The Red Queen Effect suggests that all species must constantly improve to survive. For humans, this translates into a need to put continuous effort to remain where one is.
The Red Queen effect is based on a fictional queen from Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass.” In the story, Alice(the little girl in Wonderland) runs hand in hand with the Red Queen. They both run so fast that Alice has a hard time keeping up. Yet, the Queen keeps screaming, “Faster, Faster.” Alice tries her best to speed up, but she is unable to increase her pace any further.
But, what confuses Alice is that the world around them remains the same despite their mad sprint. She asks the Red Queen. “How is that possible? Do the things around us move with us?” But the Queen ignores her question and says, “Faster! Don’t try to talk!”
Alice puts all her might into running as fast as she can and in a few minutes, she is almost drained. The Red Queen finally stops and says, “You may rest a little now.”
Alice looks around her trying to figure out what’s going on. ‘Why, I do believe we’ve been under this tree the whole time! Everything’s just as it was!’ she asks. The Queen replies, “Of course it is. What were you expecting?” A perplexed Alice replies, “In our world, if one ran fast for a long time, we’d reach a different location.”
‘A slow sort of country!’ says the Queen. ‘Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to remain in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!‘
This hypothetical story conveys the importance of improving yourself to continue with the results you’ve achieved at the moment.
In this article, we will speak about how the Red Queen effect works with real-life examples. I will also cover actionable tips to avoid the pitfalls of stagnation.
- What is the Red Queen effect?
- Advancement and evolution
- Examples of the Red Queen effect:
- How to avoid the red queen effect?
What is the Red Queen effect?
The Red Queen effect states that you need to put in more effort and work harder to stay in your place.
The common misconception is that if a person does nothing, he will remain wherever he is without experiencing any growth. But, the truth is even worse. If you do nothing, over time, you won’t even have what you have today.
“I can understand I won’t move ahead without effort but how will I lose what I have if I do nothing?” you ask with your eyebrows squeezed. Most people have that confusion when they hear about the Red Queen effect for the first time.
I will use an example of a sports team to illustrate how the effect works in real life. Consider any sport like football, basketball, baseball, field hockey, or cricket. Let’s say your favorite team won the championship this year.
The next year, a new season begins. Your favorite team retains the entire squad along with the coaching staff and repeats the exact gameplay from the previous year dot to dot. Will they win again? If their tactics were way above the standards of the other teams, perhaps they will bag the trophy one more time.
But what if they repeat the same methodology every year? Sooner or later, one opponent will catch up and surpass them.
The only way a champion team can remain at the helm is by improving their game every year even if they’re reigning champions.
Doing nothing implies losing what they already have – the title. Therefore, after winning the championship, the team has to even better next year to remain champions.
Advancement and evolution
The Red Queen effect drives humankind forward. All the advancements you see around you today occurred because specific people chose to step out of their comfort zone and run faster to achieve bigger results in life.
The effect does not only apply to humans alone, but also to all species because it ties up with the concept of evolution. Take for example, a large dense jungle inhabited by cheetahs and deer. For simplicity, let’s assume no other animals live there. So, the cheetahs hunt deer for their food and the deer try to escape to stay alive.
By random chance, a mutation occurs in nature every now and then which changes specific characteristics of species. In science, such occurrences are real with minor differences before and after. Don’t assume that the deer with gain the ability to control metal like Magneto or that Cheetahs can figure out where the deers are going to drink water by reading their mind like Professor X from X-men. We’re talking about real science here.
Anyway back to the jungle. One such mutation causes a few deer to run faster than the others. As a result, the cheetahs have a higher chance to hunt the slower deer. Over many years, the deer with slower genes will perish and only the faster ones remain. If the cheetahs cannot chase and kill them, they’ll either starve to death or resort to finding other food.
Now, if a mutation causes a smarter cheetah that can plan intelligent attacks instead of relying on speed, the same cycle repeats. The intelligent cheetahs hunt and survive and the usual ones cease to exist because the mutated ones eat all the available food.
At a glance, it appears as if the same animals roam around the jungle, but the cheetahs got smarter and the deer faster. All the species improved themselves, albeit unintentionally.
But do all animals evolve at the same pace? Not at all. Some evolve much faster than others due to various reasons, with the factor of chance playing a massive role. But on a grand scale of things, the species which are more responsive to change have a higher advantage over the others. The difference isn’t apparent in the short term, but as hundreds and thousands of years pass by, the minor edge helps in absolute domination.
We as human beings serve as the best example. Back in time, our higher intelligence did not make us the most formidable force on the planet. Our ancestors lived in caves hoping that a predator would not attack them. But little by little, human intelligence learned to adapt.
We started lighting fires to scare some animals, cultivated food to feed ourselves, built houses with walls to ensure safety, developed better modes of communication to exchange information. And abracadabra, a few thousand years later, we’re the most powerful species on earth.
Today, we don’t have to worry about any threats our ancestors did. We can shoot a dangerous animal before it can harm anyone or deviate any asteroid on course to hit the earth.
Examples of the Red Queen effect:
One of the most common arguments people have when they hear about the Red Queen effect is, “I work my ass off every day so that ensures I’m improving.” But, working long hours doesn’t necessarily mean you’re putting in the right effort. Even if you spend 14+ hours slogging, you might still find yourself short if you’re not prioritizing the right things.
These examples below can provide a reference point about the influence of the Red Queen effect on your life.
1. Career stagnation
I have met very many talented people over the years who start their careers full of energy. You expect them to go a long way, but over the next 5-10 years, they fade into the realm of mediocrity. I’m not saying they’re unsuccessful in life, but they do not reach the potential they initially seemed capable of.
Look around you. You’ll spot people who are doing the same thing since age eternity. Or maybe you’re that person yourself.
If your skills are no different than what they were 3-6 months ago, you have entered the early stage of complacency and are well on your way to stagnation. If you’ve not improved yourself intentionally in the last year or two, you’re deep into your comfort zone.
If people with the same skills as you are advancing faster than you are, let that serve as a wake-up call. For example, if your coworker was promoted over you, ask yourself, “What did you fail to do and what did the other person do better?”
I often hear employees lament over their annual hikes. “My boss gave me peanuts for a raise this year. I hate him,” they complain. But the truth is, most people make no effort to improve their skills and yet expect the organization to pay them more every year.
But, take a moment to pause and think as the company.
Why should the company pay you more every year if you’re the same like you were the previous year?
If you repeat the same approach for 3-5 years, a junior employee can deliver the same results as you at a lower salary.
2. Being the top in the field
Anyone who is at the top of their skill bracket needs to hone their skills to remain on top. Every year, you’ll find different people at the helm of their domain. Some of them hold on that spot for years, while most others fade out in a year or two.
You can observe such patterns in sports teams, singers, actors, comedians, businesses, and whatnot. You might assume that once you reach the top, you can sit back, sip on a chilled beer and relax for the rest of your life. But in reality, staying at the top takes as much energy as it took you to get there, if not more.
You’ll find many celebrities who rose to fame quickly only to disappear even faster.
3. Business competition
The wrong mindset has not only ruined successful individuals, but also large business corporations. Kodak is one such example. Until the mid-1970s, Kodak was ruling the photography industry with their cameras and films.
One fine day, a new invention called the digital camera started making the rounds in the market. Kodak however argued that people loved holding a physical picture and that the concept of a soft copy would die off in no time.
When the market started leaning towards digital cameras, Kodak spent time arguing about the benefits of film technology. By the time they realized their folly, other competitors had dominated the industry. Kodak was a mammoth in their business domain but their lack of desire to improve led to their demise. No major damage occurred over a year or two, but over a span of two decades, Kodak was done and dusted.
Likewise, in business, one has to keep moving forward to stay where they are. If an entrepreneur fails to advance, the other competitors will trample upon the business and take their place.
4. Investing in successful investments
Many investors invest in the stocks that successful people have chosen hoping to cash big returns. For example, the moment they hear Warren Buffet investing in a specific stock, they buy them too.
But, right now, Buffet has made his share of billions and therefore follows a different investment philosophy to keep his wealth safe. You cannot expect to become the richest man in the world by following Buffet’s current tactics. You should have done that 60 years ago.
Similar behavior occurs in mutual funds too. Investors invest in funds that have offered the highest returns in the last few years without understanding the investment philosophy. But here’s the kicker. A fund that has already done well faces a bigger challenge to continue providing the same profits as per the law of diminishing returns. If you want the same percentages, you should try to find a mutual fund that has the potential to grow in the upcoming years.
By the way, investing in a proven mutual fund or on the stocks Buffet purchases isn’t a bad investment. You won’t lose your money, but you won’t garner the returns you expect.
How to avoid the red queen effect?
1. Continuous improvement
Dave Brailsford is among the most successful cycling coaches of all time. He transformed a struggling British cycling team that had hardly won any medals and led them to total domination of the sport within 10 years of taking up the job of the head coach.
You might assume Mr. Brailsford used sophisticated strategies to achieve such success. But the coach had a simple technique which in his own words was, “If you break down every little aspect of cycling and improve each by 1%, the final result would be significantly different.” As simple as the technique sounds, the difference was in how Brailsford introduced improvements.
The procedure looks straightforward on paper. You just have to do a little better with time. The 1% does not state a precise number measured as a figure. All it means is, you must focus on doing one aspect better than what you did before. You must keep improving even if you do not notice immediate results. Over time, the improvement produces a compound effect and places you in a different league altogether.
People hunt for huge gains in one go and ignore the minor tweaks which produce results over time. The marginal gains technique approaches improvement like a marathon, not a sprint.
2. Spend time learning every day
Those who believe that learning ends in college are the ones who stagnate the fastest. You have to learn every day. Yes, you read that right – every single day(at least weekdays).
If you’re thinking “I already learn at my job because I encounter new things while working,” you’re both right and wrong. Yes, your job will provide you new exposure and you’ll learn. But, you also need to spend time explicitly learning. You don’t have to put in hours together as you did on the previous night of the exams in college. Spending 30min to 1 hour a day is plenty.
Here are ways to use your learning time effectively:
- Read a book from an expert in your niche
- Take an online course that helps you learn an advanced topic in your area of expertise
- Learn different tactics used by the top people in your field
- Experiment with a tip that you’ve learned but never applied and check how it works
3. Thinking time
One of the easiest methods to keep moving forward is to set aside time to think every day. When you don’t think about what you could do better, you get entangled within the fast-paced world around you. As a result, you end up working on things that others want instead of doing what you want.
If you set aside 15-30 min a day to do nothing but think, you’ll gain clarity about yourself, your dreams, and your future. You will align your effort towards the direction you want to head towards.
Jeff Weiner, the CEO of LinkedIn spends 90 minutes to 2 hours of uninterrupted time each day thinking. He developed this habit when he realized his schedule was so busy that he had no time to process what was going on around him.
While you don’t have to keep aside a few hours each day, 15 minutes will give you a good headstart. I follow the same method due to its simplicity and flexibility. If I get caught up with work, I can find a more convenient time later in the day. On super busy days, I use my breakfast or lunchtime for thinking.
Most people have no trouble accommodating 15 min on their weekdays. If you cannot even spare 15 min, that’s a compelling reason in itself to set aside time to pause and analyze.
4. Spend time on reflection
In today’s fast-paced world, you’re more worried about doing things. When the morning begins, an invisible clock starts ticking in your mind and you aim to finish one task after another. But, in this process, you forget to evaluate how many of the tasks you completed added value to your long-term goals. Being busy and being productive are two different things altogether.
Make a practice to reflect on how you’re spending your time. You can either do it for 5-10 min before you wind up your day or you can spend 15-30 min at the end of each week. The daily exercise makes things simpler because your memory is still fresh. If you reflect weekly, you will have to keep notes about how you spent your time unless you have the memory of a whiz kid.
During your minutes of reflection ask yourself:
- What are the things I did well?
- What are the mistakes I can learn from?
- Any good practices to continue in the future?
- Any errors to avoid from now?
- Did my day help me progress towards my long-term goals?
The Red Queen effect is real. The need to strive for continuous improvement is crucial today compared to 5 years ago. In the years to come, it’ll only become more prominent.
If you have not made any attempt to improve yourself in the last few months or a couple of years, it’s time to take a hard look at the mirror. The slower you move, the easier it is for others to just whiz past you and leave you behind.
That said, overcoming the Red Queen effect isn’t about competing in a rat race or comparing yourself with others. An ideal way to embark on a journey of continuous improvement is by comparing yourself with the “past you”. If you aim to become better than what you’re today in the next 3 months, you’ll enter a different league altogether in a few years.
To get there, all you have to do is strive to beat your best opponent, whose reflection you see in the mirror every day.
Is it easy? Not at all.
But, can you do it? Well, that’s up to you to decide.
Red Queen hypothesis. (2021, March 02). Retrieved March 26, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Queen_hypothesis
2. the garden of Live Flowers. (n.d.). Retrieved March 26, 2021, from https://sabian.org/looking_glass2.php
Than, K. (2018, February 27). What is Darwin’s theory of evolution? Retrieved March 26, 2021, from https://www.livescience.com/474-controversy-evolution-works.html
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.