One Step Ahead

In 1974, Muhammad Ali fought George Foreman for the title in the Rumble in the Jungle. Foreman was favored to win; he was younger and an absolute powerhouse of a puncher. Ali was fast and light; he could out-maneuver opponents and run circles around them.

But Ali was also brilliant. He taunted Foreman before the match, saying in press releases that he was so fast Foreman would never touch him, things like that. Foreman was doing all of his pre-fight training in footwork – he was learning to cut off the ring, keep Ali from dancing. Meanwhile, Ali was doing nothing but endurance training: he was having his trainers deliver body shots to him endlessly to toughen him and teach him how to absorb the impact of the blows.

When the match happened, Ali didn’t dance at all. He huddled against the ropes and let Foreman throw hundreds of punches. This “rope-a-dope” technique worked like a charm; the stance against the ropes meant much of the power of Foreman’s punches was wasted while Foreman was exhausting himself throwing them. Ali’s entire strategy was to waste Foreman’s energy, and it worked. When Foreman could barely stand, Ali was full of vigor, and launched an offense that won the match.

There was an essential element to Ali’s strategy, and that was understanding (and in this case, even influencing) Foreman’s strategy.

If you want to solve a problem, you have to understand that you’re not the only one with a strategy, or a plan. Consider the case of Harry, the single guy. He wants to meet eligible single ladies, but he doesn’t know where to go. So he hops on Google and searches for “how to find a girlfriend” or something like that. It suggests places to go, websites to visit, whatever. Do you see the problem, though?

Every guy is doing that. The competition is high, and in fact it might be such that it actually chases the best of the eligible single girls away. Here’s what he should do: He should search for “how to find a great boyfriend” and see what that advice is.

That advice is going to shape the search strategy and even the evaluation methods of the women Harry is trying to date. He should absolutely know what that advice is. If the advice for “how to find a girlfriend” is to go to the singles bar, and the advice for “how to find a great boyfriend” is to go to the library, Harry should definitely go to the library and not the singles bar.

(And yes, now we get into this recursion problem where if everyone took that advice, now everyone has just switched positions and we’re back where we started. But that’s not what’s happening. I always hate the objection of “well, what if everyone did that?” If everyone did it, then the strategy to beat it would be to not do it – because the core strategy is essentially “understand what the crowd is doing, and when to deviate.”)

I’ve given this advice for people trying to break into new industries with little to no experience. “How do I get a job as an analyst,” is an okay search, but you’ll probably get much better information if you search for “how do I hire a fantastic analyst?” That search will tell you what hiring managers are looking for, and you can adapt your efforts accordingly.

If you really want to solve a problem, whether it’s adversarial (like a heavyweight boxing match), or the kind of problem where both parties want the same thing but suffer from information asymmetry (like dating or finding a new job), the best strategy is to understand what problem the other person is trying to solve and their strategy for doing so, and to adapt your strategy to match. Stay one step ahead.

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