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Success and The Shrug Effect

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Isn’t it easy to point at someone really successful, listing the reasons why he’s so successful, but also the reasons he made it but you can’t?

We do this all the time. We see a famous CEO and point how “he took 5 companies public and got a Harvard MBA.” We see a successful children’s book author and point out how she already knew 4 publishers, so her book got published immediately. We point to Donald Trump and talk about how he had billions, so of course he could buy half of Manhattan, and we note that we’re already older than Michael Dell was when he was running Dell out of his dorm room.

And then we shrug. “What can we do?” “She has a Harvard MBA.” “They made it big, but they’re different than me.”

What a bunch of horseshit.

I want to talk about this today and try to challenge some of the assumptions we make.

When we list off the skills/resources that the successful person has–and we don’t–we do 2 things: First, we distance ourselves from that person, making them into something other than an ordinary, regular person. Second, we create an excuse for why we won’t achieve the same level of accomplishment. And then, in a textbook case of a self-fulfilling prophecy, we don’t.

But guess what?

CEOs don’t just magically flip a switch and start wearing a fancy suit one day, directing their staff to do this and that. Getting to the top isn’t about knowing how to execute a leveraged buyout, or negotiating anti-dilution provisions, or whatever. (This is true for both CEOs and other successful people in other domains!)

It starts earlier. For that CEO, it probably started when he took a paper route in junior high, or started a Web site in high school, or designed an interesting product in college. It started by knowing how to get in touch with the right people and learning–through lots of experience and failure–that senior executives are just people. They’re regular people who started their path to being extraordinary by taking small steps.

Once you’re at the top, your big successes are highlighted. But try getting into a candid discussion with anybody successful (I have) and they’ll tell you about the number of bumbling, small steps they took from an early age.

And that means you can start today.

Not surprisingly, not everybody agrees with me.

Two Very Different Responses
Recently, there was a post about business on Signals vs. Noise, one of the blogs I read. The topic was interesting, but what really stunned me was one of the comments:

…Americans are feed the same “two guys in a garage” story from a very young age, neglecting to mention the founders “true” background. We know that a Stanford grad is or will be successful no matter what type of business they are in.

(Emphasis mine.)

I saw this and almost fell off my chair. I absolutely, completely disagree, as do some of the commenters below that guy.

But let’s go deeper.

I predict that if you showed that comment to any Stanford student, she would scoff at it almost immediately because it answers the wrong question. Succeeding in life isn’t about graduating from Stanford–very few people do that. And lots of grads are not “successful” in business, either.

The real question is this: “What did those people do to get into Stanford?”

Was it innate intelligence? Was it a photographic memory? Probably not.

Instead, it was most likely taking small steps like starting a club in high school, getting good grades, and being active in the community. Sometimes, superstar intelligence plays a part; there’s no doubt about that. But that’s rare. Most of the time, my friends at Stanford were just very accomplished because they had started a while ago and had followed through.

* * *

So that’s one perspective: Pointing at someone successful, attributing it to external factors, and shrugging because you don’t have identical qualities. I call this The Shrug Effect.

As you can imagine, there’s another way.

I want to tell you a story about a guy named Jim English. Many of you know that I co-founded a wiki product called PBwiki. Well, when I started my series on personal entrepreneurship a few weeks ago, I used one of the posts to ask for interns to help make PBwiki bigger and better.

Jim English responded and, among the other applicants, he was the most passionate by far. So we brought him on board and gave him some small tasks. In just a couple of weeks, it’s become clear that Jim is a superstar. He’s taken high-level goals like “Make this site better” and he’s achieved real, measurable goals by going step-by-step. Now he gets much bigger projects and increasing responsibility. Actually, he’s such an asset that I plan to continue having him work with PBwiki and, eventually, I want to recruit him to other companies I’m involved with in the future.

So if you see Jim as a senior executive in the future, I suppose there are two reasons you can attribute to his success: Maybe it was his connections, pedigree, luck, superlative intelligence, blah blah blah that got him so far.

Or maybe it was him seeing something that interested him, stepping up, and taking a chance on an unknown project. Maybe it was curiosity. Maybe it was the small step of sending just one email.

It’s easy to do The Shrug Effect and attribute others’ success to qualities you don’t have, shrugging because you can’t equal them. But that’s simplistic, and it’s an excuse to stay in your current state and do nothing differently.

Be patient. Do things with uncertain outcomes. Analyze why you haven’t taken advantage of opportunities in the past (for example, why didn’t you apply for the PBwiki opportunity? Was it a fear of rejection/qualification? Was it simply a lack of interest?). And start today.

When you do, soon people will wonder about you and your success.

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  1. I couldn’t have started a website when *I* was in high school. Most people couldn’t get access to the web until 1994, and I was already in college.

    history of the internet and the world wide web

  2. Ramit, great post! I’m personally working on a new business, and for inspiration I always play the AC/DC song “It’s a long way to the top (if ya wanna rock ‘n roll). It might sound silly because hey…it’s AC/DC, what do they know about business, but it’s amazingly profound because it’s true. Any successful business out there was started by someone who spent the first few years battling it out in the trenches before it really started to take off, and it wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t always fun, and the future success they would eventually have wasn’t always certain, but they kept on pushing and eventually acheived that success. Just keep telling yourself that IT’S A LONG WAY TO THE TOP IF YA WANNA ROCK ‘N ROLL!!!

  3. i totally agree with your comment about the ‘shrug effect’. far too many people never take action and that and that alone is their biggest flaw.

    i received a moderate college education (which was not an easy task for me) at a california state university…a far stretch from stanford mind you…but i didn’t let that stop me from chasing my dream of working in the film industry (where we’re currently putting the coup de grace on KONG – two days to go!) or starting and maintaining the five websites i have going on the side. yes, five.

    the sentence where you mention “Maybe it was the small step of sending just one email.” really resonates with me because that is precisely what i did that got me a job and down to Antarctica for my second visit – the first time i paid a small fortune to see that magical wonderland. so yes, i sent a single e-mail to Raytheon stating EXACTLY what i wanted and clearly listed my qualifications. what did i have to lose? NOTHING. i let fate run it’s course – the successful hour long phone interview that happened a month later didn’t hurt either…but the fact remains that if i never sent that e-mail or took action, i’d still be doing the same ol shuck and jive zombie routine most of the public calls a life as they sleepwalk through it daily.

    ramit, i only stumbled across your blog a few days ago and so far i’m finding it very interesting. thank you and keep up the great work. peace.

  4. I keep thinking back to your post stating that we create our barriers.

    We also create the situations that we are in. Jim English created his successful relationship with you by recognizing what you needed and then charging at it with 100% of his effort and enthusiasm. No sitting around for him.



  5. Check out Malcolm Gladwell’s NYer article about Ivy League admissions. It points out that the critical success factor is not having graduated from a top college, but having gotten in in the first place. Which, of course, is some indicator of ambition, organization, etc.

  6. Looking back at missed opportunities is useful, so you don’t miss them next time they come around, but you shouldn’t dwell on them. It’s what you do today and in the future that will determine where you go. As such you should assess every opportunity that presents itself and the potential long-term gains that could be gotten from it before you turn it down.

    Good post, Ramit. I would also argue that looking back and wondering why you didn’t get into Ivy League etc is a bit self-defeating, because you can’t change the past. “Oh no, I wish I would have joined/started clubs in HS or done more volunteer work, etc” Only what you do in the present can determine your future. And some people hit this realization later than others… but it is never too late to get started.

  7. It is interesting that you include Donald Trump in this piece. I have just seen a quote from Donald Trump that says “Everything in life is Luck. End quote

  8. “Everything is life is Luck.”

    Yeah, but we make our own luck.

  9. I just stumbled across your website. Looks very interesting. Btw this article reminds me of the quote from my favorite book (Illusions): “Argue for your limitations and sure enough they are yours”.


  10. This is the first time I comment here, despite reading this blog many times (bookmarked in FireFox).

    Anyway, I really agree with Ramit. However, please do note that sometime luck does play a role.

    In Hollywood (or film business), sometime look play better role than acting ability. The latter you can train for, but the first is born with.

    There is a lot of people working to be succesfull, but not all people able to get there.

    I know one very succesfull guy who admit that luck in a way does really play a role. He sees a lot of people working as hard as he is, but without much opportunity, not many luck or too much bad luck.

    But in order to be succesfull, like Ramit says, we really need to prepare and work for it.

    There is a saying “better to be prepared and not have the opportunity than to have the opportunity and not prepared.”

    There is a lot of people preparing for success but not yet arrive there for lack of opportunity, just my 2 cent.