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A convenient size

My first experience of altitude-sickness was in 2008 while on a trip to run a marathon in Leh, northern India.

I had gone on a small excursion to the Ladakh ranges on the first day, arriving at one of the mountain passes which was more than 5,300m above sea-level (as a reference, K1 base camp is 7,800m). The area was large and hilly, and in my excitement then, I sprinted up one of the knolls for a panoramic view of the landscape.

On the journey back to the hotel that day, I became totally out of commission, and basically had to stay in bed for the rest of the day right up to the following morning.

I initially thought it had been motion-sickness from the winding roads but later realised it was most likely due to the lack of oxygen from the thin air.

Because the marathon was held in an area of high altitude, the race required a mandatory four-day, no-exertion acclimatisation process. No exercises, no jogging, no training, no hiking, just sitting back and relax.

Also, on the third day the doctors would make everyone run a short two kilometre stretch outdoors and take your heart rate at the end point. If it was too high or deemed dangerous, they had the right to revoke your participation on race day beyond contestation.

Following that incident I learned that:

You can try to test those limits, and if you are lucky, get away with it.

I also read later on that altitude sickness, if not managed properly, can result in potentially a life-and-death situation. It all made sense.

Before any race, every athlete knows to do sufficient interval trainings and regular runs with a gradual ramp up in distance and intensity.

By pushing your body in a short time and disrespecting the importance of progressive physical conditioning, you could end up as what we used to call a one-burst wonder: someone who would give his 100% during one race and then retire forever.

Even if you are an above-average fit person doesn't mean you can always push your body to extremes under a short period of time. To perform well for extended periods, one must follow an appropriate and natural course of physical conditioning.

"There appears to be a link between accelerated growth and lifespan: rapid growth early in life is associated with impaired later performance and reduced longevity" - Neil B Metcalfe, Pat Monaghan

Some studies on ecology talks about how bigger body sizes improve short-term survivability by reducing the risk of being caught by a larger predator.

In fact a bigger body size also increases the chances of successfully making a kill to get food. With size also comes the ability to accumulate energy reserves that reduces the risk of starvation. From a Darwinian perspective, it is only in the best interest to grow big as fast as possible.

This is not difficult to relate to. From big bullies to big companies, size does matter. Growing quickly maximises your chances of outperforming or eliminating the competition.

Yet, observations on lab mice and other animals have statistically shown that with rapid juvenile growth comes reduced lifespans in adult years.

Seems like any desire for rapid growth comes at a cost.

For example, Red Bull might "give you wings" but the energy surge from one drink can last for up to 4 hours before most people descend into withdrawal-like symptoms and 'crash' the rest of the day.

Also, performance enhancing drugs such as steroids have somewhat permanent damages on the body, years after those who use them have stopped.

These damages often result in the human body using up additional resources which could otherwise be directed towards the normal upkeep and functioning of the biological system.

Every sentient object follows a certain natural order of growth and size:

"Each animal, as a product of chance mutation and natural selection over geologic time, 'has a most convenient size'. We don’t expect, for example, to see cheetah-like elephants or elephant-like eagles in the wild, do we?" - J.B.S Haldane

But there are elephants that want to run like cheetahs, and cheetahs who want to fly like eagles.

In the business setting, Damodaran also talks about the importance of companies to 'act their corporate age' within the corporate finance cycle:

Young companies are all about growth.

Unless you have a legacy like a Walmart or a Coca-Cola, chances are the markets are pretty unforgiving towards 'small-ish' companies and those who demonstrate an unimpressive growth rate. Some large companies today continue to be unrelenting in the pursuit for innovative growth. As a result, ambitious sales and profit targets are drawn up to satisfy stakeholders.

More is good, bigger is better.

In today's market, it's extremely easy to enter the penalty box with a zero or negative growth rate. You get left behind easily once you stop moving. Growing up is indeed hard to do.

On the other hand, if you consume too much steroids to bulk up, you might do this at the expense of sustainability and sometimes even survivability.

A HBR article written in 1983 talks about how ineffective work delegation and poor management of cashflow increases the possibility of failure for companies in the "take-off" phase (Stage IV below).

Without a solid foundation of management, a firm that grows too quickly puts its operational hierarchy at risk. Delegation of responsibilities and work fail, resulting in higher costs, lower efficiencies, outflow of talent, higher requirements for working capital and therefore cash flow.

Source: HBR, "The Five Stages of Small Business Growth" |

In the worst case scenario, it may even result in a fallback to the Survival stage or fail.

"Companies are born, they mature, they decline. It's the nature of that process." - Damodaran

Like the laws of nature, there needs to be a healthy respect for the inner workings and dynamics of industry and markets. Knowing one's limits and when to lift or push the pedal on the accelerator is an inevitable truth that both businesses and individuals need to eventually come to terms with.


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