hips in his final steps and taking off from his outer rather than inner foot so that as his body arched over the bar, he faced up, and his center of gravity was underneath. Fosbury had used all that he knew about physical science to create a mechanical advantage, and it worked.
In the world of high jumping, there is before October 20th, 1968, and there is after. Fosbury won gold that day at the Mexico Olympics, stunning the crowd with what has now been non-derisively dubbed the Fosbury flop. Before him, no Olympic jumper had faced skyward. After him, all world record holders did.
The power of Fosbury’s technique lay not only in its solid mechanical foundation but in its uniqueness. It was so different than what others had been doing for decades that it caused a hockey stick-shaped spike in high jump world records. Who knows how long such progress would otherwise have taken with only incremental advances in technique? Fosbury achieved the dream harbored by every serious athlete. He transformed the entire sport forever.
Being good at what nobody is doing is better than being great at what everyone is doing, but being an expert in something nobody is doing is exponentially more valuable, or at least it can be. I’ve tried to describe this to people as a simple kind of pyramid, where at the foundation level, you have basic knowledge, basic education. Maybe it’s a high school diploma. You’ve read a few books. And, of course, the problem with that is that there’s an enormous number of people who have had that experience that’s good for society, but it’s not great if what you’re looking for is distinct contribution and extraordinary value creation and especially if you want residual results to flow to you again and again.
The next level up, you could say, well, maybe that’s university education and so on. You could go up this pyramid from the form of formal education, but even that has a serious limit to it because even if you say, “Well, I’ve got a master’s,” or, “I’ve got a doctorate,” there’s still a lot of people in the world that have that qualification. The idea is to keep going up more and more precise, more and more unique knowledge until, in a perfect world, you have a monopoly on something that is universally valuable. That’s the almost earth-shattering value that’s possible.
I don’t remember who said it, but years ago, I read something that just put a seed in my mind, and it said, “All you need is the one right idea to live like a king for the rest of your life.”
And that speaks to the power of this series on leverage. If you can find knowledge that is unique to you that in some way at least you own, but also is so relevant and useful to many, many other people, you have something like in Aesop’s Fable, The Goose and the Golden Egg. The results that you want in life will flow to you without you pushing and forcing them.
To reap the residual results of knowledge, the first step is to leverage what others know, but the ultimate goal is to identify knowledge that is unique to you and build on it. So here’s the question, a reflection: Is there something that seems hard for other people but easy for you, something that draws on what you already know, making it easier to continuously learn and grow your competence?
That is an opportunity for you to create unique knowledge. Knowledge may open the door to an opportunity, but unique knowledge produces perpetual opportunities because when you have it, you gain credibility. People come to you; opportunities come to you. You gain incredible leverage when you are among the only people with that precise expertise. In other words, once you develop a reputation for knowing what no one else knows, opportunities flow to you for years.
For example, an entrepreneur with a great reputation will have investor capital flow to them again and again. A speaker with a great reputation will be offered more bookings than they can possibly accept. A teacher with a great reputation will have students lining up to take their class semester after semester. A lawyer with a great reputation will have their pick of cases. A photojournalist with a great reputation will be sent out on the best assignments all over the world.
I hope it doesn’t sound presumptuous to say that this is something I have learned from firsthand experience. This is what has happened because of Essentialism, the book, and Effortless, the book. This is what has happened as I have spent, easily now, 25 years really trying to understand and at least approximate some mastery in the keynote sphere, and there isn’t a day that goes by that I am not amazed, grateful, of course, grateful for what is almost an endless flow of interest and even contribution that is made day in and day out without forcing or pushing.
Gaining unique knowledge takes time and dedication, and effort, but invest in it once, and you’ll attract opportunities for the rest of your life. Unique knowledge is the ultimate leverage, so keep learning, lifelong learning, but keep focusing around the competence that is distinct to you, your highest point of contribution, and you’ll unlock doors that you never knew existed. Build a system that flows exactly the kind of results you want to you again and again throughout your life.
Thank you. Really, thank you for listening. This is part three in this series on how to achieve 10X results without burning out by looking for leverage everywhere, for starting to look through that lens at your life. Where can I put in a modest effort and still achieve a residual result? Something that flows to me again and again, even without additional effort?
What is something that stood out to you in today’s conversation, and who is someone you can share it with? How can you share this with other people so that you are not alone in your journey to design a life that really matters?
A reminder that the first five people who write a review of this episode on Apple Podcasts get access to the Essentialism Academy for free. We won’t do that forever, so take advantage of it while you can. Thank you, and I’ll see you next time.