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  • Writer's pictureJulian Molteno

MARGINAL GAINS — Pennies to Diamonds


Success is a few simple disciplines, practiced every day; while failure is simply a few errors in judgment, repeated every day. —Jim Rohn I must confess that the first part of this post has essentially been cut and pasted from an article on James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits.  

“The fate of British Cycling changed one day in 2003. The organization, which was the governing body for professional cycling in Great Britain, had recently hired Dave Brailsford as its new performance director. At the time, professional cyclists in Great Britain had endured nearly one hundred years of mediocrity. “Brailsford had been hired to put British Cycling on a new trajectory. What made him different from previous coaches was his relentless commitment to a strategy that he referred to as “the aggregation of marginal gains,” which was the philosophy of searching for a tiny margin of improvement in everything you do. Brailsford said, “The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improve it by 1 percent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.” Brailsford and his coaches began by making small adjustments you might expect from a professional cycling team. They did not stop there however . . . “By experimenting in a wind tunnel, they searched for small improvements to aerodynamics. By analyzing the mechanics area in the team truck, they discovered that dust was accumulating on the floor, undermining bike maintenance. So they painted the floor white, in order to spot any impurities. They hired a surgeon to teach their athletes about proper hand-washing so as to avoid illnesses during competition (they also decided not to shake any hands during the Olympics). They were precise about food preparation. They brought their own mattresses and pillows so the athletes could sleep in the same posture every night. They searched for small improvements everywhere and found countless opportunities. Taken together, they felt they gave them a competitive advantage. 

Sir Dave Brailsford and Team Sky.  “Improving by 1 percent isn’t particularly notable — sometimes it isn’t even noticeable — but it can be far more meaningful, especially in the long run. The difference a tiny improvement can make over time is astounding. In the beginning, there is basically no difference between making a choice that is 1 percent better or 1 percent worse. (In other words, it won't impact you very much today.) But as time goes on, these small improvements or declines compound and you suddenly find a very big gap between people who make slightly better decisions on a daily basis and those who don't. This is why small choices don't make much of a difference at the time, but add up over the long-term. (My post, “A spoonful of Sugar”, relates a personal example of how small daily habits can end up having a large long-term impact.) 

Forget about perfection; focus on progression, and compound the improvements. Dave Brailsford.  “Perhaps the most powerful benefit is that it creates a contagious enthusiasm. Everyone starts looking for ways to improve. There’s something inherently rewarding about identifying marginal gains — the bonhomie is similar to a scavenger hunt. People want to identify opportunities and share them with the group. Our team became a very positive place to be.” Dave Brailsford and Team Sky’s marginal gains strategy ended up with Olympic Gold, I went one step further, however, and my marginal gains experience ended up with . . . diamonds! Here is my own marginal gains story that I would like to share with you. In the late 1990’s, I worked as a doorman at the Backpacker Pub in Kings Cross, London. Back then Kings Cross was a pretty rough place — filled with drug dealers and prostitutes, and every sort of down-and-out and rough-looking type you could imagine. There were also a lot of young homeless people, many of whom were in desperate straits. 

The infamous Backpacker Pub in Kings Cross.  Licensing laws back then were more relaxed than they are now, and no matter how drunk and disorderly our punters were, no one ever complained to the council, because the locals were a more antisocial lot than our customers. The Backpacker was an old-style pub, it literally was a “spit and sawdust” place. We used to put down a few inches of sawdust every night to soak up the beer and the blood and the Gawd knows what else, and by the end of the night the sawdust was a totally sodden mess! After closing, we would up-end the tables, tipping the plastic glasses, cigarettes, and whatever else was on the tables, on to the floor — splash some buckets of hot water down and squeegee the whole lot out the door and into black bags.  

Backpacker Pub “Security”! Despite the Backpacker sounding a bit of a nightmare, it was actually a lovely place. It was London’s first Antipodean bar, raucous and fun, aptly demonstrating the well-earned Aussie reputation for working and playing hard. So while it was, in essence, a hard-drinking pick-up joint, it was also a very friendly place with young men and women relaxing and having a good time — which often meant kissing as though their lives depended on it!! Aussies and Kiwis accounted for 80% of our customers, while the remainder consisted of nurses, firemen, policemen and English rugby-playing types. It really was a unique and special pub to work in, and I loved every moment of my time there. But what of Marginal Gains?! There are two factors that lead us to the marginal gains aspect of this post. Firstly, the sawdust on the floor, and secondly, the fact that our punters were totally and utterly pissed. As far as management was concerned, if the punters could push their money over the bar, they were deserving of another Snake Bite or Victoria Bitter. As you can imagine, when getting their change back a fair few of them fumbled the coins (and the occasional note), dropping them into the disgusting, mucky sawdust. Not being bothered to search about in the gloom, they would dismiss the fallen change, and stagger off to their pals to continue their revelry.  

Not so the eagle-eyed doormen. The security team were positioned on large wooden boxes, placed around the venue, so we could see the crowd clearly. As you can imagine, we paid very close attention to the bar transactions and would swoop in to scoop up the dropped coins at every opportunity. Most of the guys had enough dignity to only pick up pound coins and fifty-pence pieces. Not worth getting mucky fingers for less than that. Not me, however, I soon gained a reputation for picking up even the smallest denominations, and my delightful colleagues took full advantage, even bringing in small change to toss into the muck, just to see me scurry about picking it up.  

The wonderful Backpacker and Church crew.  While they all amused themselves at my expense, I came home every night with my pockets full of coins. I took more delight in my “treasure” (emptying out my sawdusty, damp pockets onto the kitchen table) than I did in my actual wage packet. The other guys would use the picked up coins to buy a kebab after work or as a tip for the cab driver, but I washed my bounty in the sink and put the coins into a jar. By the end of the year, I had picked up a thousand pounds from the filthy Backpacker floor. So Suzy and I went off to Brent Cross, where we bought her a beautiful diamond pendant necklace — and I was so proud of myself — and so proud of my beautiful wife with her beautiful necklace! A year of picking up one and two-penny pieces — this small act, performed over and over again, these small, almost unnoticeable gains, eventually, all adding up to a sparkling, diamond necklace! To my mind, this is a perfect example of Marginal Gains. Small acts, done repeatedly, with little or no evidence of success, but eventually leading to an unexpectedly positive result. So the next time you see a penny lying in the street, don’t walk on by, pick it up, put it in your pocket and smile a very self-satisfied smile. Only ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine more to go, and you will have yourself a perfect, gleaming diamond! 


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