Aggregation of Marginal Gains

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Written by Agatha

May 21, 2020

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Dave Brailsford is known for having popularized the concept of aggregation of marginal gains which he described as ‘the 1% margin for improvement in everything you do.

He used this concept to improve the performance of professional cyclists in Great Britain when he was hired as the Performance Director. The cyclists had endured decades of average performance and hadn’t won a race in the famous Tour de France in 110 years.

Dave Brailsford had just been handed a challenging job. To improve the team’s performance, he used the aggregation of marginal gains concept.

He said, “The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improve it by 1 per cent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.”

Some of the tiny adjustments he made for his team are:

  • Redesigned the bike seats to make them more comfortable.


  • Rubbed alcohol on the tyres for better grip.


  • Riders were asked to wear electrically heated overshorts. This maintained ideal muscle temperature while riding.


  • Used biofeedback sensors to monitor how each athlete responded to a particular workout.


  • They tested various fabrics in a wind tunnel and had their outdoor riders switch to indoor racing suits. The indoor racing suits were lighter and more aerodynamic.


  • Tested different types of massage gels to see which one led to the fastest muscle recovery.


  • Hired a surgeon to teach each rider the best way to wash their hands to reduce the chances of catching a cold.


  • Determined the type of pillow and mattress that led to the best night’s sleep for each rider.


  • Painted the inside of the team truck white. This helped them spot little bits of dust that would normally slip by unnoticed but could degrade the performance of the finely tuned bikes.


In 5 years, the British cycling team dominated major cycling events such as the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing (they won 60% of the gold medals in this one) and set 9 Olympic records and 7 world records in the Olympic Games in London in 2012.

Between 2012 and 2017, the British team won 5 Tour de France races out of the 6. In 10 years, they bagged 178 world championships and 66 Olympic medals. This is referred to as the ‘most successful run in cycling history.’

I read the story in James Clear’s Atomic Habits book but later found the full documentary on YouTube here.

The effects of these tiny improvements accumulated with time. Stellar results came faster than the team could have imagined. Same way compound interest works in favour of people who start investing early.

‘Baby steps’ is my favourite approach when it comes to personal finance. And this is exactly what Dave and his team of coaches did in the above case study.

I often talk about it in this money series because it has worked and continues to work for me in building a better life financially.

Which brings me to today’s rant. Yes, today I get to rant.

A rant on black tax

Picture this: You have this relative. A very close relative for that matter. Not those cousin of the cousin of the uncle related through marriage. Nah, blood relative. You have tried to help. By providing monetary support. Enough to start a small sustainable business. You have also supported in other non-monetary ways to the best of your ability. Sometimes to a point of denying yourself luxuries in order to do so.

The struggle is the fact that this person will often not put effort into growing this business. They will not take time to keep proper business records despite being taught how to. Will often take loans against the business which other family members, you included, are required to pay. Or rather you’re emotionally manipulated to pay.

I was ranting to my friend on the same issue because we’ve realized that it’s a common theme in families, especially in black households. There’s always that one or more family member who refuses to do the work required to get themselves out of poverty or significantly improve themselves financially.

When you send them money, they will call it small money. When they make money from their small business, they will often call it small money. They will say it’s not enough.

‘Niliona ni pesa kidogo na hainisaidii’ (I realized that it’s small money and it’s not adding any value)

‘God blesses one family member so that they can bless the rest.’

These are some of the things you’ll often hear.

They will waste the ‘small money’, then expect another person to come through for them.

“People who grow up in poverty often think that small money is not money, even for people who’ve had the privilege of formal education.” my friend said.

Which leads me to the second bit of my rant. Apart from deciding that the person who’s willing to help is sending them small money, they will assume that the person has a shitload of money. Unlimited money, in fact.

Forgetting that a lot of times, people who sacrifice to help us don’t do it because they have extra money or because they have no use for the money, they do it because they’re kind. They recognize that they’re somewhat privileged.

That they would love to see their families and friends prosper because life is better when more of us have money. It means that you’ll have a bigger pool of people to borrow from if need be, more progressive conversations will be had, and it paves way for generational wealth.

And when you ask the same people to invest in something that gives them a 7% per annum return, they will immediately start telling you how that’s a small return. That it’s small money. Sometimes, they will derail such investment conversations by saying that the returns are too low, that they’d make more money by starting bigger businesses; which are often Ponzi schemes.

Yet for you who can somewhat afford to help, you actually invested in that small return. And waited for your money to grow through compounding.

You budgeted.

Fought your way out of the fangs of debt.

Recorded every purchase.

Lived below your means.

Put in extra hours at work.

Took up extra shifts at work.

Constantly reminded yourself to delay gratification.

Relentlessly fought the urge to upgrade your lifestyle.

You read multiple books.

Asked for advice from people who have a better grip on their finances.

Which is why you can afford stuff now and can afford to help.

There’s also the issue of the receiver of the help refusing to be empathetic. They choose to see you as a money machine. As somebody who doesn’t need support as they do. It may not be financial, but if there’s anything I’ve learnt in this personal finance journey, is that trust is also a currency. You tend to give more to people who give two-shits about your well-being. People who genuinely care. People, who actually want to hear your answer when they ask you ‘how are you doing?’

We all have challenges. But because they’re not empathetic towards your set of challenges, they will never get to know your pain. They can’t understand the pain of a situation they haven’t been through.

Your debts will often go by unpaid. Why? You have money.

There’s always a tinge of entitlement when they ask for money, one that is always laced with a lack of gratitude.

And the worst part is, you will often be described as ‘strong.’ To mean that you can handle the most difficult of situations. Even those that could be a bit easier had these people taken a minute to try walk in your shoes.

So, at what point are we allowed to refuse this ‘you’re a strong person’ label? When can we openly show that internally we’re barely surviving?

I watched an episode of Financial Confessions where Ashley C. Ford was talking about her mum always responding emotionally when she says no to her money requests. She finally had to make peace with it and often tells her ‘I will not make myself broke to help you. Two broke people cannot help each other.’ It may sound harsh but before you judge, watch the conversation here.

And that’s why you need boundaries especially if you’re susceptible to ‘woiye stories.’ There’s only so much helping one can do. You cannot bail out everyone.

To help effectively, don’t give money you have budgeted for investment. Don’t give away your future. You are your number one responsibility. But I have to say that this is easier said than done. But we have to learn.

It takes a lot of work to make sense of your finances. Hours and hours of work. Reading and rereading. Messing up and picking yourself up. It’s not a miracle. It’s an honourable thing to do the work, to live within your means, to pay your debts and be grateful.

And it’s also important to always remember the opposite of aggregation of marginal gains exists. It’s called the aggregation of marginal losses. Without supportive family and friends, you will often feel like you’re taking two steps forward and three backwards. It’s a painful place to be.

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