The APM Principle – what StarCraft teaches us about real life success

by Ivan Mazour

starcraft2_logoHow many things do you think you can do in an hour? How many problems can you locate, think through, come up with a solution to, and then actually solve in this short time? Stop and think about this, and get into your head a figure that you think is reasonable.

What if I told you the answer was 30,000. Would you think that was ridiculous? I certainly would. We live life with a mindset determined by our experiences and our surroundings, and hence each one of us has our own understanding of what is and isn’t reasonable. Clearly 30,000 logic-related decisions and actions in an hour is an absurd expectation – one that no one would take seriously.

This was my outlook, just like all other beginners, when they first play a game called StarCraft. A highly acclaimed real-time strategy game – a dynamic and convoluted extension of chess, as it were – StarCraft has a number of difficulty settings with the harder ones being quite a challenge. When you master playing against the computer you have the option of playing human opponents, and it is this that has made the game so successful.

The first time you play against a human opponent, you simply cannot comprehend how they crush you, not by a tiny margin, but so decisively that there seems no way to be able to compete against them. As with everything, the next port of call is Google, to try and work out how to play better, and as you search you come across something that is, in the true definition of the word, incredible.

That is a real video. The person in it is not hitting random buttons – everything he does is calculated and for a reason. This is not like memorising a pattern for one of those music beat-matching games, where you see videos of people hitting thousands of buttons on a controller or on a plastic guitar – this is someone actively reacting to a strategic and tactical situation. His mind, and his hands, are genuinely working that quickly. His APM – actions per minute – gets up to 500 at its peak, meaning that he is managing to react to and act on 30,000 problems in the course of one hour.

Without seeing this, without taking some time to let it truly sink in, there would be no way to believe that this was possible. The standard to which one can aspire can be set high, but this is many orders of magnitude beyond what any normal person would have come up with. And yet once you see someone do this, you goalposts are immediately set at that level, and your mindset is readjusted.

I’ve written before about my time at Cambridge. Few people arriving there expect 10-14 hour days of mathematics, including weekends and holidays, to be possible, let alone reasonable. But seeing everyone around you doing it, what you expect of yourself changes, and you successfully do what you wouldn’t have even considered possible before.

So imagine if we apply the “APM Principle” to everything we do. Imagine that we pause to consider what we are trying to achieve in life, work out what we are doing in order to achieve it, and then simply add some orders of magnitude onto our approach. It doesn’t matter if we think it’s possible or not – we’ve already seen that our minds don’t always comprehend how much we can really do. So instead, we just do it. Take what is reasonable, and then do a thousand times more.

I’ve just invested in a company that is valued at £3m without anything – no product, no unique technology, and a in a highly competitive industry. Another company I invested in raised $2m in seed funding half way through last year, without any product either, and less than a year later has just raised $8m at a post-money valuation of $20m. The founders of these companies understand the APM principle. While others spend years waiting for an incremental salary increase, or growing a small business over many decades, they set their target on generating value worth tens of millions in just a few months, and then they go out and actually do it.


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Dee April 10, 2013 - 10:51 am

Being a Gaming inspired company both this story and it’s implications are close to my heart. I like what you say about your time at Cambridge as I myself found a very big change in the way I worked after surrounding myself by high achievers.

It’s strange how even yesterday at a conference I mingled with the ‘high achievers’ while those others were too scared to make the approach. Mindset is so important and sometimes just being around people with the right mindset brings about massive positive change. What then frustrates me, is being around people who think much slower then you… but then that is a whole other article!

Ivan Mazour April 10, 2013 - 4:42 pm

There needs to be a solution about what to do when you are a situation where people think slower. This doesn’t necessarily correlate with intelligence, but with the lifestyle they have chosen for themselves, and I always find myself finishing sentences for people who don’t speak fast enough. It is an interesting challenge to train yourself to have patience in those situations, but the ultimate solution is to surround yourself by people who think faster, and always push you to keep up.


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