Before you get worked up about my elitist headline, please read on – you might be pleasantly surprised. I’ve written before about how most people drift through life, not doing much apart from consuming other people’s output. Well, just recently those thoughts were running through my mind again and I started to wonder: who is actually adding value to the world? I’ve said here before that our activities don’t have to be profit-making, only that they have to be useful to society. If you’re doing something that is dead-end and adds no value to anyone, then think about trying something else. Chances are you are using up the world’s scarce resources and giving nothing back.

Hence my title: the one per cent of people who make a positive contribution, whether that’s creating jobs or works of art, being of service to individuals or society, inventing new products or discovering new ways of doing things – whatever, as long as it’s useful. If you are doing that, congratulations, and please keep on doing it. Even better if you can encourage others to do the same: bring them along on the journey and enjoy the results. 

Imagine what our workplaces could be like if even a majority of people were really engaged and interested in doing the very best they can. Instead, so often we have to put up with mediocre performance – and for some countries in our region, to be blunt, that’s the expectation. Those countries will likely find themselves stuck in what’s known as the ‘middle income trap’ – not smart enough to become rich with value-added products and services, and too expensive in terms of labour to compete with other, cheaper countries.

Part of the problem can be traced back to education systems that encourage rote learning and conformity. That doesn’t, in general, lead to innovative workforces. Instead we are left with people who can be trained to perform tasks, but not much else. If your education was nothing like that, you are lucky – and have a much better chance of being in the one per cent.  It’s difficult when your whole life you’ve been told to conform, to suddenly break out of that and become analytical and self-critical, looking for the best ways of doing things and not being happy with ‘the way it’s always been done’. 

If you are bumping up against that, please ask: why? The more we question, the more likely we are to see improvements in society and, subsequently, our standards of living. But we have to do this ourselves. Even just taking small steps is better than nothing. And by doing this, you increase your chances of contributing. Welcome to the One Per Cent!

As usual, let me know if you have any particular topic you would like to see covered here.

Gary Woollacott is an executive search consultant who works for Horton International in Vietnam, Thailand and Laos.  He can be reached at +84 8 3910 7682 or via woollacott@hortoninternational.com.