The Red Queen Effect (Why You Can't Stop Running)

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  • The Red Queen Effect is a concept that describes the phenomenon that organisms must constantly adapt, evolve, and compete in order to survive in a dynamic environment, where their enemies and competitors are also evolving.

  • The RQE also to business, technology, and society. In today’s fast-paced world, staying ahead of the curve requires constant innovation, learning, and improvement. Otherwise, you’re going to fall behind and becoming obsolete.

  • The RQE also applies to personal and professional development. It means that we have to keep running faster and faster, just to stay in the same place. But we can use it as a catalyst for our growth and development, by being adaptable, foresighted, and continuously learning.


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The Red Queen Effect (Why You Can't Stop Running)

You’re running as fast as you can, but you’re not moving. You’re stuck in the same spot, while the world around you changes at warp speed. 

I can imagine this resonates with a lot of you (as scary as unsettling as this concept is), especially with the advent of new technologies seemingly being discovered and improved upon daily (and sometimes hourly).

This is a common feeling in the modern world. You feel like you’re falling behind, while everyone else is racing ahead. You’re missing out on opportunities, while others are seizing them. You feel like you’re irrelevant, while others are influential.

And, as stressful as this may seem, there’s some truth to it.

However this feeling/phenomenon is not new.

That’s how Alice (from Wonderland) felt in Lewis Carroll’s classic book, “Through the Looking Glass”.

The Narrow Corridor, the Cage of Norms and the Red Queen Effect – Manish Mohandas

In Wonderland, she met the Red Queen.

The context was that Alice was on a chess board that was moving backwards, while she was running forwards.

The Red Queen told her:

“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

This concept/theory is actually coined the Red Queen Effect (RQE). 

It’s a concept further explored in evolutionary biology, coined by Leigh Van Valen in 1973 . 

It means that organisms have to constantly adapt, evolve, and compete to survive in a changing environment, where their enemies and competitors are also evolving. 

Similar to how Alice was running, but getting nowhere, on the Red Queen’s chess board.

However the RQE is not just for nature. 

It’s for business, technology, and society too. 

In today’s fast-paced world, you have to keep innovating, learning, and improving to stay ahead of the curve. 

Otherwise, you risk falling behind and becoming irrelevant.

The Red Queen Effect in Nature

Imagine you’re Alice, and you are running with the Red Queen on a huge chessboard. 

But no matter how fast you run, you are not moving forward. 

The chessboard is moving backward at the same speed as you running forward.

If you were to power walk, jog or walk you’d start to fall behind. It’s like a treadmill, where you have to run just to stay in the same place.

This is how nature works. 

It means that living things have to keep changing and improving just to survive. Because their enemies and rivals are also changing and improving. They’re all running on the same treadmill.

You can see the RQE everywhere in nature. It’s why animals and plants are always competing and evolving. For example, frogs have to catch flies to eat, and flies have to escape frogs to live. So frogs develop better tongues, and flies develop better wings. This is a never-ending race, where no one can win.

This is what Charles Darwin discovered when he wrote his famous book, "On the Origin of Species" in 1859. He saw that nature is not peaceful, but harsh. He wrote:

"The most adaptable to change is the one that survives, not the strongest or the smartest."

This is the core of natural selection, the process of evolution. It means that living things that fit their environment better have a higher chance of living and having babies, and passing on their good features to their babies.

Those that fit their environment worse have a lower chance of living and having babies, and leaving behind their bad features. 

Over time, this leads to the creation of new kinds of living things, suited to their own places.

The RQE is the reason why we have so many different and amazing life forms on Earth. It is also the reason why we have to keep running to stay alive.

The Red Queen Effect in Business

The RQE is not only a challenge for nature, but also for business. 

In the business world, the environment is constantly changing.Technology, competition, regulation, and consumer preferences. 

To succeed in business, you have to keep innovating, learning, and improving. Otherwise, you risk falling behind and losing your market share.

Here’s a great example.

In 1962, Warren Buffett bought a controlling stake in Berkshire Hathaway, a textile company. He thought he could turn it around by investing in new equipment, cutting costs, and diversifying into other businesses.

A Young Warren Buffet & The Original Berkshire Hathaway (Source: @TickerHistory)

But he soon realized that the textile industry was doomed, as cheaper imports from overseas flooded the market. No matter how much he invested, he could not keep up with the changing environment.

He’s gone on record stating that the money he poured in the Textile company was his biggest investing mistake he’s ever made.

He eventually shut down the textile operations in 1985, and focused on using Berkshire Hathaway as a holding company for his other investments.

He learned from his mistake and applied the RQE to his investing strategy. 

His focus?

  • Businesses that had a durable competitive advantage, such as strong brands, loyal customers, or high barriers to entry.

  • Businesses that could adapt to change and innovate continuously, such as Apple, Amazon, and Netflix.

He turned Berkshire Hathaway into one of the most successful and respected companies in the world.

What’s the lesson?

The RQE is a race you can’t win by running faster. 

You have to run smarter. 

The Red Queen Effect in Medicine

The RQE doesn’t stop in business. It transcends medicine and health as well.

The Emperor of All Maladies (Mukherjee) is a "biography" of cancer, covering the history of cancer treatment and research from ancient times to the present. It won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 2011 and was acclaimed by critics and audiences.

One of the main themes of the book is the RQE in cancer treatment. 

Mukherjee shows how cancer is a constantly evolving and mutating disease, that adapts to the various therapies and drugs that humans have developed to fight it.

He writes: "Cancer is not a concentration camp, but it shares at least one trait with history's most tragic camps: an unceasing capacity to remember and propagate its own suffering. Cancer cells, unlike normal cells, can activate telomerase, an enzyme that allows them to preserve their chromosomes indefinitely. Cancer cells can thus defy the normal cycle of senescence and death. They can grow relentlessly, adaptively, and endlessly." (Mukherjee 2010, p. 47).

The RQE in cancer treatment means that doctors and researchers have to keep running faster and faster, just to stay in the same place. 

They have to keep developing new drugs, new combinations, new strategies, and new technologies, to keep up with the ever-changing nature of cancer.

But outside of cancer, the RQE also applies to medical advancements in general, as well as technological innovations in other fields.

Medical advancements are driven by the need to solve problems, improve outcomes, and enhance quality of life. But they also create new problems, new challenges, and new expectations.

For example:

  • The development of antibiotics revolutionized the treatment of infectious diseases, but also led to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which pose a serious threat to public health.

  • The development of vaccines eradicated many deadly diseases, but also raised ethical, social, and political issues, such as the anti-vaccination movement, the distribution of vaccines, and the protection of intellectual property rights.

  • The development of organ transplantation saved many lives, but also created a shortage of donors, a black market for organs, and a debate over the definition of death.

  • The development of genetic engineering opened up new possibilities for diagnosis, prevention, and therapy, but also raised questions about the safety, efficacy, and ethics of modifying the human genome.

  • The development of artificial intelligence and machine learning enabled new applications and insights, but also generated concerns about the impact on human autonomy, privacy, and employment.

The RQE in medical advancements means that doctors and researchers have to keep innovating, learning, and improving, to keep up with the changing needs and demands of patients, society, and the environment. 

Strategies to Outpace the Red Queen

The RQE is not just a business problem. It’s a personal problem. It means we have to run faster and faster, just to keep up. 

But speed is not enough. We need strategy. 

We need three skills to run smarter in the RQE:

  • Adaptability: How to change with the times. How to be flexible, resilient, and open-minded. How to experiment, fail, and learn. How to pivot, scale, and diversify. Adaptability is how we survive.

  • Foresight: How to see the future. How to be proactive, strategic, and creative. How to spot trends, opportunities, and threats. How to plan and prepare. How to deliver value. Foresight is how we succeed.

  • Continuous learning: How to learn new things. How to be curious, motivated, and self-directed. How to access, evaluate, and synthesize information. How to collaborate, communicate, and share knowledge. Continuous learning is how we grow.

These skills are not either-or. They are all-in. 

They help us stay ahead of the curve, not just by running faster, but by running smarter. 

Some food for thought:

  • Netflix: Netflix is a leader in the streaming industry, but it faces constant competition from rivals like Disney+, Amazon Prime, and HBO Max. To stay ahead, Netflix has to invest heavily in original content, technology, and marketing. It also has to adapt to different markets, regulations, and customer preferences. Netflix has to run smarter by leveraging its data, brand, and network effects.

  • Tesla: Tesla is a pioneer in the electric vehicle industry, but it faces challenges from incumbents like Toyota, Volkswagen, and Ford. To maintain its edge, Tesla has to innovate constantly in battery, software, and design. It also has to deal with supply chain issues, safety concerns, and environmental impacts. Tesla has to run smarter by harnessing its vision, culture, and fan base.

  • You: You are a professional in a dynamic and competitive field, but you face threats from automation, globalization, and disruption. To advance your career, you have to update your skills, knowledge, and network. You also have to balance your work, life, and health. You have to run smarter by developing your adaptability, foresight, and continuous learning.

The RQE teaches us some important lessons:

  • Change is inevitable and accelerating. We have to embrace it, not resist it.

  • Speed is necessary, but not sufficient. We have to be strategic, not reactive.

  • Value is relative and dynamic. We have to create it, not capture it.

The RQE is a race we can’t win by running faster. We have to run smarter.

Getting Personal

I do realize that to this point, most of this article may seem a little bit doom and gloom, so I figured I’d leave you with a few points on how to see the RQE as a blessing, not a curse.

Because I know some of you are thinking, The RQE is not just for nature and business. It’s for you and me. 

It means we have to run faster and faster, just to keep up. 

But how do we do that? 

How do we use the RQE to grow and thrive? 

Well, it’s not easy, but it’s doable. 

It takes a mix of strategies and mindsets that can help us adapt, anticipate, and learn. 

Here’s a few things that you can lean into, that will help you overcome it (and candidly, make you a much stronger person/professional at the same time).

1. Assess: Know where you are and where you want to go. 

  • What are your strengths and weaknesses? 

  • What are your goals and dreams? 

  • What are the opportunities and threats around you? 

  • How are you doing and improving? 

By asking these questions, you can find your gaps and areas for improvement. You can also compare yourself with your peers and rivals, and see how you stand out. This is the first step of self-awareness and self-improvement.

2. Develop: Make a plan for your growth and development. 

  • What are the skills and knowledge you need to learn or improve? 

  • What are the resources and tools you need to get or use? 

  • What are the actions and steps you need to do or follow? 

  • How will you track your progress and results? 

By answering these questions, you can create a roadmap for your growth and development. You can also set smart and achievable goals and targets, and measure your performance and outcomes. 

3. Execute and iterate: Do your plan and learn as you go. This means that you have to act on your plan, and learn from your experience. 

  • You have to be consistent, disciplined, and focused. 

  • You also have to be flexible, agile, and responsive. 

  • You have to be open to feedback, criticism, and advice. 

  • You have to be willing to try, fail, and learn from mistakes. 

  • You have to be able to pivot, scale, and diversify when needed. 

By doing these things, you can do your plan and learn as you go. You can also adjust your plan and strategy as you learn and grow. This is the third step of self-regulation and self-optimization.

These strategies can help you use the RQE to your advantage. 

They can help you not only keep up, but get ahead, in a world that’s always moving. 

We don’t have to be scared of the RQE. 

We can use it as a spark for our growth and development. 

We can use it as a push for our innovation and excellence. 

We can use it as a chance for our success and happiness. 

Being cognizant and aware of the The RQE is a way to get ahead in a world that’s always moving.

If you enjoyed this article, I’d love to hear from you.

Email me at or tweet at me @ScottDClary and I’ll do my best to get back to everyone!


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