Duality as a concept is quite fascinating, and the world we live in seems to have an inherent love for the paradox that is part of duality. Duality is the principle which says that anything and everything holds opposing truths. It is all a matter of perspective. For example, the earth is at once a gigantic body (from the point of view of an individual) and at the same time, a smote of dust (from the point of view of the universe). Thus, understanding duality probably brings about a more holistic approach to viewing and understanding the world.
Recently, I have been thinking a lot about strengths and weaknesses of things in general, from the perspective of duality. Maybe, they are both the same - two sides of the same coin.
To understand this better let us turn to that famous story of David and Goliath. Goliath was giant, trained in the arts of traditional combat while David was a common shepherd trained in protecting his flock from wild animals. At first glance, it seemed the outcome was a foregone conclusion - Goliath was as sure to win as the sun was to rise in the east. He had formidable advantages - physical size, strength, years of training, strong armor, weapons of his choice, etcetera. David just had a sling and a few pebbles.
But still David won. The story is well known. Goliath was built and trained for physical confrontation, while David - given his opponents were wild animals like lions who threatened his flock - was used to battling from the distance.
In the end, it was the very ‘strength’ of Goliath that became his greatest weakness. His size meant he was an easy target for a crack shot like David; his armor and weapons slowed him down which made it easier for someone who practiced against animals far quicker; his deep training for hand combat left him ill-equipped to handle the tiny aerial missile that was a pebble.
Now just replace David and Goliath with Amazon and Walmart respectively. Walmart is perhaps one of the greatest organizations of the 20th century, and Sam Walton has been repeatedly touted by his peers as the greatest retailer who ever lived. Walmart was the outcome of a perfect lollapallooza - an exceptional team led by an intelligent fanatic learning machine who went around decimating rivals. In the process, Walmart became the largest physical retailer by far in the world with sales growing into hundreds of billions of dollars.
And Amazon came and overtook Walmart in less than two decades. It was not supposed to happen. And the reason here again was the greatest strength of Walmart - which was its large size backed by its sophisticated systems and extensive physical distribution network. Given its origins and evolution as an offline retailer, the whole organization was designed to maximize the efficiency in physical retail. The system conditioned for so many years to dominate the physical space could not pivot quickly enough to counter the online competitors. The stupendous success in their field of choice itself sowed seeds of their eventual weakening.
This story is also paralleled in the rise and fall of Britannica Encyclopedia. Owning a Britannica was a mark of prestige in the past, it signified wisdom and the books were just beautiful. They were at once storehouses of knowledge and objects of beauty. Did you know that the first Encyclopedia Britannica was published in 1768. It survived for more than 220 years. The business changed hands a couple of times in the last century but grew steadily to become the most prestigious of the encyclopedias in the world. The brand was extremely strong (there were brand extensions like atlases and year books), and the organization had shrewdly built a formidable direct sales organization that targeted the aspirations of middle-income families for their children. The content was updated every four-five years and the direct sales team earned fat commissions by selling the copies to parents who wanted to gift knowledge to their children. The company effectively dominated the market. It would have been a dream business to own - a 200 year brand, generous margins, remarkable sales force and steady growth.
But it pretty much died within a decade. And one need look no farther than its strength to find its weakness. The strengths that led to the weakness here were the physical nature of their product and their direct sales force.
CD-ROMs decimated the market. While Britannica sold physical copies for $1,500-$2,200 per set (depending on the quality of the binding), CD-ROMs sold for $50-$70.
That was not even the worst part, many CDs were in fact given away for free to promote sales of computers and peripherals. The marginal manufacturing cost of a CD was $1.5 which made economic sense. The marginal manufacturing cost of a Britannica book was $250.
Even that was not the worst part. When Britannica tried selling its own CDs (at a price much higher than the competitors’) it faced a revolt from its biggest strength - its direct sales force. You see, the salesperson earned a commission of $500-$600 on the printed product. CD-ROMs would have to be sold through a completely different channel and this would eat into their potential commissions. And so, to appease the sales force, they decided to bundle the CD with the printed product for free. If a customer wanted to buy the CD-ROM alone, they could pay $1,000. We can all guess the outcome to that strategy.
There are many more examples like the above where the venerable became the vulnerable. And they lead to an interesting thought - if the moat of a business is akin to a chain, then it is only as strong as its weakest strength.
So, then, what is the characteristic that most lends to durability of a business? To my mind, one key characteristic is probably the willingness and ability to adapt. As the quote goes, " It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change."
Ian Cassel has written a wonderful post here about durability.
The duality aspect of strength-weakness is evident in one’s daily life as well. For most people reading this, one of the biggest (if not THE biggest) strengths they consciously or unconsciously rely on is the love and affection of family and friends. And invariably, the strength drawn is generally concentrated in the love from a few individuals - parent(s), spouse, children, a best friend, etc. And when there is an unexpected passing away of the love it can impact us dramatically in ways un-envisaged. At times it can seem like the love which formed our greatest strength has become our greatest weakness. The vacuum created can seem debilitating.
How does one deal with this?
Well, the answer remains the same - we try our best to adapt to the change. But it also definitely helps to remember this advice given by a friend -
"The people who love us help shape who we are and the way we honor them is by living your life to the fullest, and letting others witness their love by how we treat others. Take your time. Then hit life hard. Max out every day. No regrets."
I invite the readers to share their experiences with duality.
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