Survival of the Fittest, Only the Strong Survive – Really?

Survival of the Fittest, Only the Strong Survive – Really?

“Survival of the fittest” is a phrase that originated in evolutionary theory as an alternative (but less accurate) way of describing the mechanism of natural selection. It is more commonly used today in other contexts, to refer to a supposed greater probability that “fit” as opposed to “unfit” individuals will survive some test.

The phrase “survival of the fittest”, coined by Herbert Spencer, is not generally used by modern biologists as the term does not accurately describe the mechanism of natural selection as biologists conceive it. Natural selection is differential reproduction (not just survival) and the object of scientific study is usually differential reproduction resulting from traits that have a genetic basis under the circumstances in which the organism finds itself, which is called fitness, but in a technical sense which is quite different from the common meaning of the word. (Wikipedia)

Ok Julian, very interesting but what the heck are you on about now?!

Well, for years I’ve heard business people and entrepreneurs use the word ‘survival’ as a default term to suggest a baseline for existence or staying in business. And it got me thinking.

I watched 12 Years a Slave recently and there was clever line quite early on in the film that struck a cord with me.

“I don’t want to survive, I want to live” said the star of the movie when told by another slave that in order to survive he’d have to do whatever he was told.

Now the difference between our star and the other slaves around him (without giving away too much of the film in case you’ve not seen it) is that he was a regarded a ‘nobleman’ before he was kidnapped into slavery. That being the case, his baseline of existence wasn’t mere survival but living life to the full and all that it had to offer.



The saying ‘survival of the fittest’ though used today in a somewhat motivational sense I believe can actually have the opposite effect. You see the word survival suggests a lack of something for which we need to be fit enough to attain.

However, in reality, as we all know (or should know), there’s no true lack of customers, clients, business or opportunity because there are many who do thrive, others who struggle and those who just don’t make it. But it’s not because what we strive for doesn’t exist.

So why is focusing on survival detrimental?

Let’s have a look at the characteristics of a business who focuses on surviving and one that focuses on ‘living’.

A business focusing on survival is likely to:

  1. Cut their prices
  2. Get rid of staff
  3. Focus on the short term
  4. Cut down on their service or product offering
  5. Develop an uncertain, unstable environment for partners and employees

A business that focuses on ‘living’ is likely to:

  1. Increase their prices
  2. Get more resources
  3. Focus on the long term
  4. Add more value to their customers
  5. Develop a safe, progressive environment for partners and employees

Now, the key thing to realise is that in both scenarios each company may be generating the SAME revenues and profit but ACT differently.  One may want to operate like a nobleman within it’s sector, another a slave to its sector.

All subtleties aside the only overarching difference is perspective!


So to wrap up what’s the point here.

The way your company or venture acts is what it will become. Sound too philosophical? Maybe, but what’s the philosophy of your company, venture or startup? Is it to just survive and get by day to day, or is it to live to a grand old age and enjoy every minute of it.

Answers on a postcard to @theultrapreneur

Julian ‘The Ultrapreneur’ Hall is a serial entrepreneur and #1 best selling author of ‘Entrepreneur to Ultrapreneur‘. The founder of UltraEducation, a company that teaches entrepreneurship in primary (@UltraKidsClub) and secondary schools. 

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