Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species is one of the most remarkable books ever written. It explained, for the first time and in plain English, the theory of evolution.

In doing so, it shined a light on biology and the natural sciences, which laid the groundwork for many of the great discoveries of the twentieth century.

More than that, it provided a metaphor for many other systems in the world around us. We talk about people, marketing, and ideas evolving in the same way species do.

However, Darwin got one thing wrong in On the Origin of Species, which has an important implication on how you think about evolution as a metaphor for how to change your life.

He believed species evolved gradually and linearly. However, research conducted after the book’s publication showed that evolution happens through long periods of stasis where there is very little change going on, punctuated by periods of rapid growth.

What Is Punctuated Equilibrium?

This phenomenon, called punctuated equilibrium, is the way that most natural systems evolve. Understanding punctuated equilibrium is essential to understanding how to change your life.

The left image is a gradual, linear view of Darwin’s theory of evolution where species emerge gradually and consistently over time. The right image is a “punctuated equilibrium” view of evolution where there are long periods of very little change and short periods of “explosions” with huge amounts of evolutionary activity.

punctuated equilibrium

The Cambrian Explosion and Punctuated Equilibrium

The Cambrian explosion is the most well-known example of the rapid growth stage of punctuated equilibrium in evolutionary history.

Over a period of only 20 million years (a short period in evolutionary time representing only 0.5 percent of Earth’s 4-billion-year evolutionary history), almost all present animal classes appeared.

Before the Cambrian explosion, most organisms were simple, composed of individual cells. By the end of that time period, the world was populated by a huge variety of complex organisms.

During the explosion, the rate of diversification accelerated by 10x, an order of magnitude.

Punctuated equilibrium changed the way biologists and scientists thought about evolution. It should also change how we think about areas where we use evolution as a metaphor for how to change our lives and our personal growth.

Most people have a gradual view of life changes. We think they happen at a constant and consistent rate.

When we hear someone’s life story, like in an interview, it sounds gradual, linear, and consistent:

  1. First, I got this great job.
  2. Then, I started this great company.
  3. Now, I sold it to another company.

It sounds like a straight line heading up and to the right, just the way Darwin imagined evolution.

However, what they’re really doing is just connecting the dots of the high points.

punctuated eq in life

When we don’t have all the details, we assume linearity and gradualism. We assume, like Darwin did of evolution, that everyone else’s life path is up and to the right while it’s only our life that is bumpy and chaotic.

In a three-minute interview, you don’t get the full story about how the person had long periods of stasis where they felt flat or stuck.

Maybe they had a long period of stasis where they hated their “great” job for the first six months and their coworkers were pricks, but after a year they finally found a part of the company where they fit in and started to flourish, resulting in a period of rapid growth.

Or maybe they were at a job for three years that didn’t seem to be going anywhere, but was actually laying the groundwork for a seemingly overnight success they had later on.

In the same way punctuated equilibrium was counterintuitive to Darwin’s view of evolution, it is counterintuitive to us applied to our own lives.

The way you change your life is in short bursts, or Cambrian Leaps. You will feel stuck in the same pattern for a long time, doing the work day in and day out, and then have short periods of drastic change and growth.

How To Change Your Life with Cambrian Leaps

Rob Walling, who I profiled in my book, The End of Jobs, shared a graph of what this looked like for his own businesses.

Does this graph look familiar? It should! (SOURCE)

Rob started releasing products in 2005, but the Cambrian Leaps for him came in 2008 and 2012.

If you heard Rob give a two-minute introduction on his career, he’d just hit the high points because that’s all he has time for. You can condense only so much of a 10-year story into a sound bite.

Why does this matter? Because this illusion of linearity and gradualism causes people to make some mistakes in the way they approach their personal growth.

Instead of looking for situations that will facilitate periods of rapid growth, they try to gradually improve things. They let the small improvements crowd out the big ones and never get to the periods of rapid growth, the Cambrian Leaps.

This was the case with Rob. In 2005, he released his first product, and then spent 2006 and 2007 trying to gradually improve that product. It helped, but the real breakthrough was when he started releasing more products.

In 2008, he released a swath of products in the plugin space that resulted in a Cambrian Leap that made him Rob “the plugin developer guy.”

He wasn’t Rob “the ebook guy” anymore.

His next Cambrian Leap in 2012 was when he became Rob “the SaaS guy.”

He changed his business model from selling one-time sales to recurring products, and this created a huge leap.

The Snowball, a biography of Warren Buffett, offers another case study in Cambrian Leaps.

Buffett’s career looked very much like a graph of punctuated equilibrium. He would have periods of amazing returns and then flat periods where he wasn’t doing a whole lot better than the market.

However, during those periods of stasis, he was doing bold things, reinventing his business model or his investing philosophy in a way that created the next big Cambrian Leap where he experienced rapid growth.

It’s difficult to keep working on Cambrian Leap projects, because when you are in the middle of a stasis period of doing something unconventional, the people around you seem to be making better progress with gradual improvements.

There were many periods in Buffett’s career where people said he was washed up. Journalists and observers pulled out dozens of graphs that looked something like this of his performance over the past few years:

It’s only years later that we are able to look back at Buffett’s track record and see that it turned out like this:

Courage is the Only Thing

A large part of what I take away from Rob and Buffett’s examples is the importance of courage.

Many us invest our time into projects which don’t have the potential to create a Cambrian Leap.

Instead of just thinking about how to get a little bit better at your job, or improve the conversions 10 percent% on your website, you should be focusing a meaningful amount of your time and energy on projects with Cambrian Leap potential.

Of course, there is an element of luck at play here. You can’t know for sure if the project will be a Cambrian Leap, but you can know if it has potential.

In The 80/20 Principle, Richard Koch provides a good heuristic for potential Cambrian Leaps:

Is it unconventional? Will it multiply, not add, results?

It’s things like changing your business model, not improving website conversions, that lead to these Cambrian Leaps.

It’s taking a night class in some seemingly random subject that you’re interested in instead of grinding another ten hours on something with only a moderate upside.

I believe that’s how to change your life.

Consistency Still Matters

One way this metaphor gets misinterpreted is people think if they focus on these big Cambrian Leaps, then they can skip the flat periods and zoom straight up.

The truth is that it also takes time to figure out what the next big leap will be. It takes times to develop the skills and resources necessary to make the leap. The flat periods are necessary and where most of the work happens.

Rob has been upfront that he thinks if he had started with trying to make an enormous leap from never having worked on software to running a complex SaaS business, he would have failed.

Taking it one leap at a time and then focusing on building up his skills and resources for the next leap let him increase the odds of his success.

Indeed, these Cambrian Leaps are often the result of long periods of consistent work. It just takes the improvements time to show up as leaps.

When I released my first book, it was a big Cambrian leap moment for me that changed the course of my career. However the success of the book was due to over three years of work on my marketing platform and the book itself.

For most of that three-year period those three year, my writing work felt pretty flat and static. It was only obvious only in retrospect that the hour every morning I spent working on my writing would result in a Cambrian Leap.

The Benefits of Underemployment

It takes a lot of courage to follow unconventional convictions even when it feels like others are flying past.

One solution that everyone can implement is captured in a quip from Amos Tversky, the research partner of the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman.

“The secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed. You waste years by not being able to waste hours.”

We too often conflate busyness with productivity, and efficiency with effectiveness.

A better approach is to be a little bit underemployed, say working five days a week on your main project and spending one day tinkering toward your next Cambrian Leap. You’re still optimizing your landing page to trying to bump up the conversions by 10 percent, but you’re also thinking about that next big thing.

It’s important to give yourself some space because, often, the work that leads to Cambrian Leaps feels like a waste. You’re just in the shop tinkering.

I wrote my blog on Saturdays for three years. At the time, I wasn’t sure if it was a good use of time, but I had a hunch that it could turn into a Cambrian Leap and I had a lot of fun tinkering with it anyway.

Asking yourself “What do I find interesting and easy that others find difficult?” is often a good way to identify Cambrian Leap opportunities.

Writing was one of those things for me.

In retrospect, those years helped me improve as a writer and build enough of a platform to launch a book, which turned out to be a Cambrian Leap for me.

Since then, I have always tried to be at least a little bit underemployed in order to have time to work on projects with Cambrian Leap potential. It’s time that I set aside to read or work on whatever is piquing my interest, even if it doesn’t seem immediately applicable.

If you’re feeling a bit overemployed and “stuck,” try asking yourself the two questions that helped me identify Cambrian Leaps in the past:

  1. Am I working on something that is unconventional, which will multiply, not add, results?
  2. What do I find interesting and easy that others find difficult?

I’ve developed a system using this concept (and others) that helps people plan for the future while still staying open to opportunities and having time to ‘tinker’.

Click here to get access to a free 3-part email course that will help you choose, plan and accomplish your most important goal in 90 days.