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The psychology of making huge career jumps

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Some observations on making huge career jumps, your friends, and your own psychology…

It’s easy to go through your career taking the same paths others did before you. But small, simple tweaks can make a huge difference in your lifetime.

One of my readers, Alexander, writes:

“I’m reviewing NIH grant proposals right now and seeing your tweets made me think of something that might interest you — doing the “expected” career progression instead of the one that makes sense. Typically, biologists who want to do research as a career go to grad school ($22K annual stipend; I did this part and learned a tremendous amount) for 5-6 years and then do a postdoctoral fellowship ($40K salary; ridiculously low wages for someone who is now a subject matter expert in their research area) for up to 6 more years before becoming assistant professors ($65-70K or so starting). I skipped that postdoc stage and I’m currently a 33-year-old “senior scientist” with my own research grants, etc (the normal age for that career point is about 42). Although there’s certainly the usual mix of luck and me maximizing my exposure to luck in my having leapfrogged that whole postdoc phase, the thing that I find really jarring is this:

When I talk to friends and acquaintances who are going through grad school now, they frequently don’t even want to entertain the possibility of making this kind of “jump” themselves. I’ve tried to pitch them on it, and been told, “It doesn’t work that way.” When I offer myself as proof, I’m told, “You’re a special case.”

I though that might interest you, given your appreciation for the psychology of success. I’ve personally found it a little tiring, although I have realized that the set of peers I chose to spend time with in grad school match my outlook, which makes sense — I picked positive, productive friends (who are now doing quite well in positions at consulting firms and major biotech companies). Still, I find it odd that people don’t like the idea of jumping ahead if it’s demonstrably possible.”

Few things I’ve noticed:

  • I used to hear friends complain about money, and I would rush to tell them what to do. Even when I knew the objective “right” answer, they never, ever listened to me. Instead, their eyes glazed over and they ignored me. Eventually I started resenting them for not listening (which is a ridiculous reaction on my part). After 1.5 years of this, I decided to implement what I called the Honey Pot Strategy, where I let the right people come to me, via this blog. It has been a miraculous change. People are smart: Only the right people come, and the wrong people realize this site isn’t for them, and leave (that’s why I don’t mind when people say they’re unsubscribing from this site). Read more: Bob Bly, the noted copywriter, writes about why he never gives unsolicited advice.
  • People feel comfortable putting others into buckets. “Oh, you study economics” or “Ah, you’re a product manager.” I do it. You do it. We all do. But when you start doing something “weird” like doing a side job, or earning $1,000 on the side, or even doing a free internship, people generally get uncomfortable. There are a variety of reasons for this, but the most important result is that it makes us question what we’re doing. Yet if you think about it, why would you care what people who are not doing what you want to do say? The reason, of course, is we are profoundly social, and our reference groups are broad. Even if I think your job sucks, you’re still my friend, and I’m still influenced by your judgment. In some of my advanced courses, I teach people how to deal with this.
  • Doing offbeat, “weird” things early in our careers can produce huge rewards. Witness this blog, my comedy blog “Things I Hate,” or even the “You have died of Dysentery” t-shirt that I created. None were created to make money. Yet each one played a pivotal role in opening up doors. The challenging thing about doing offbeat, weird things is that there’s potentially huge upside, but you don’t know for sure. In general, people don’t like doing things that don’t have a clear ROI, especially as they get older. That’s why people consistently ask, “Can you guarantee I’ll make $1,000 in Earn1k? How do you KNOW that taking people out to lunch will work?” You don’t know. Otherwise everyone would do it.

 


See how Jeff Bezos thinks about doing weird, offbeat things in his regret minimization framework.

I cover specific tactics in my writings on entrepreneurship, my entrepreneurship bookmarks, and my Earn1k course.

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54 Comments

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  1. I had been looking for a new post! I really like this post…classic Ramit and, of course, thought provoking. We really are only bounded by what we think we can do. Thanks for the reminder :)

  2. How did alexander the scientist leapfrog the post-doc stage and go straight to assistant professor? I’m very curious as how he did so!

  3. Interesting blog post! The links were the best part. I may use a couple of these for an upcoming post. ;) (Of course I will credit you.)

    Love Bezos. He really understood that he needed to take the leap. Most do not have the courage.

    -Erica

  4. It’s great that Alexander found something that works for him, but this post is misleading. It is highly unlikely he will *ever* get a tenure-track position. He’s not an assistant professor, he’s a research scientist. It’s very difficult to step outside of the traditional track of academia for a period of time and then get back on it later.

    Though it’s great that he’s earning a decent salary at 33, he’ll probably never be a tenured professor, and there are certain undeniable benefits that come from that (complete job security, respect). If he’s decided he doesn’t want that, it’s cool, but all those people spending 6 years on postdocs are working towards a very different goal than the one he obtained.

  5. A lot of people don’t want to get constructive advice from people who actually succeeded. They come up with ways to avoid being taught and led into the correct direction.

    I also know from personal experience that doing other things early in your life, outside the social norms, can lead to expertise in different fields – which become very handy in allowing you to make career jumps.

  6. Wow, I know biologists in their 5th year of Post Doc and I am really curious how Alexander made it…

  7. So right about putting people in buckets. Also, if you don’t fit the description of what people think that you should be doing with your life you make people uncomfortable and even hostile. Part of it is jealousy, and part of it is our crab-like nature to pull back others we think are getting “ahead” of us.

  8. Ramit asked me to pop by and comment. Briefly, I think I’ve benefited from being open-minded about career options; when I finished grad school I looked into several postdoc opportunities, interviewed with consulting firms, and just nosed around and ended up where I am now. I think it generalizes to ‘not assuming things need to happen in a certain way.’ By being open to more options, I’ve exposed myself to a lot more ‘good luck.’

    I applied for independent research grants (R01 and its NSF equivalents, if that’s not gibberish to you) starting at age thirty, with the encouragement of my boss. Note that part — I have benefited immensely from working around positive, encouraging people who will try to make things happen rather than say that they can’t. I know some postdocs get stuck with advisers who view the postdoc’s progression as a threat. It doesn’t make any real sense, but it happens.

    The first two tries tanked pretty badly, then I took a course on proposal writing and the third try stuck. I think in general, I’ve benefited from being willing to try things that may seem “beyond my current position.”

    And it’s best not to get stuck on the lingo here. I’m not a “senior scientist” in the sense it’s sometimes used at biotech companies to mean “engineering lead”, anymore than a faculty member at any typical research institute (say, Scripps) is. From what I’ve seen from other people who’ve taken this career track, if you do want to go for a university job later on, they don’t care whether you postdoc’ed or not — one of my colleagues just took a tenure-track academic position, and I know people from consulting firms who have gone on to academic jobs. They care if your professional history tells them you’ll make things happen.

    All things considered, this isn’t nearly so odd a career track. Think of Jane Goodall – she never did an undergraduate degree!

  9. Boy this is a breath of fresh air, I especially like the “Honey Pot Strategy” I get burnt out with my business and blog trying to win over people who just don’t seem to understand – often the old business model is if you keep hammering away you’ll get the client but I have always wondered if you really want the client you have to force into your point of view.

    Thanks for this!

  10. There’s nothing more that disappoints me than wasted potential.

    And something I’ve been slowly learning is what you talk about with the honey pot method. People don’t like to be told they’re making bad decisions if they didn’t ask for help. Completely understandable. And it’s been hard for me to ‘untrain’ myself to take action with my friends who I see are having problems. I’ve come to accept that most of them want to complain more than take action and now I use the honey pot method. It’s certainly made my life easier.

  11. I agree very much with all three.

    I used to dish out advice unsolicited. Then I realized, the person didn’t ask because that person didn’t want it. No surprise they didn’t listen.

    I’ve made a habit of spending time with people that support my goals, help me accomplish them, and challenge me to outperform my expectations. In turn, I do the same for them. That has made a huge difference. When I have a new idea for entrepreneurship, career advancement, or even an off the beaten path vacation, my friends and mentors take it seriously and offer helpful feedback. That makes a huge different in how you leverage your network and stay motivated.

  12. I totally dig your “Honey Pot Strategy”. I gotta admit I sometimes have to resist the temptation to give unsolicited advice to others, especially when I see them doing something “wrong”. But then again, as what Bob Bly said, people don’t value advice when they didn’t ask for it, and they also value it if it’s free. How true.

    Jeff Bezos totally nailed it with his regret minimization framework. He had a profound idea about quitting a job in the middle of the year and missing the annual bonus. Seth Godin said that, if you put off quitting for one more day, you’re one day further from your goal. Jeff definitely lives up to that.

    It actually all comes back to the idea that we’re more afraid of losing something, compared to the opportunities of gaining something. And the longer you stay in your current situation, the harder it is for you to get out of it. If you want to do something great, do it ASAP before you have a chance to doubt yourself.

    I also love the idea of knowing you will die anyway so just do what you want to do (watch this video from a lovely poet who passed away, she left a very powerful message: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gePQuE-7s8c), but Jeff put a new angle to it and say you should minimize the regrets you will have at age 80. That’s refreshing, at least you don’t have to think about dying all the time! +D

    Thanks Ramit and Alexander!

  13. Alex, as a grad student I am glad to hear that someone out there didn’t default to taking a post-doc position (From most of my peers, it appears that a post-doc is their “safety net” when no other options are available, or a necessary step towards tenure track faculty positions).

  14. As someone with some experience in academia, let me add my own two cents: earn your jumps.

    That is, skip your postdoc because you’ve stood out so much as a grad student that colleges will hire you directly. Don’t do it just for the sake of being different. Put another way, if you don’t have people telling you that you could get away with skipping a step, you’re probably not good enough yet to justify it.

    That being said, as I discussed in my guest post here a few months back, there’s a lot of flexibility in academia to get good much faster than your peers. Set strict time limits. Focus on only what’s vitally important and ignore the rest. Find niches that are relatively unexplored, then obsessively master them. Etc.

    That is, the unconventional approach to grad student life and beyond is not to change what steps you follow, but to change how you follow them.

  15. A brief response to the other “Cal” who, in the comment above, said that: “From most of my peers, it appears that a post-doc is their “safety net”.”

    That’s false. In quite a few fields the post-doc is a more or less required, and for good reason, it’s where crucial skills are built that are necessary, for example, to run a research lab as a tenure-track process is expected to do.

  16. Thanks for sharing, Ramit and Alexander. I often think of the old addage “Nobody steps on the same river twice.” when I read of success stories. Let’s keep in mind that “best practices” are good for the average and terrible for specific situations. This doesn’t mean that Alex’s success can’t be re-created by someone who wants to be involved in research; just that the journey will definitely be different and the walls may be higher or lower…

  17. Boy, oh boy. This hit a nerve. I was in a prestigious undergrad program that works to steadily feed actors into either theatre graduate schools or into the League of Regional Theatre touring shows. When graduation approached, I finished my degree and jumped off of that track. I’m sure glad I did. I make more money because I’m doing my own thing, and I get to do shows that I’m really interested in artistically.

    Of course, I’m not on Broadway…but that’s okay with me.

  18. @Cal – I absolutely agree with not skipping “just to be different.” That said, I have seen so many postdocs who learn nothing at all about running a research lab from their postdoctoral experience — they’re just very affordable, highly skilled expert labor for another research lab. Ideally, one’s postdoctoral experience would include mentorship, active support for writing grant proposals, and a very active push by your PI to get you out there. In practice, I haven’t seen this happen nearly as often as it should.

    But I don’t think Ramit cared about this as a “how to get ahead in science” story. It’s more that it’s weird how people straight-up deny that opportunities /can/ exist. I find that weird, too. My normal response to realizing that someone has short-circuited a normal process in some way is, “You can do that? How can I do that?” rather than “You can’t do that.” It’s useful in experimental design, too — there are lots of people out there who may have a better idea than I do about how to do my next experiment. Why wouldn’t I listen to them?

  19. @Alex:

    I encounter the same weird denial when advising students on study strategies. They seem more invested in complaining about the bad professor/stupidity of the system/etc. than they are in actually figuring out how to study better.

    That being said, a danger I feel lurking in the lifestyle design-arena is an emphasis on “standing up to conventions” and “being bold” over the reality that regardless of your path, if you’re not really good at something people value, no one cares. I know this wasn’t your point or Ramit’s point, but a lot of readers will probably come away with that message.

  20. @Cal – Agreed. It’s never about magical ways to do things. I ask questions all the time because you can really ambush yourself in experimental design if you don’t. I’ve had so many conversations about proposed research with an expert on the topic where they said, “Of course, as you know…” and saved me from a big mistake.

    But yeah, the point is definitely that people find a comfort zone in sitting and complaining (“My advisor sucks!”) rather than doing something.

  21. Oh man. I wasted way too much of my valuable time trying to help people that would either a. Rather complain or b. Look for an easy solution. I invest in stocks. But I do not write about this on my blog nor do I discuss this with friends. The other day a friend found out that a bunch of us our planning another trip. Instead of focusing on saving money he decides to call me up and say, “give me a site to trade stocks on, I want to make money to go on this trip.” I told him that hes better off going to the racetrack with that thinking.

  22. Good post. I like the way you describe how people do not have to go down the tired beaten path as everyone else.

    People have a map of reality that they create to help make them feel safe. Once someone does something out of the norm, it seems risky and unsafe for them…even if that someone has proven that it can be done! It’s interesting how locked in we can be to how we think reality “should be.”

    Thanks for the value in showing that it can be very advantageous to take the road less traveled.

  23. This reminds me of something in a book I read recently that talked about the real purpose of advice–it’s not about changing anything. This quote is pretty good (it’s about him reading newspaper article with a bunch of advice from Andrew Weil, a relationship expert, a lifestyle consultant, a fitness coach, etc):

    “In general, advice is not to be followed; its purpose is to present fictions about what life could be like. And notice that, precisely because the advice is quite reasonable, those fictions are not outrageous, they are quite conceivable and therefore more believable and enjoyable. Taking an afternoon off, that could really happen, couldn’t it? Thus the fictions of the advice are but a step away from my life, a familiar but slightly improved version of my experience. As such, they are a particularly effective means to stimulate my imagination: They are believable enough to provide me with emotional stimulation, yet sufficiently separated from my day-to-day reality that I do not rationally regard them as actual plans for life.

    Thus, note the extent to which advice operates as play. Specifically it is a form of pretend play, like pretending to be a cowboy.”

    (from Caught in Play)

    Using your imagination is a lot easier than actually following the advice, but isn’t dreaming about making a big career jump more satisfying than actually doing it? Reality is always more disappointing than the fantasy, so people invent reasons not to follow advice so they can continue to dream.

    The worst case scenario is their dreams coming true without them having to do anything. Then they’d have to find something else to dream about, and complain about all the reasons they don’t have it.

    People don’t really want their dreams to come true; what really makes them happy is finding someone else who dreams about living their life, even though they themselves are bored and dissatisfied with it. We don’t want to live our dream, we want to live someone else’s dream, so the other purpose of advice is to convince us that everyone else dreams about what’s being suggested. It instills confidence that if you do reach the goal, everyone will say “Wow, your life is amazing!”

  24. Easily your best post yet, Ramit.

    If you consider a career strategy in terms of supply and demand, following a track is just suicidal. The more people do it, the less valuable it becomes.

  25. I often find myself wanting to give people advice. Now I just try and throw a few bread crumbs out there so that the person will know that I have some ideas on the subject without forcing it on them. Occasionally I’m surprised when someone gets excited and continues the discussion. It is these people who keep me from giving up entirely.

    Also, I have a strong inclusive component to my personality. I want everyone to do well!

    • Interesting that we’re all so supportive of this post (thanks)…but how many of us would admit that OUR OWN friends have given us good advice, which we’ve ignored?

      I know I have. I wasn’t ready to receive it when they gave it.

  26. Nice points – I think I agree with the doing-something-weird-earlier-on point because it will also help you to see (1) that you can step outside a given framework/expectations set and succeed and (2) you might feel less beholden to the “standard path” and more open to new paths as you go along because of it.

  27. The trouble with good advice you didn’t take is it takes years to see it for what it was. Also, there’s undoubtedly an element of ‘survivorship bias’ in the things we do remember, and the things we forget.

    We’re basically telling ourselves how we got to a place and where we might have been all the time, and rearranging the story to suit our moods. It sounds wooly, but I think it’s true.

    Take a flyer on a crazy idea and it works and you’ll dine out on it for years. Don’t, or it doesn’t work, and you can do with it what you will.

  28. Ramit, I know I’ve ignored good advice of my own friends and family. Well they didn’t sound like good advice at that time but looking back I could have been better following that. No regrets though, just looking forward and decide not to do the same mistake (which is hard).

  29. Having spent the last little bit of my life completing my undergrad degree, I can say with out a shadow of a doubt that academia needs more people like Alex and less people like Neha. Say what you want, but the people I learn the most from aren’t concerned with norms and following an expected progression, they are concerned with teaching and learning. In fact, something that I have learned here and in a number of other places recently is to act now and deal with the consequences/issues when they come.

  30. Being authentic. Being yourself. Being creative. Who would have thought these qualities would now almost be a requisite of success? Who would have thought that authentic you would yield a competitive business advantage?

    But this is tough, risky, scary work because we’re so used to the old pattern of…

    Conformity. Not causing trouble. Playing a role. Being one of ‘them.’

    The rise of the entrepreneurial artist is one of the most promising and inspiring trends, I just hope it doesn’t get corporatized and all of a sudden we’re seeing quirky, artist-y commercials on TV because the big boys are trying to get on board with it. Perish the thought.

  31. I’m pretty good when it comes to actually listening to people. I do have one issue though– I hate getting advice from people that haven’t done something. I find that EVERYONE has a opinion on how you do things. I always heed the advice of those that have done something. Recently, I’ve been encountering tips on topics from people that shouldn’t even be talking about the topic. For example:

    I’ve had single people try to give me tips on how to balance work with a relationship.
    Broke people tell me how to manage my money.
    People that never went to grad school, trying to persuade me to do this. etc. etc.

    I will always listen to anyone that takes the time to share their opinion. It just bothers me how people are quick to judge others and give advice before they take care of their own stuff.

  32. Jeremy Williams Link to this comment

    Nice post Ramit!

    @MD

    Sometimes the best advice comes from people who aren’t ‘experts’.

    Sometimes the perspective of a ‘single’ or ‘broke’ person can provide just what you need – if you ‘actually’ listen.

  33. I agree, there are plenty of times that the person who knows the least has the biggest opinion.

    I’m a big believer in surrounding yourself with the right people. I believe it was Jack Welch (i don’t remember) who said about a company and the same for relationships. “The first thing you do is get the right people on the bus and then you can figure out where your going, because if you don’t have the right people it doesn’t matter where your going.”

    Most people will fall to peer pressure and if you make that positive peer pressure you will have a tremendously easier time.

  34. Neha – When did Alex ever say he wanted a tenure track position?? How exactly is it misleading? And what’s the point of securing such a position if he’s doing the same sort of work, if not better paying and more satisfying? Respect and security come from doing consistently amazing work. Not just following the masses and all vying for the same tenure track position. That sounds like the opposite of job security.

    You missed the entire point of the post.

  35. Thanks for this post Ramit! Yay for knowing that my track-of-choice is not as cookie-cutter as it seems.

  36. One big thing about coming out of a PhD and doing the postdoc thing is that if you do a ‘short’ PhD program of say 3 years, then you often come out ‘undercooked’ in terms of essential skills such as ability to conduct high level research independently, formulate “big picture” grant or fellowship ideas etc… and that’s where the postdoc position ’rounds out’ your training.

  37. i love the video you posted.

  38. [...]  The Psychology of Making Huge Career Jumps.  It’s all about psychology folks.  Read this great example.  Also, if you aren’t alraedy subscribing to Ramit Sethi’s blog, I highly recommend you do.  It’s awesome for young professionals trying to get their financial life together. [...]

  39. man that video is awesome.And i really loved the reasoning behind doing offbeat weird things, i also got this stupid t-shirt idea i’ve always wanted to do, also just want to do to see the process behind creating it and marketing it. these slight nudges do work, you just sometimes forget about using it whenever something that unfamiliar comes up.

  40. I’ve been thinking about doing a PhD (again–I burned out of my first program, and am now working as a plain ol’ lab tech, although my boss will support me for a PhD position). Grad school is required, for some reason, to get anywhere in biology–the minimal requirements I see for interesting positions is a Master’s, with preferences going towards PhD positions. This is in spite of the fact that I have learned nothing in grad school–except how to deal with paperwork and bureaucracy–that is relevant to my abilities as a scientist. Then again, I did go to a very preppy liberal arts school with a very good science department.

  41. A couple more random bits and pieces. My fiancee reminded me that I actually WAS offered a tenure-track university position two years ago. I totally blanked on that. As it stands, I’m super-happy where I am right now, though, which (along with not liking the prospective location as much) is why I prefer to stay there.

    Also, Michael makes a good point about length of grad school – many European grad students are awarded a PhD after about three years. At the three year mark, I wasn’t a solid enough scientist. So in that position, I can see doing a couple years of post-doc, since it’s basically the last 2-3 years of grad school, but at a /better/ pay scale than the student stipend.

    Anyway, the point is not the specifics, but being amenable to opportunities rather than denying they exist. Denying that I was able to do what I did would be akin to me denying that my friend could go from an IT position to a game developer position despite having a degree in environmental science (which he did). It’s needlessly closing off opportunities rather than accepting that they do come along from time to time.

  42. Great post! Being open to opportunities is key. I remember folks who left medical school and residency to pursue something different than the planned career track. It was the right decision for them and that is the key. It is one thing to choose to forgo opportunities, but to pretend they don’t exist? It is important to be surrounded by people who think as you do to keep you grounded (although I really hate that word) otherwise the natural tendency is toward chaos and doing things that ultimately won’t make you happy. Advice? I issue it all the time, but no one takes it. I should stop eh?

  43. Thanks for the article and video Ramit. Jeff Bezos is right you definitely want to minimize your regrets. It eats away at you like a parasite.

  44. Jeff Bezos “minimize your regrets” could be the very reason some people don’t take the risk .

    Just saying..

  45. I see people who never take risks and never to “offbeat” things as dull and uncreative, and much more likely to be controlling. Just a perception. I know it’s not necessarily a truth.
    By the way, those people who want to put others in buckets: yes, we do this to some extent. It is troublesome until you come up with the elevator speech or “brand”. If you are the eclectic person – you say it and you frame it. “I’m always trying something new” “I’m adventurous” Take control of the perception and frame the language for those unable to take in too much at once.

  46. Great Alex, your jumping steps are indeed counter-intuitive … I’m a post-doc actually (1st year) and I’d like to see how well you performed your Ph.D. (e.g. your pubmed list if you’re in the biology/medical field), thus how convincing one needs to be to get the RO1.

    Thanks for sharing! chris

  47. I’m in the middle of trying to make a decision about which way to go in my life from this point, down one of two or three very divergent paths. I really liked Jeff Bezos’ idea of projecting out to age 80, and looking at it from that viewpoint.

  48. Great post by the way.

    Your headline really caught my attention because at the end of the day that’s what I really believe it’s all about. The psychology of it all.

    I mean there are plenty of ways to advance ones career and methods to make leaps ahead of others, though I believe that the biggest paradigm shift people need to make is on what they really believe is possible in terms of a career shift.

    For instance, some people may never believe that they can be at the career position they want to be in by the time they’re 33.

    As a result, they never make the effort to try and that’s what really kills it.

    People like this then reinforce this belief on others and then it becomes like a rumor that never dies. No one knows how it started, but everyone believes it must be true because everyone is saying it.

    To take a personal look at the facts and their own psychology behind why a person wouldn’t take action, they might find that the reason is usually “because everyone else is saying it can’t be done”

    The sooner I believe more people start being more critical at analyzing their present situation and what is actually possible in terms of career movement, the sooner I believe we’ll be seeing people retiring early or making the move to less conventional career paths.

  49. @Vic: But with the same reason of “minimizing regrets”, people should take the risks and avoid the “what if” regret.

  50. “but isn’t dreaming about making a big career jump more satisfying than actually doing it? ”

    No. No way! For me it all came down to self confidence. Most people are so incredibly afraid of failure that they just won’t take what they see as “risks.” I call them “adventures.” Some people just accept life, others can’t stand to see a problem and not solve it. I’m of the second type.

    I couldn’t stand wasting time in my car driving into the city. Moving to the city was not an option. So, I went solo and am on the cusp of making more than I ever could have in my old career. That is enormously satisfying and much more satisfying than thinking about all that time wasted in my car when I could be productive instead!

  51. A blog really is a beautiful filtering device. Only people that resonate with what you are saying at this moment will hang around. They might come back again in the future but for now it’s not for them.