In 1849, there was an exodus, like never seen before, to the state of California. Over 100,000 people had arrived from all over the world, including large numbers of Mexicans, Chinese, Germans and Italians. All of them had come in search of a common object.
Just less than a year before, James Marshall and John Sutter had discovered the presence of a shiny metal in the ground while they were building a mill on the American River. They privately tested the metal. The results came back: it turns out that they had struck gold.
Both men wanted to keep this discovery a secret but to no avail. Sam Brannan, a local merchant and newspaper publisher, had overheard from one of Sutter’s workers about the discovery and decided to break the story through his newspaper. The news spread across the country and around the world, with every able man headed towards California in search of gold.
By 1855, over 300,000 people had arrived in California. Most of these men had mortgaged their property, borrowed heavily or spent their life savings travelling to California. Unfortunately, most of them would die penniless, far away from their place of birth. Only a few astute and shrewd men truly profited from this exodus.
Philip Armour, who would later found a meat-packing empire in Chicago, made a fortune operating the sluices that controlled the flow of water into the rivers being mined. The bankers, Henry Wells and William Fargo, opened an office in San Francisco, an enterprise that later grew to become one of America’ s premier banking institutions. Sam Brannan, the man who spread word of the gold discovery, made his fortune by selling picks, pans and shovels to gold prospectors.
It turns out that merchants made more than miners during the Californian Gold Rush. Those who thought they would strike gold easily were sorely disappointed. They would find that jumping on a bandwagon without deep thought would be a huge mistake.
Perhaps a more counter-intuitive strategy would have served them better.
Seek Out What Doesn’t Change
Amazon is the largest e-commerce retailer in the world. The tech giant started as an online bookstore and later diversified to sell electronics and other material goods. Not long later, it started to produce its own line of consumer electronics. Nobody knows how much bigger Amazon will grow, but it’s not a long shot to think that one day — if not already — its services and products will be an integral part of our lives.
One would intuitively think that tech companies thrive by developing new technologies. But unlike other giants such as Facebook and Google, Amazon isn’t interested in staying at the forefront of technological development or leading a new revolution. Its unconventional strategy is encapsulated in an interview that Amazon founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, gave:
I very frequently get the question: ‘What’s going to change in the next 10 years?’ And that is a very interesting question; it’s a very common one. I almost never get the question: ‘What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’ I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two — because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time. When you have something that you know is true, even over the long term, you can afford to put a lot of energy into it.
The quote from Bezos is telling. Amazon has had a relentless focus on things that don’t change: a wide selection of products, low prices, and quick delivery. There’s no vein of gold that the tech giant is hoping to find, much less a gold rush that it is participating in.
Distractions Are Everywhere
If anything, focusing on what doesn’t change gives one a North Star and a means of filtering out the noise.
It’s especially so when we inevitably end up over-accounting for what happens right in front of us. The latest thing on the App Store, what’s hot on Billboard 100, and the latest fashion trend. We gravitate to what’s popular right now, because everyone is thinking and doing it.
Two reasons come to mind when I think about why that happens. The first is that our brains are wired for novelty and to detect changes. The second is that there’s safety in numbers. It takes great commitment and fortitude to do your own thing — the thing that you know is right and that matters — but it is definitely rewarding.
Having studied how lasting works and artists are made and marketed, Ryan Holiday has some thoughts. In Perennial Seller, he writes that there are products that customers like you and me return to more than once, even when they are no longer trendy. It’s Craiglist, The Shawshank Redemption, and Iron Maiden; all of which remain relevant years after they launch. The words of Bruce Dickinson, Iron Maiden’s lead singer, best illustrates why things endure:
“We have our field and we’ve got to plough it and that’s it. What’s going on in the next field is of no interest to us; we can only plough one field at a time. We are unashamedly a niche band. Admittedly our niche is quite big.”
It starts with serving a small audience extremely well instead of a large audience poorly. More importantly, it requires ignoring what your competition is doing out there. You must stand by your own message. Or as it is more commonly said these days: you do you.
Only then, can you have long and lasting impact.
Only then, can you be timeless.
Some Themes Are Timeless
So what exactly doesn’t change? Figuring that out is difficult, but not impossible.
Consider the structure of many a good story. A common thread binds them all. From Dickens’ Great Expectations to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the protagonist of the story often goes through many trials and tribulations while discovering more about his or herself.
Termed ‘the hero’s journey’ by Joseph Campbell, one can easily recognise this narrative archetype:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man
Put this way, most stories are stale. And yet, somehow we still listen to them. We are compelled to pick up the book, to turn on the television, to catch that play. All for a good story, even though a common theme recurs throughout history.
It turns out that there are certain patterns and themes that repeat no matter the time period. These ideas are timeless.Which illustrates a truth: that the best things aren’t necessarily new. In fact, what’s best is what has endured the test of time.
It’s The Little Things
So stop looking for the next big thing. There’s no gold rush that’s waiting for you out there. In a world where everyone is hoping to ride a wave, it pays to sit still and observe the things that haven’t changed.
Not all of us have to — or can for that matter — start a business like Amazon. But we can have an impact in our own small way; an impact that lasts.
That means creating value. It means helping others. Solving problems. It means having love and empathy for the man next door.
Because these things don’t change.