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15 Little Life Hacks

How to win any competition you enter

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I always love when people don’t try for something because they’re sure they won’t get it.

  • “I’m not going to apply to XYZ College…I’ll never get in, and even if I did, I could never afford it.”

  • “There’s no way I would ever get that job…you need 10 years of experience.”

  • “What? Enter that contest? There are probably 5,000 other people doing it.”

YES! THEY’RE RIGHT! They’re never going to win…because they already eliminated themselves from any consideration.

One of the best principles I’ve ever learned is, “Don’t do their job for them.” Let the admissions committee reject you, if they decide you’re not right. Don’t do their job for them.

Your job is to apply and give yourself every advantage in winning. But the fear of rejection makes most of us not even want to step to the plate.

I’ve written about this in the Craigslist Penis Effect. That’s when other people are so terrible that you win just by simply being “adequate.” It’s one of the ways I managed to win $100,000+ in college scholarships to pay my way through undergrad and grad school at Stanford. And to get my own phrase listed on UrbanDictionary. My parents are so proud.

Today, I’ve invited Jay Cross, creator of DIY Degree and my former editor, to share a fascinating new framework on changing the way you think about taking risks.

I love his approach because so many top performers intuitively do this — but he’s written it down into a usable framework for us all. When you hear yourself saying, “Eh…I could never never get that,” you can use Jay’s strategies to reconceptualize the way you think about risk and success.

Put another way: Let others select themselves out of the race, while you can push through your barriers and win.

Here’s Jay.

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I’m going to let you in on the best-kept secret of competing.

If five hundred people enter a contest, maybe ten of them will be truly world-class. The rest filter themselves out for you. Meaning if you really dedicate yourself, you only have to beat ten people!

I call this model (illustrated below) “The Continuum of Doers.”

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Thinking this way lets you turn demoralization into inspiration — and truly surprise yourself. Let me show you how.

My first confrontation with the Continuum of Doers

Back in 2008, Ultimate Guide to Google AdWords author Perry Marshall posted job ads for two new positions. I wanted one of them. Yet these were not typical “send me your resume” ads. They were contests. And before you could even apply, Perry charged $25, non-refundable application fees to everyone who wanted in.

I will never forget how people reacted.

Faced with even a tiny obstacle, most people backpedaled. Check out some of their whiny comments:

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A handful of others complained in agreement. Not me.

“SWEET,” I thought. “These guys quit before the race even started!”

But that was just the tip of the iceberg.

“Wait a second,” I realized. “This is a continuum within a continuum. If five people were angry enough to complain, what if dozens more just silently gave up? I might actually have a shot!”

Perry later estimated that hundreds would have applied without that fee. Instead just eighteen did: the ones who really believed they could win. Five were rejected for sloppy applications. The remaining thirteen were assigned an unpaid project, causing three more to drop out (weren’t so committed after all.)

Of the ten who completed their projects, six were merely “respectable,” in Perry’s words.

Only four finalists of the starting eighteen did “excellent” work. I was one of them.

The winner was chosen by taking the “mini-products” each of us finalists created, offering them for sale to Perry’s readers, and hiring whoever sold the most.

The other three were professional copywriters aged 35 or older. One worked at Google. I was a 21 year old college kid with barely any experience.

I didn’t win. But I did make it to the final round when many better-qualified applicants (including an “editor of newspapers, magazines, and books”) couldn’t even crack the first. My skills didn’t take me there. My approach did.

Instead of pouting, I studied the winner’s work. I compared his strategy to mine and noted what he did better. Six months later, when legendary copywriter John Carlton held a similar hiring contest, I won handily.

Three years after that, Ramit hired me at IWT — largely because of my work with Carlton. All of these experiences, in turn, spawned The DIY Degree. I couldn’t have foreseen any of this in 2008. But in hindsight, a single contest that I chose to see differently sparked a series of life-changing events.

Like Steve Jobs said, “You can only connect the dots looking backward.” The complainers will never know where their dots might have led them.

Tragic.

Every barrier “thins the herd” for you

What does this all mean?

It means other people can be “better” than you on paper (higher GPA, faster lap time, stronger resume, etc.) without hustling, executing, or selling themselves to the top.

I pushed myself in Perry’s contest because I knew most people wouldn’t and that alone gave me a great chance to win.

I literally CELEBRATED the barriers (the application fee, the unpaid project, etc) for the drop-offs they foreshadowed. Every barrier was another chance to leave people in the dust.

You can use this framework to pump yourself up for anything, including the “impossible” competitions.

Let’s look at the continuum of professional baseball players.

In a given year…

  • 2,000,000 kids play in little league

  • 455,000 kids play in high school

  • 25,000 kids play in college

  • 1,500 kids get drafted by MLB teams

The craziest part? Not even the drafted players are guaranteed to make it. The adjustment to pro ball filters even more players out. Most of them “peak” in the minors, never stepping foot inside a big league batter’s box. In fact, at any given time, only 750 players are dressed in uniform on a major league team’s 25-man roster.

Of course, now that you know about the Continuum of Doers, you should know ability isn’t the only filter. Big leaguers aren’t just the most talented: they were also the hardest workers, emotionally stable, team players, likely had supportive parents, stayed clear of legal trouble, etc.

Put another way: plenty of sufficiently talented players wash out, clearing the way for less talented players to outshine them on less obvious (but still important) dimensions. That’s where your opportunity is.

Consider these examples:

  • Getting into top schools. Every applicant has a perfect GPA. But how many can write an arresting essay on why Harvard should invest in THEM? Far fewer. Admissions officers actually complain about how imitative and cookie-cutter most essays are.

  • Landing dream jobs. Everyone is a “detail-oriented team player” in search of meaningful work. But how many speak the hiring manager’s language to separate themselves from the pack? English majors don’t have to finish last if they understand this.

  • Writing guest posts. “A-list” bloggers get pitched daily. But how many of those pitches are brief and specific and original and considerate of what’s in it for the blogger and do all the work for the blogger and align with the blogger’s audience? Hardly any.

Want more proof? Check out Ramit’s post on using tiny barriers to avoid kooks:

Before, I used to hand out my card and tell [prospective PBwiki interns] to get in contact. Maybe 10% would. (This is already a dismal follow-up rate for a group that self-selected themselves to go up and ask for someone’s card.) Now, I hand out my card and tell them this: “Yes, definitely! Here, take my card and get in touch. Just make your own wiki first and then email me. We can talk about what you’d want to improve.”

New response rate? Maybe 2%. When I ask them to do something really trivial (creating a wiki takes 10 seconds), in other words, 80% of the people who used to contact me drop off the face of the earth. But the people who do get in touch are far more interested and better qualified.

Of course they are. The 8% who didn’t follow through weren’t serious or assumed they wouldn’t get hired or both. The other 2% knew better. That’s the pool business owners hire from.

Do what it takes to be in that pool.

The Continuum of Doers in your life

One more thing: some people mistake this framework for the oft-repeated quote that “half of life is just showing up.” There’s legitimacy in that idea, but you can never control outcomes, only probabilities. So the Continuum of Doers is NOT saying you just need to show up. Rather, it says that if you…

  1. Identify the specific barriers that trip other people up (it could be body language, the ability to meet deadlines, even the way you word emails)

  2. Systematically improve yourself in each of those areas

…then your chances of succeeding are higher than you ever dreamed possible.

Jay Cross is the founder of The Do-It-Yourself Degree and helps thousands of independent learners graduate faster for less. His college acceleration strategies have been featured by Fox Business, Huffington Post, Popular Mechanics, Brazen Careerist, The Personal MBA, and UnCollege.org.
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40 Comments

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  1. […] How to win any competition you enter is a post from: I Will Teach You To Be Rich. […]

  2. This is a great article! Too many people cut themselves down and out of competitive situations just because they are not sure of themselves. If you don’t succeed the first time try try again!

    • Just remember this when you apply for a job… A lot of people can’t even pass a drug test these days. So if you are applying for a position that has 100 applicants, 50 of them probably can’t even pass the drug test. If you don’t do drugs you’re already ahead of the game!

  3. I agree that it is very important for people not to loose faith in their ability to succeed. As long as you learn from your mistakes and move forward with them, there is no reason why you shouldn’t succeed!

  4. This is very good advice. I am a firm believer that anything is possible as long as you put your mind and energy towards your goal.

  5. Self confidence plays a huge role in success. If there is enough determination behind a goal, there is no reason why it couldn’t be reached. Thanks for sharing with us!

  6. Such a great article. I can relate – earlier this year I won Tim Ferriss’ $10K Memory Challenge (the task was to learn to memorize the order of a shuffled 52 card deck in under 1 minute). I remember the night I saw the blog post announcing the challenge, I seriously thought “Somebody will win. Why the hell not me?”. Practiced for 5 days straight and managed to score the prize. Fastest $10,000 I have earned in my life. I am still in slight disbelief. Later I spoke to Ed Cooke, who co-organized the challenge and he confirmed that only a small percentage of the 5000 people who started the challenge actually proceeded to practice beyond the first day.

  7. Ramit/Jay-

    Have you ever read Cyril Parkinson’s essay on how to run a competitive selection? The gist is that ideally you should set the parameters of the competition such that only one person applies, whom you ultimately select. This post reminded me of that essay (which was exaggerated for humorous effect), but from the other side.

    • I have not read that essay but I have a feeling I will love it. Will dig it up now. Thanks for the tip!

  8. Gr8 article. Very interesting perspective to have.

    Thanks for enlightening us.

  9. Another example I wish I included in the post: videos on YouTube.

    Look at any video series with three parts. An interview, clips from a TV show, anything. You will invariably see the number of views tail off from the first, second, and third videos until something like 1/4 of those who started actually make it through to the end.

  10. Very cool approach to changing your perspective on barriers… I’m incredibly commitment averse so I can relate to just not bothering. I mean, I have been out of work for a while and have stubbornly refused to go meet managers face to face because I somehow feel that doing that for the mere chance to get a no-skills-required job is beneath me. I even know it’s counterproductive and stupid. I find it very confusing.. but hey, at least now I know how to win the next competition that offers up a career path that I’m actually interested in!

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