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“You just need to get started” is bad advice

Ramit Sethi

I’m fascinated by people at the top levels of every field. Whether it’s CEOs, best-selling authors, presidents, or even Jason Bourne in The Bourne Identity, I love learning the techniques and mindsets that pros use to become the best.

At these rarefied levels, top performers use different techniques than average people.

Today, a guest post that will challenge your notions of success and of finding an idea to pursue.

How do the world’s most successful academics get published into toughest academic journals…multiple times each year?

How does a PhD student at MIT get a book published while studying an insanely challenging area, including…

“…distributed algorithms and lower bounds for wireless networks, with a particular focus on the intersection between theory and practice. A major direction in my theory work is the introduction of an abstract interference adversary that incarnates the diversity of unpredictable interference encountered in real wireless networks; e.g., as caused by unrelated devices on the same band, multipath effects, or electromagnetic inteference…”

Here’s one piece of the puzzle: They don’t “just get started” like so many of us have been taught to do.

The fallacy of “just get started”
How many times have you heard someone say, “You just need to get started”?

I’ve even said it myself — that the hardest part of nearly anything meaningful (health & fitness, managing your money, etc) is getting started.

But Cal Newport, a published author and PhD in computer science at MIT, disagrees.

Getting a chance to hear someone disagree with you and back it up beautifully with logic and examples is a rare thing. So today, I’ve invited Cal to write a detailed guest post about the importance of ideas — and the fallacies of thinking “just getting started” is the right answer.

He’ll show you why it’s important to look beyond quick tactical wins and instead focus on the strength of your idea, which takes painstaking practice and ongoing iteration.

In my Earn1k course — where I help people focus on earning money on the side — we blend quick-win tactics with ongoing attitudinal and behavioral change. For example, you can quickly learn which of your ideas will never make you any money. But to find an idea that will be highly profitable, and to construct a referral and lead-generation strategy that will have you drowning in new business…and to price your services so you’re making rich profits…that is not a 1-page worksheet. It takes work. And yet, it’s important to blend the two to capitalize on getting started and dominating over the long term.

Honestly, this is not the kind of stuff most blog readers want to hear. They want “tactics” and “tips” about how to “hack” their lives. But it’s important to blend quick wins with deep theory and rigor. The most successful people know this — and maintain a balance of quick wins and long-term strategy.

Take it away, Cal…

* * *

The Idea Virtuosos: Why the common advice of “You just need to get started” is bad advice”

By Cal Newport

Imagine that you’re a computer scientist submitting a paper to SIGCOMM, an elite academic conference focused on computer networks. Your task is daunting: Of the nearly 300 research papers submitted to this year’s conference, only 30 were accepted. Each of these accepted papers survived detailed reviews from at least five different experts and were then subject to an intense debate of their merits at the conference’s 2-day program committee meeting.

Not surprisingly, the papers that make it through this gauntlet are spectacular: they each present an original idea which is then examined, evaluated, justified, and discussed in painstaking detail.

Here’s a typical table; it’s taken from the winner of the best paper award at this year’s conference:

Multiply this level of detail to fill ten double-columned, small-fonted pages, and you’ve got yourself a reasonable submission.

At SIGCOMM there’s no wiggle room: to get a paper accepted your idea must be a blockbuster, otherwise it will crumble under the intense scrutiny it faces both from your own analysis and the many experts who will tear down your claims of importance, piece by piece.

What fascinates me about this feat is that the world’s top computer science professors replicate it many times each year. The professor I work with at MIT, for example, last year published two papers at SIGCOMM, not to mention two papers at equivalently elite networking conferences, and two more at a pair of elite conferences in related fields.

It follows: if you’re interested in the process of finding standout ideas — be it for a start-up, work project, blog topic, or book proposal — there’s perhaps no better experts to learn from than the idea virtuosos running top academic research labs. These professors face an impossibly high quality threshold for their work, and yet manage to match it with a half-dozen or more brilliant ideas each year. Once you dive inside their world, however, an unsettling reality becomes clear: it’s possible that the conventional wisdom about big accomplishment, which says getting started is the key to success, might be dead wrong.

It’s towards this unsettling notion that I turn your attention in this post.

My Scheduled Life

I’ve been at MIT for six years — the first five spent earning my PhD in computer science, and the last spent as a postdoctoral associate. Of the many things that surprised me about the Institute — a list which includes the alarming quantity of yelling and the inexpressible value of white boards — one that stands out is its dedication to meetings.

Here, for example, is a screen shot of my calendar from a typical week earlier this summer:

The events highlighted in red are regularly scheduled meetings associated with my research group, while the events highlighted in yellow are one-on-one research meetings I happened to schedule that week. They all involve the same activities: discussing research papers and debating — often vigorously — the ideas they spawn.

This calendar highlights a reality of life at MIT: discussion and brainstorming are a core component of our research process. It’s understood that only the best ideas can survive the submission process of top conferences like SIGCOMM, therefore a huge effort is invested in identifying the best possible projects before getting started. As seen on my calendar above, it’s not unusual to dedicate 6 or more hours a week in formal brainstorming meetings, with at least another 6 – 12 spent exploring on your own time.

At MIT, the quality of the idea is everything.

Ideas vs. Progress

Notice that MIT’s idea-centric process (e.g., finding the right ideas is key) contrasts with the progress-centric process (e.g., getting started is key) that dominates popular discussion on getting things done.

For example:

  • Proponents of the progress-centric process says “getting started” is the most important step. To paraphrase a commentator on a past article I wrote on this subject: “You will fail at 100% of the opportunities you never try!”
  • Proponents of the idea-centric process, by contrast, note that the vast majority of ideas are mediocre. If you jump at every concept that seems viable, you’ll probably end up accomplishing little of consequence.
  • Proponents of the progress-centric process fear that they must tell people to get started right away, or these (hypothetical) others will remain mired in a procrastinatory sea of fear and comfort with conformity. To paraphrase another commenter: “Most folks just sit around waffling on everything and thus don’t do anything except complain about the status quo.”
  • Proponents of the idea-centric process aren’t interested in the psychological issues of other people; they want the unvarnished truth on what will maximize their chances of success.
  • Proponents of the progress-centric process believe that the only way to test out an idea is to try it. To quote Scott Young (an insightful observer on these topics): “While you can learn something about a field by sitting on the sidelines, you won’t truly know about it until you dive right in.”
  • Proponents of the idea-centric process believe that in many fields, deep knowledge and expert feedback can differentiate between mediocre and great ideas. This requires a time-consuming commitment to learning about a field and a thick skin for harsh feedback, but you’d be hard pressed, for example, to find a successful serial entrepreneur, writer, or researcher who would start a project before feeling strongly about its chances for success.

In practice, this leads to the following types of difference:

  • A progress-centric person who has an interesting idea for a book jumps right into writing it, while an idea-centric person runs the idea through a wringer — talking to agents and writers, looking for similar works that have sold recently, etc. — before deciding to invest the years required to write and market it.
  • A progress-centric person quits his job to start his on blog-based online business, assuming he’ll figure out the details as he goes along, while an idea-centric person invests the months — maybe years — of hard work necessary to find a business idea with a real chance of supporting him, understanding that the right answer might be for him to build a valuable skill before going freelance.
  • A progress-centric person spends a month getting the small business she works for a strong Twitter presence, because that’s the thing to do, while an idea-centric person spends the same month studying more successful firms in their space, trying to identify what they’re doing better that could be efficiently replicated.
  • And so on…

Hypothetical situations, of course, can only take us so far. Let’s continue with two real world examples of idea-centric thinking in action…

The Difficulty of Finding Good Ideas: From Admissions to Animation

Earlier this summer I published a book on the college admission process. Its premise is simple: most people believe that getting accepted at a top college requires a stressful high school life; to counter this dangerous myth, I tell the stories of students who did well in the process while leading a low-stress and interesting life.

To the outside observer, the idea seems clear and obvious, therefore they likely assume the difficult part of this project was forcing myself to actually write. Reality, however, defies this assumption.

To see why, consider this screen shot from my e-mail archive:

Shown above are two crucial e-mails relating to my book. The earlier message, titled “one more…,” is from a conversation with my agent about potential book ideas. It contains my first reference to the idea of tackling college admissions as a book subject. (In the e-mail, I say: “One of the hottest issues right now is that of overachieving students burning out in their…quest to get into the right college…[but] many of the top students I interview…to put it simply, [are] relaxed.”)

The later e-mail, titled “Broadway Deal,” marks the Broadway Books imprint of Random House buying my book proposal. (Remember, for non-fiction, you sell the idea before you write the book; this e-mail timestamps me selling the idea, with all of the writing coming later.)

Notice the gap between the two dates. I started investigating the topic of college admissions in April of 2007 and didn’t complete and sell my final book proposal until October of 2008 — a span of 18 months!

(I’m not alone in this dedication to getting a book idea right; Ramit told me, for example, that it took him nine months to get from the general idea of writing his personal finance book to a specific 10-page outline.)

This same lesson keeps turning up the more you seek it. Consider, to name another example, the creative process behind the spectacular success of Pixar Animation Studios, which has an outrageously high average international gross of $550 million. In a Wired Magazine cover article, penned by Jonah Lehrer, it’s revealed that the Pixar team is obsessed with getting their movie just right before diving into the business of actually making it.

They start, for example, with a series of intense story discussions in a Pixar-owned cabin, located 50 miles north of San Francisco. For Toy Story 3, it took 123 days between the start of this process and the completion of their first story board. This story board was then turned into a story reel (an animated flip book version of the movie where employees provide the voice acting). Using the reel, the team brutally dissects and improves the script, remaking the reel with each tweak, until the movie flows smoothly — every joke hitting, every plot point unfolding logically.

Up to this point, very little money has been invested. Only once the reel is perfect do they actual start the long and expensive process of animating frames and recording professional voices.

Your Personal R&D Lab

What’s the right way to integrate the idea-centric process into your own work flow? I want to conclude with a few practical guidelines for moving away from The Cult of the Start and embracing the importance of finding the right idea.

  • Learn the Field
    The ability to distinguish between mediocre and good ideas requires that you understand your field. In some fields this might require diving into a series of (probably) mediocre starter projects to get a feel for how things work. In many fields, however, talking to insiders and finding examples of both good and bad projects (and understanding the difference), can take you surprisingly far.
  • Seek Feedback
    Find people who know what they are talking about and ask for their unvarnished opinion on your idea. Assume most of your ideas will get shot down. (At MIT, for example, I assume a ratio of 1 paper for every 6 – 10 ideas that I give serious thought towards.) This is okay; even top idea generators expect a low hit rate.
  • Be Specific
    Establish a specific routine for systematically sorting through and exploring potential ideas. If you don’t have a routine, it’s easy to default to doing nothing at all. This routine should include regular exposure to material related to your field (for a writer, for example, this might mean subscribing to Publisher’s Lunch and keeping tabs on what’s selling and who’s writing it). Have a separate routine to follow after an idea passes a viability threshold. This routine should involve both harsh expert feedback and a thorough search for people who have done something similar (and their fate).
  • Seek Compulsion, Not (Internal) Consistency
    Your threshold for acting on idea should be an indefatigable compulsion to get started. That is, after looking at the idea from many different angles, comparing it to similar works, and seeking expert feedback, if it still seems strong: get started. Most people, by contrast, act on any idea that seems internally consistent. That should be your criteria for starting to investigate an idea, not your threshold for action. (Notice, defining this threshold is one of the hardest challenges of the idea-centric approach, and is something that requires practice and experience. If you want to see a well-defined threshold in action, talk to a venture capitalist — they are among the world’s experts on sorting the potentially big — no one, of course, can predict certain success — from the probably small.)


If your goal is to increase the speed that you churn through your project list, then this advice is not for you — the sooner you get started on optimizing your TweekDeck configuration, or whatever, the better. The same applies for lifestyle changes (be it a new fitness program or learning a new language): these can be important projects in your life, but they’re not the type of accomplishment where the quality of the idea matters — so ignore what I say here.

On the other hand, when you’re talking about lasting accomplishment — the type you’ll be remembered for — it’s hard to avoid the reality that great ideas require a great investment of time to uncover. The sooner you make peace with this mindset — even if it means waiting longer before quitting your job to become an entrepreneur or diving into your brilliant book idea — the sooner you can start making important things happen.

Cal Newport’s latest book, How to Be a High School Superstar is ostensibly about hacking the stress out of the college admissions process, but is secretly a guide for anyone interested in building a more interesting life.

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  1. avatar
    Angela of Neglected Princess

    Fascinating article! I have spent more years than I care to count starting new projects and spinning my wheels. I have finally come to the realization that I should do some research before investing blood, sweat, tears, time and money in another project.

    Here’s my question: what if your field does not exist? What if no one is doing or writing about or studying what you want to do/ write/ study? Should you take that as a big-ass HINT and move on- or should you have faith that you are a trailblazer and one of your ideas will stick?

  2. avatar

    I can’t help but think of one of Gretchen Rubin’s favorite sayings: The opposite of a great truth is also true. Some people just need to get started and others need to focus in on getting the details right.

    The real take away here is to take a look at your own projects and determine if you haven’t gotten started or if you haven’t gotten serious about making it work.

  3. avatar

    I think it’s a question of scale. A project like writing a book and a project like learning yoga require different approaches. It’s completely fair to be idea-centric when it comes to larger projects that require a lot of energy. But I also think it’s good to be progress-centric when you run into emotional roadblocks on particular projects. You need both; it’s a balance sort of deal. The trick is learning when to take which approach.

    Great guest post.

  4. avatar
    Justin Jackson

    This article is just plain dumb. The author defines “just getting started” too narrowly: eg. the person who quits his job and jumps into a business idea without thinking.

    But even the “idea centric” person needs to “get started.” They just get started differently: they do their research by studying and theorizing, while the “progress centric” person starts by trying it out.

    It seems the main difference between an “idea centric” and a “progress centric” is PROCESS. And I’m not convinced, based on the author’s logic, that one is better than another.

    QUOTE: “You’d be hard pressed…to find a successful serial entrepreneur, writer, or researcher who would start a project before feeling strongly about its chances for success.”

    I can think of a lot of successful companies and people that try things all the time. Take Google for example:

    Winners: Google Ads, Gmail, Search
    Losers: Wave, Nexus 1, Video, Catalog Search, Dodgeball, Buzz, Lively, Page Creator, Friend Connect, Latitude…..

  5. avatar
    John Brougher

    Dr. Newport’s guest post here is really well thought-out, but I’m going to have to disagree with the principle in practice. To overgeneralize a bit, the people I know and work with need to be more progress-centric. Failure isn’t their issue. Their problem is not that they’ve started fifteen companies, each of which has struggled, or that twenty of their half-written articles or books have fallen flat. Their problem is that discussion of improving one’s life never turns to action. And that’s not necessarily their fault–we’re often trained from a very young age to endure through hard situations needlessly, focus on safe options rather than risks, etc.

    In any case, I think the article’s thesis is a useful thought exercise, and is quite compelling if your sole goal is to cull only the best ideas ever, but if my goal is to earn more, to accomplish my goals, or to achieve my career dreams, I can’t easily recommend anything other than a progress-centric mindset.

  6. avatar
    Tyler Wells, CPA

    It’s unfortunate that a great concept has to be opened with a stupid premise to get people to read it. Controversy sells, not quality, and thus the heading “You just need to get started is bad advice.” Clearly the quality of the thought process is hugely important in the result, but you’ll never get there if you don’t get started, make mistakes, and refine your idea on the way.

  7. avatar
    Ramit Sethi

    Is it dumb? Or do you just disagree with it?

    There is a difference. And the way you represent that difference reflects on you.

  8. avatar

    I liked this article but something that stuck me was the definition of “getting started”. It wasn’t explicitly defined and I think its reference was ambiguous – Cal seems to imply that “getting started” actually means “launching your product”. For example, the reference to Pixar – I could argue they did “just get started”, they went to the cabin and started brainstorming and carving the idea. With regards to you, Ramit, you did “just get started” by researching the book idea, testing the market etc.

    In both examples, action was taken right away but it was a specific kind of action, preparatory action — in neither example was a mediocre product launched right away. I think that’s the difference. Cal implies that “you” shouldn’t launch a product without first preparing the product – a great point which I think underlies much of this blog and the advice from successful entrepreneurs.

    I think the article should have been titled, “you just need to launch your product is bad advice.” But with that, I’m not totally convinced. Market research, product preparation, etc. should always be a first step, I agree, but at some point I think there comes a time to get your product out there, PROVIDED, you still have control over the business to make changes “quickly”, e.g., a web based business – a lot of the mixergy interviewees with successful web based entrepreneurs suggest launching your product, analyzing how its used, what’s working, what’s not and iterating – adapting the product to the market. In contrast, iterating obviously wouldn’t work for a situation like submitting your paper for a review, as Cal uses for an example, where you only have one shot.

    anyways, good read.

  9. avatar
    Ramit Sethi

    I take any blame, as I added the title myself.

  10. avatar
    Jim E.

    I think it’s fascinating how he’s overlooked in his idea centric matrix the system at MIT for generating idea’s in institutionalized (and is institutionalized in other schools and studies). My wife is a professor, she has to generate the same exact thing. Through her phd studies this entire process also took place. I gaurantee that this training in idea concept holds in all top level research universities. Additionally my sister is a novelist. Took creative writing through school. The exact same approach in terms of idea generation and vetting also took place (they call it workshopping). The higher up in every world you go, the smaller that world becomes and the easier it is to ask for opinions amongst your peers (the threat of idea loss also becomes much easier to manage). The trick is stepping into that new world and understanding there is a place to bounce idea’s off the wall, you just need to find the right court to play on. From that perspective you can transfer this same methodology to even fitness or banking programs. It doesn’t do any good to talk to your out of work, mooching off parents sibling about banking expertise, nor should you discuss getting fit with a professional athelete. You need to find the correct forum of support and recognize that’s the place to flesh out the idea. Going to the wrong court may be getting started, but progess is recognizing your on a tennis court with a racqetball racket and doing something about it.

  11. avatar
    David Kadavy

    At first I was really skeptical, but after reading the article, I think I could benefit from following some of this advice. I’m very much a “progress-centric.”

    But, being “progress-centric” can help someone develop the experience and knowledge necessary to envision a project of grand scale. So, there’s still hope for us.

  12. avatar

    What an excellent article. I’d say that “seeking feedback” is the most important component of the idea-centric model. Whether it’s your research article, a book proposal, or a reel for a movie, collaboration with others is essential to refining or rejecting an idea.

  13. avatar

    The whole concept of “idea-centric” vs “progress-centric” feels fabricated. Every project starts with an idea and at some point moves into a progress or execution phase (and then jumps back and forth between the two for the life of the project).

    Even then, good luck telling the two apart. Take Cal’s example of Toy Story 3 as “idea-centric.” Let’s pretend they had implemented it being “progress-centric.” What looks different?

    Absolutely nothing.

    They would have had their meetings, drawn their sketches, improved the plot and the jokes, and then actually built it. What would be really interesting (and much more applicable to this article) is to know what the process looked like from the time somebody said, “Hey, let’s do a Toy Story 3” to the time Disney said “Alright, we’re doing it.”

    Everything Cal mentions above has much more to do with Disney’s emphasis on quality when producing a movie than it does with being “idea-centric” about choosing which movie to do.

    It seems like what Cal was trying to say is “Just get started, but don’t be stupid about it and get into a long-term commitment with your time or money without doing some research and maybe even testing a prototype of your idea to see if other people think it’s as cool as you do.”

    Just getting started is good. Making long-term commitments blindly is bad.

  14. avatar
    Lee Semel

    This isn’t a blank-and white issue. I disagree with the idea that it’s always great to get started right away as much as I disagree with the idea that it’s always a good idea to wait and put every idea through a wringer
    If you’re looking for a single killer idea that you’ll be spending years working, then I agree that it’s important to put it through the wringer. Planning your big project by systematically exploring the universe of ideas for the best makes a lot of sense in that case, especially if you already have a good deal of experience in the field, if your market is slow-changing and mostly settled, if it requires a large upfront investment, and if the opportunity cost is high.

    However, getting started on something, anything in your area of interest right away also has a lot of value. For many people, holding off leads to procrastination, getting stuck endlessly looking for the killer idea, when jumping in and experimenting would be a better approach, if for nothing more than the momentum it creates.
    Working on an idea right away, even if it’s a bad idea, is also valuable as a learning experience, especially if you’re new to the field and face a low opportunity cost. Even if this initial project itself isn’t a success, or only lives a short time, this will help you understand the market or audience better, experiment with different approaches, become more skilled, and determine if you even want to do the bigger project.
    You often can’t tell bad ideas from good ideas at the outset, especially if you’re working in a field that’s hit-driven or fast-changing. Bad ideas can evolve into good ideas as you develop them, get more experience, and have a better understanding of your market or audience. Jumping in is a good way to uncover new, more promising, problems that you can solve, that only become apparent once you’re already working on an idea.

  15. avatar

    Yes, totally agree. This article is really about HOW to get started. Cal dances around the problem of not getting started (doing nothing) but never really addresses it.

  16. avatar
    Justin Jackson

    I used the word (maybe incorrectly), because it opens with, as Tyler as commented below, a “dumbed down” premise: “You just need to get started is bad advice.”

    I can turn that around as well: “Is it bad advice, or do you just disagree with it?”

    In both cases you and I used a strong word (“dumb,” and “bad”) to express a strong sentiment.

  17. avatar
    Zia Hassan

    I think a lot of you have nailed it – both the approaches compared in this post are technically designed to move ahead with a project. Whether that means actually diving in and getting hands dirty, or doing your homework first. The latter just minimizes risk (and even that is arguable).

    The thing I’ve always noticed is that I introduce ideas sometimes that “experts” think are bad ideas, or that I don’t feel terribly confident about, and that my friends think suck, etc…

    And then I learn to trust the idea and work with it, and some of those ideas have become wildly successful for me. And no amount of research or homework could really predict that, though that might be due to the nature of my work (music & stage stuff).

    So, I totally agree that it has to be a case-by-case thing, and the skill really comes from knowing which approach to use depending on the situation.

    I mean, if you wanted to get started with a business, running a coffee shop let’s say, I’d tell you to get started. Do I mean you should go max out your credit card, lease a space, and buy tons of coffee? Of course not – I mean, start by trying to make some coffee to sell to people at events, and see how it goes (aka, doing solid research to justify a huge investment of time & money later on).

  18. avatar
    You Just Need to Get Started IS Good Advice

    […] Now, Cal (an MIT student) is back with a guest post covering the topic in more detail over at I Will Teach You To Be Rich, called “You Just Need to Get Started is Bad Advice” and you can read it here. […]

  19. avatar
    Chris Parsons

    I disagree with this completely. I think Cal’s advice is geared to his own unique situation, and is really not applicable to most business people. There is no implementation in academics – all they have is ideas, so of course ideas matter more in that field. In the business world, even a mediocre idea can be very profitable. Further, research and due diligence are a part of action and implementation – these are not mutually exclusive. The advice to “just get started” certainly isn’t meant to imply that businesses should be started with no planning!

  20. avatar

    This has been quite three debated topic recently. We’ve discussed it over in B1k and now Lifehacker just pushed another article about it:

  21. avatar
    Stanley Lee


    I noticed how consistent the regular meetings are. I’ve noticed from my undergrad research assistant experience that my advisors ended up either rambling on too long in a meeting (i.e. making 1 hour meeting into 2+ hours), or got too busy that they didn’t meet to talk about potential ideas to pursue for publications.

    Back to the main point. Getting started is overrated, except when doing it blindly like a progress-centric person. It’s getting started on the right that have been tested for its validity w/o blowing off excessive commitments on testing. Too invested in the wrong ideas can be devastating in terms of time and energy spent on it (e.g. students blindly getting started in joining clubs to impress or please other people, only to get their credentials burned in the end).

    That’s my $0.02.


  22. avatar
    Ben Shive

    I had difficulty with this because ‘just get started’ doesn’t mean that you blindly forge ahead and fail to do your homework. I write software. I might say to myself, wouldn’t it be awesome if there was a website that did X&Y? If a google search turns up an already-popular one that does both, there’s no point. But I ‘got started’ and made the effort to investigate first.

  23. avatar
    Cal Newport

    That’s a really good way of thinking about it. When it comes to reorganizing your spice drawer, or whatever, either shit or get off the pot.

    By contrast, if you’re going to quit your job to start a business, that’s worth some more thought first.

  24. avatar
    Cal Newport

    Of course the main difference is “process.” I am presenting two different processes for trying to accomplish influential results, and I’m arguing that the idea-centric process works better.

    (And you’re crazy if you think Google doesn’t puts a fantastic amount of due diligence into their acquisition decisions.)

  25. avatar
    Cal Newport

    I appreciate the thoughtfulness of your comment.

    I want to note, however, that people’s psychological barriers to making change in their life is separate from the issue of what process has a better chance of producing influential results.

  26. avatar
    Cal Newport

    It’s a good point, because the boundary of what constitutes “getting started” can be loose.

    In this article, I meant getting started to mean fixing a particular idea and starting the process of “producing it.” In research, this means actually starting to build a system or prove a theorem; in movies, this means hiring the crew; in business, this means setting up the infrastructure, polishing the product, etc. In essence, I’m arguing to spend more time sifting through ideas before this fixing stage.

  27. avatar

    @Ben, I don’t know. Sometimes having competitors in the space is validation that you could do well there!

    I used the fact that I found a few other competitors out there selling “my idea” as a proof of concept. I just thought I could sell mine better, so I forged ahead 🙂

  28. avatar
    Cal Newport

    Another way of wording the articles thesis: before getting started, ask yourself: “is this really the right idea to get started with?”

    The Toy Story 3 writers arrived at the Pixar cabin with a plot line worked out for the movie. After a few days they scrapped it. A progress-centric person would have said: “hey, we got an idea that works, lets stop navel gaving and make a movie!”

  29. avatar
    Cal Newport

    That article on Lifehacker is one I wrote a couple years ago (and linked to in the post here on Ramit’s site.) In a turn of coincidence, they reposted it around the same time my guest post went live here.

  30. avatar


    Agreed on the alternate thesis.

    I guess where it breaks down a little for me (and I have a feeling it is probably a matter of semantics) is the point of “getting started.”

    For me,

    Deciding to do a Toy Story 3 = The Idea
    Writing the first plot line = Just getting started
    Going to the Pixar Cabin, scrapping the plot line, plus the subsequent iterations and improvements = Emphasis on Quality
    Full scale production = It’s good enough to mass produce

    It seems like for you

    Deciding to do a Toy Story 3, writing the first plot line, going to the Pixar cabin, scrapping the plot line, plus the subsequent iterations and improvements = The Idea
    Everything else is = Just getting started.

    So whether you humor me on what it means to “get started”, or I humor you, at the end of the day we’re saying the same thing.

    There is tremendous value in being disciplined enough to refine your ideas. The end result may be that you scrap an idea, or it may be that you delay a huge commitment to an idea, or it may be that your idea ends up being 10 times better.


  31. avatar

    I think small projects could be given more of the “progress-centric” approach – get it to 80% and get it out the door. Now, if you’re working on large or important project, something that takes significant time, energy, or resources, then absolutely – give it 10x the thought. Brought up some great issues with how you allocate your time, thanks!

  32. avatar

    Yeah, Cal, I had seen it the first time they posted it before I had started doing any freelancing and I was scoffing at it. It is amazing how my feelings on it have changed. Personally, I’ve had to find a middle ground between avoiding planning to perfection and avoid work altogether.

    To clarify, the article I linked to above is a new one from today. It is by a Lifehacker Australia writer.

    Thanks for the guest post. Ramit always makes excellent choices.

  33. avatar
    Dustin Sanchez

    Even the idea centric approach has a gigantic progress centric component to it. All the research that takes place b4 acting on your idea has to be “started” at some point. You can look at the daunting task ahead and decide to put off researching the best solution or you can just get started with your preliminary research. At some point, whether you call it progress centric or idea centric you have to overcome the momentum of procrastination, at some point u have to act.

  34. avatar
    Dustin Sanchez

    good point stanley, i know ppl from law school with clubs on their resume that they never even attended. inevitably the interviewee asks, so what did you do in the Young Law Student’s association? And the answer is well i went to a meeting or two but nothing actually worth putting on my resume. talk about credential burn

  35. avatar
    Stanley Lee

    @Dustin: Even if you did put in the effort, the recruiters (or potential grad school advisors) don’t give a shit b/c they are not relevant to the ultimate output (either profit for the employer or publications for the research lab group). I am going to have a guest post about it fairly soon on Martin Hughes’s University Blog.

    @Cal: By the way, hope you have fun watching the video or reading about it. You provided a lot of inspiration for my epiphany on my stupidity on it.

  36. avatar
    Kelly A

    Really fascinating stuff Cal! I love hearing about your process and understanding how I can apply this is my own freelancing work.

    As a former debate student I’m used to spending 9 months out of the year studying and preparing for 10-12 weekends of intense competition. The process is similar to what you described – looking at options to the resolution and developing strategies and arguments. It’s fascinating.

    But I think it’s a little different process than what you’re describing, searching for a blockbuster SIGCOMM paper or book deal.

    I prefer the debate method.

    You go into the first tournament knowing as much as can be learned in 6 weeks since the topic was announced. You know you’re not 100% prepared but you have to give it a shot. Win some, lose some and learn. Apply what you’ve learned to the next tournament and the next. By April the evidence and research has exploded, you understand the topic deeper and the entire game has evolved. But you’d never get to April (nationals) if you don’t go to that first tournament no matter how unprepared you think you are.

    Again, performing at the highest levels, creating a $550M Pixar film, is much different than the modest goals most people aspire to. Most people never get their ass off the couch and start moving, start understanding the idea.

    Even if the process is on the “wrong” idea I KNOW there is value. Working on the wrong freelance idea led me to the right one.

    There’s a balance between chasing the next shiny object and sitting around for 50 years waiting for the perfect idea.

  37. avatar

    I’m another academic who does a lot of theory and modeling, and the approach I see the most successful senior researchers using is slightly different from what you describe here. First and foremost, they work on important problems. This is obvious. Second, they spread the risk of their projects over multiple postdocs and grad students. This is also obvious. Third, while the structure of funding requires that at least some of their ideas are extremely well justified before the work is started, they are usually pursuing some exploratory, low-investment projects on the side. In short, they use the old ‘exploit-and-explore’ technique, which is easier to do when you can parallelize and have a steady flow of income from past successes. This approach is obviously harder to apply on an individual level, but it surprises me you do not mention the lower-risk, exploratory pursuits at all. Perhaps because my field involves studying natural phenomena, this latter strategy is relatively more successful. In any case, it seems popular among the big names.

  38. avatar

    A small follow-up is that, thinking back on comments received from colleagues and especially during peer review, a lot of important work is initiated, completed, and published despite opposition from a sizable minority. It’s important not to seek unanimous approval or support before working–this is especially critical if one is doing something novel on an important issue. Some of the papers seen now as most central in my field were first published in no-name journals because initial opposition was so great. Of course, crappy ideas will face a lot of opposition too. What’s key is brainstorming with people who are open-minded but critical enough to identify the crap.

    And with this keen grasp of the obvious, I’m off to do research.

  39. avatar
    Gal @ Equally Happy

    I think he’s got some good point but I still think the “get started” method is better in most cases. If you look at many successful entrepreneurs, they didn’t have the perfect idea when they got started. They had an idea, then ran with it and they kept adapting their idea as they encountered new challenges and opportunities. Sometimes, the best way to test out an idea is to try it.

    That said, I do agree with doing research, just not so much of it that you end up crippling yourself.

  40. avatar
    Satya Colombo, Fierce Wisdom

    There’s definitely a danger in getting lost in over-analysis. I’m a big proponent of the just get it out there approach, even though i’m often guilty of getting lost in over-thinking everything.
    I liked Seth’s approach in this recent post:

    I’d say, the more clear, thorough and well-versed you are on your market, through research, testing, discussing, delving in, the better your project/idea will succeed regardless.

    The irony is: sometimes you gotta just get that sucker out, so you can test in action and through experience. You’ve got to be willing to fail, or risk ‘perfect’ keeping you in perennial check…

  41. avatar
    Justin Jackson

    Cal: thanks for the response. If Google puts so much due diligence into its ideas, how come so many are losers?

    From a “making money perspective;” Google ads continues to be the only winner.

    Isn’t “idea centric” supposed to produce better results?

  42. avatar
    Success is Not Only About Hard Work and Persistence, Quality Counts Too. | IdeaEconomy.Net

    […] Sethi of has a great guest post from MIT post-doctoral associate Cal Newport. Newport counters the popular idea that “you […]

  43. avatar
    Jeff Wong

    Interesting perspective. I appreciate the idea and look forward to reading more of the debate (when it settles a bit in a week or month).

  44. avatar

    Just wanted to chime in.

    Freaking awesome argument about why getting started really is overrated. I see a lot of people (myself include) just dive into a new business ideas expecting that it will either make money – or if the idea sucks – fall back on the belief that it will just be a learning experience. Yeah you might learn alot, but why not learn and be successful at the same time.

    For example I see so many useless apps on the iphone market right now. How much time and money did these people invest in developing these programs that I’m sure no one downloads.

  45. avatar

    Honestly I think this article misses the mark. The author seems to have a vendetta against the mediocre, but most things and people in this world are mediocre. I feel like in most cases it’s a better start a business with a mediocre idea and iterate until you get it right than wait for the killer idea that may never come at all, or that you might not have the nuts-and-bolts skills to implement due to not having gained them implementing poorer ideas. In college I was surrounded by people with amazing ideas who had no idea how to go about turning them into anything meaningful. Many of them are poor and unhappy today, and none of them—myself included—actually did anything with the awesome ideas.

    Yeah sure, you could make more if you implemented a killer idea refined by the piercing logic of your critical peers. You could also make more money if you got off your duff and did something, anything instead of dozing off on the couch with your hand in a bag of Cheetos. Don’t try to deny it, we’ve all been there!

    There are indeed many fields where it makes sense to make detailed plans prior to taking action. But I think the author underestimates the significant psychological barriers that most people face. “Getting started” is a huge hurdle. I’m probably closer to this guy’s ideal but I suffer from terrible analysis paralysis. I scrupulously research every issue from all sides and can find it challenging to make a decision. Often I let favorable circumstances pass me by because I was waiting for an ideal that never arrived. Even once you’ve find a brilliant idea, you have to get started and work on the mundane tasks eventually.

  46. avatar

    I just like that this article made me analyze how I work, and what I might do to make it better. You could argue both ways and not get anywhere, because really, you need a little of both.

  47. avatar
    Fable Fox

    Now that is a very interesting article, since I just quit my day job myself.

    Anyway, I didn’t quit because i want to focus on my animation project ( or plan to make money on blog ( It was more on health and study reason. I quit because of personal and work reason, and I will be doing freelance translation, among others simple multimedia works.

    Work and lack of time flexibility always block me from focusing on my bigger project. There are a saying big people focus on big thing, small people focus on small thing. I think it’s time for me to stop focusing on little thing and being paid very little.

    It’s not going to be easy, but it’s going to be worth it.

    I think it’s like sailing or navigating airplane. You have to plan, get started, and plan some more, and make modifications and corrections as you go.

  48. avatar

    Great post.

    I’ve been referred to as a slow-starter, procrastinator, ‘dragging my feet’, even introverted, etc simply because I relish the idea-centric approach. A few months ago I wrote a toast for my brother’s wedding– something I’ve never had to do. To my surprise it absolutely killed. It had punchline after punchline mixed with sentiment and more punchlines. It took me six days to write 1 word– only thirty minutes more to write the next 1,582 and ten minutes more later that same day to stand and deliver an awesome, crowd-slaying speech.

  49. avatar
    Jim E.

    I believe in the business world this phenomena is known more as “an idea ahead of it’s time”. Thus the repackaging of older products that suddenly become wildly successful because there simply wasn’t a market for them before. The same thing can happen with idea’s in science. What was seen as “dead end” research can suddenly have huge applications with the advent of new technology, or new emphasis on needs.

  50. avatar

    I am probably the type of person who over analyze everything. I have to research, then get started. Sometimes I research so much I get in my own way.

  51. avatar
    Jacq @ Single Mom, Rich Mom

    Tesla on Edison:
    “If Edison had a needle to find in a haystack, he would proceed at once with the diligence of the bee to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search.
    I was a sorry witness of such doings, knowing that a little theory and calculation would have saved him ninety per cent of his labor.”

    Different m.o.’s but one could argue that Edison was more successful. Above all, both didn’t just get started, but persevered and adjusted as they went along – and finished, which is more critical than starting.

  52. avatar

    This post reminds of the book I just read over the weekend: “BRAINSTORM: Harnessing the Power of Productive Obsessions” by Eric Maisel
    The phrase “Just get started” deflates rapidly. Sounds like a bound to fail 12 stepper to me! Getting motivated shouldn’t take that much effort.
    Eric Maisel’s book Brainstorm makes an excellent point in how the idea “obsession” is viewed negatively. This very readable book makes the distinction between “unproductive obsessions” (i.e, worrying) to “productive obsessions” (i.e., Hey, making that online portfolio and querying a few places really works!)
    Brainstorm is about thinking, but not in a dumbed down American fashion.
    Thinking is creative and if you’re bored, stop affirming that on your facebook page! That’s just B.S. The world is far more interesting than that.

  53. avatar

    This is an awesome article — I now have at least 9-18 months breathing room before I have to do something! 😉

    But generally I agree with Nate above — there are a lot of mediocre people making a good living with mediocre products because they got moving.

    I have problems getting moving because I get paralyzed and then do nothing. It’s even happening now in my Earn1K course.

  54. avatar

    I loved this article! My favorite one on IWTYTBR so far. I think a huge mistake people make is thinking “oh I have a great idea, now I better get it a domain name and get my LLC” only to find that the idea is not realistic. This article is a wonderful reminder to slow it down, brainstorm, reach out to others in the field, brainstorm some more and get to different methods of research besides Wikipedia to see if your idea is any good.
    Ramit- I think you need to lighten up on your article titles! “why this is bad advice”,”why you’ll probably fail..” etc… You give great advice and I love you but really, you are becoming a bummer title writer! Is NYC getting to you??!! 😉

  55. avatar
    Dustin Aaron Sanchez

    @Stanley Lee: I’ll be waiting for that blog. Lots of ppl tend to spend a lot of time focusing on what doesn’t matter. including myself sometimes

  56. avatar
    Maria Brilaki

    The progress-centric approach and the idea-centric approach can be united depending on the definition of idea-debating and progress-making.

    Preparing to launch a business by doing market research, or attending meetings to discuss the right idea IS progress. As long as you can keep track of this, keeping record of updates and results that narrow down your options and enable you to “get it right”, i.e., results that lead you somewhere, then you are making steps forward.

    Most experts tell you to “just get started” so that you stop daydreaming or nagging and actually DO something. When claiming that you are “working” on something, can you state 1 or 2 or 10 things that you did last week, the week before, and/or the last month on your topic? Of course several people confuse daydreaming with actual idea-debating/researching, and this is where the problem lies.

  57. avatar

    Very well said!

  58. avatar

    Clearly, a huge number of the comments could have benefited from some of Cal’s advice. So many of the folks posting comments “just did it”, that they missed the point.

    Just getting started is when you do not have the specific knowledge to get to a high level of refinement, and you expect to fail…over and over until you find your right idea. Cal’s process does this in a more rigorous manner, and in a lab setting instead of in the target market.

    Further, Earn1K is not about “just getting started”. It is about finding the right idea, and about what NOT to do while you craft your service offering. So Cal’s approach fits nicely into the process.

    So many of the responses here fail to see there is something you can add to your toolkit. You can move to the next level, by improving the way you find your right idea. Let’s not forget, in Earn1K, finding the right idea was the #1 obstacle most people had to getting started in their sideline.

    When there is competition, fierce competition, you need to heed Cal’s advice. Low level entrepreneurs don’t need to lose sleep over competition. They need to know their closing rate, and pitch enough people to meet their goals. In Cal’s example, there is only one pitch…

    So please, I am all for opinions, I love hearing them, but you might want to put some rigor behind your thinking before discounting key knowledge that can help you achieve greatness.

    Hey, it does not matter to me…mentally tearing down all the glib non sequiturs actually helped me to better understand Cal’s concepts. But I am hoping that this feedback helps folks realize they might want to take another look at a great idea.

  59. avatar

    MY personal problem is finding that group of “peers” to vet my idea. If I’m not part of group who reviews my idea? If I put it out there in some public forum I’m liable to get as many “greats” as I get “dumb”. How do readers on this site vet their ideas? Who do they include? Family? Friends? Strangers?

    I’d love help “workshopping” an idea but don’t know who to invite.

  60. avatar

    Cal is consistent, he is not of interest to the lazy man, his articles talk about being so good that they can’t ignore you or mastering something to the point where you are the best in your niche. People are afraid of that, it’s stressful to think about because he encourages a lot of hard work, they feel lazy if they don’t actually take his advice. But that’s their choice, if they want to be mediocre, it’s completely acceptable….. I mean really, how would the excellent people really stand out then? Anyway, Cal is arguing that you need to put a lot of work into something before just diving in and “getting started.” He is not saying that you don’t need to “get started,” of course you need to get started…. just do your damn homework before so you don’t flail around with every idea that pops in your head! Ideas are easy to come by, thoughtful action plans that actually lead to something successful are much harder. Maybe some people are blessed with the ability to continuously conjure up excellent ideas which instantaneously turn into overnight successes, I can’t, which is probably why I like Cal’s stuff.

  61. avatar
    Hal O'Brien

    “If Google puts so much due diligence into its ideas, how come so many are losers?”

    Because sometimes even due diligence isn’t enough.

    Look, it’s like the full version of Sturgeon’s Law. When asked why he wrote that crappy science fiction stuff, his reply was, “Yes, 90% of science fiction is crap, but 90% of *everything* is crap.”

    90% of ideas vetted with due diligence will fail, but 90% of *all* ideas will fail.

    (This, by the way, is why Jim Collins of “Good to Great” is such a misleading writer. I’ve never heard of him looking at companies that historically used exactly the same methods he advocates, and then failed anyway. He only looks at survivors, and *then* looks for commonalities — hence the term, “survivorship bias.”)

  62. avatar
    M. K. Ali

    While i have found worthy interest in the real world examples that Cal sites, it feels like he’s making just as cogent an argument for the proponents of “just getting started.” The only notable hair to split would seem to be how one should start as opposed to whether “just getting started” should be debunked as a common sense and apparently effective strategy for other real world successful types.

    The journey of a thousand miles or 123 hours or cabin-fever or 365-days of strategic analysis to a treatment/proposal begins with the first step. I contend that often that first step is a simple externalizing of an inner impulse through some visceral action. Then as Goethe says, “All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.”

    Just a thought.

  63. avatar

    I find a profound flaw in the fundamental premise that this article embraces in not making a distinction but rather asserting without acknowledgment a separation between what is essentially a heuristic process relative to an algorithmic process.

    By not making a distinction but asserting a separation I mean that the author insists in making what he calls the “process-centric” experience something apart from what he calls the “idea-process” experience. This is huge and a false premise in his argument.

    It is huge because the difference between making a distinction vs. a separation is like the difference between life and death. I can distinguish between your head and your body, and do you no harm. But if I separate your head from your body, I’ve killed you.

    It is a false premise because the processes of ideation (algorithmics) and trial-and-error (heuristics) are mutually dependent, not mutually exclusive. They depend on mutual correspondence not only to function optimally but to function at all. A single observation can prove this.

    Of what good is for an idea-centric person to run an idea through a wringer for months by way of countless brainstorming sessions with a million geniuses participating in the sequence of thought procedures (abstraction), if no one at any time ends up crafting a written draft and moving it through the process of trying out one version vs. another vs. another finally to produce a report that educates both the writers as much as the readership, and that might still fail the ultimate heuristic test at the SIGCOMM convention?

    What I’ve observed is that “idea people” tend to overemphasize their contributions, because so much of what they dedicate time and life to consists of abstractions that require a high degree of discipline to make them internally consistent. And these abstract results for “go-to-market” people are often seen as simply ethereal fascinations of the mind.

    “Go-to-market” people, on the other hand, having little patience for elaborate thought, tend to overemphasize their own contributions, because pragmatism and a world of limited resources mandate of them more tangible results than simply a complex thought.

    Yet without each other these 2 groups of people could not perform. So let’s keeps the distinctions. But let’s not separate complementary functions, and much less attempt to lord one over the other.

  64. avatar
    Ramit Sethi

    Does anyone else understand what this comment means?

  65. avatar

    Plain English Translation: It means that thinkers and doers of necessity complement rather than rival each other, and it’s presumptuous to assert that one is better than the other.

  66. avatar
    Cal Newport

    That’s a good example. Sure, you learn about programming from building an app, but you learn the same building a useful app, and get so much more.

  67. avatar
    Cal Newport

    I don’t have a “vendetta” against the medicore, I just happen to be most interested in writing about the exceptional. I’m sure there are other writers out their who cover the art of being mediocre well, it just doesn’t happen to be my thing.

    Also, I leave people’s psychological issues as a different problem. I’m writing about what processes are behind big successes. Motivating people to work is a different issue, and one I’m less interested in.

  68. avatar
    Cal Newport

    Another great example. Excellence takes time.

  69. avatar
    Cal Newport

    That’s a great book recommendation. I’ll have to read that.

  70. avatar
    Cal Newport

    True enough. Sometimes, however, the “progress” in an idea-centric approach is much less obvious. I literally just walked away from an hour long, rambling conversation with a colleague, that, from the outside, looked like a waste of time, but, in reality, was a crucial part of the long hard process of figuring out a section of a paper we’re writing.

  71. avatar
    Cal Newport

    Algorithms and heuristics are not too different things. An algorithm is a specific sequence of steps for achieving some goal. A heuristic is an evaluation tool that’s approximates a goal, as oppose to precisely accomplishing it. Many algorithms use heuristics. I’m not sure how one separates ideations processes, of all things, into “algorithmic” versus “heuristic?”

  72. avatar

    It’s “educated writing” like this that makes me want to puke every time someone thinks they are better than another just because they have a higher degree. Thank you Cal for writing clearly, understanding the audience, and not blathering on in paragraph long sentences that could be written much more clearly (espoused with greater clarity and prose).

  73. avatar

    in short– arguing for the sake of arguing.

  74. avatar
    Justin Jackson

    Hal: but isn’t the point of Cal’s article that ideas that go through the “due diligence” process, and are then “launched,” will have a higher success rate?

  75. avatar
    Justin Jackson

    Part of the problem here might come down to where people are coming from.

    Much of Cal’s advice, and examples, comes from the academic world.

    But when we’re talking about the *business* world, I don’t think his arguments hold as much weight.

    You can research and research, and plan and plan, but it won’t necessarily produce a better business. The reason? Until something is off the ground in the business world, it’s hard to predict how customers will react.

    I think a better strategy is to launch the idea soon, and see how people react to it.

    The entrepreneurs behind the successful Crate and Barrel brand say it was their lack of knowledge and experience that lead to their success. They just jumped in with an idea, and passion:

  76. avatar
    Molly Maguire

    Horses for courses. If it is a matter of cleaning up the mess in your house, then “just get started” is fair advice. If you want to become a professional cellist, then it is obviously nonsense, and you would need to become properly trained.

  77. avatar
    Hal O'Brien

    Higher, but not necessarily high. I’m reminded of a tag line for NeXTStep: “The easiest to use UNIX ever!” Not “easy,” mind you — just easier than the other guys. 6% survival would be an improvement to 5% — but it would still give rise to the phenomenon you’ve noted at Google where “so many” ideas fail. My point is, “So many compared to whom? Why are you so convinced that’s actually a high failure rate?”

    (This raises the meta-question about argumentation these days… Not many people I see are able to wrap their minds around “-er” comparisons well. They want to argue against premises as if they’re binary and absolute, and thus that any exception is a refutation. Er, um, not necessarily.)

    The other benefit to vetting would be those ideas that do survive are of a higher quality.

  78. avatar

    Not sure exactly what he or she is trying to say, but it reminds me of this scene from Billy Madison:

  79. avatar

    I get what everyone’s saying as far as the definition of “getting started” being vague and potentially applicable to any process that will move a project forward. It seems like the real thesis to the article, then, is “how can I structure ‘getting-started’ in a way that enables me to move ALL projects forward while delaying the allocation of finite resources to ANY of those projects unless/until I’m confident there will be a payoff?”

    But then, that’s a far less catchy headline 🙂

  80. avatar
    Monday Quick Hits | seo cloak

    […] you’ve been solidly spanked, figure out what you’re going to do better. This post from I Will Teach You To Be Rich isn’t full of search engine optimization tips or anything. It’s about harnessing your […]

  81. avatar

    The process vs. idea centric eval reminds me a lot of Ted Williams’ quote- “A good hitter can hit a pitch in a good spot three times better than a great hitter can hit a ball in a questionable spot”.

  82. avatar
    Google 1st » Monday Quick Hits

    […] you’ve been solidly spanked, figure out what you’re going to do better. This post from I Will Teach You To Be Rich isn’t full of search engine optimization tips or anything. It’s about harnessing your […]

  83. avatar
    Bookmarks for September 20th from 20:54 to 21:02 |

    […] “You just need to get started” is bad advice | I Will Teach You To Be Rich – A progress-centric person who has an interesting idea for a book jumps right into writing it, while an idea-centric person runs the idea through a wringer — talking to agents and writers, looking for similar works that have sold recently, etc. — before deciding to invest the years required to write and market it.<br /> A progress-centric person quits his job to start his on blog-based online business, assuming he’ll figure out the details as he goes along, while an idea-centric person invests the months — maybe years — of hard work necessary to find a business idea with a real chance of supporting him, understanding that the right answer might be for him to build a valuable skill before going freelance. This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. ← Bookmarks for September 20th from 19:47 to 20:16 […]

  84. avatar
    links for 2010-09-20 – Kevin Burke

    […] “You just need to get started” is bad advice | I Will Teach You To Be Rich A progress-centric person who has an interesting idea for a book jumps right into writing it, while an idea-centric person runs the idea through a wringer — talking to agents and writers, looking for similar works that have sold recently, etc. — before deciding to invest the years required to write and market it. A progress-centric person quits his job to start his on blog-based online business, assuming he’ll figure out the details as he goes along, while an idea-centric person invests the months — maybe years — of hard work necessary to find a business idea with a real chance of supporting him, understanding that the right answer might be for him to build a valuable skill before going freelance. […]

  85. avatar
    links for 2010-09-20 |

    […] “You just need to get started” is bad advice | I Will Teach You To Be Rich A progress-centric person who has an interesting idea for a book jumps right into writing it, while an idea-centric person runs the idea through a wringer — talking to agents and writers, looking for similar works that have sold recently, etc. — before deciding to invest the years required to write and market it. A progress-centric person quits his job to start his on blog-based online business, assuming he’ll figure out the details as he goes along, while an idea-centric person invests the months — maybe years — of hard work necessary to find a business idea with a real chance of supporting him, understanding that the right answer might be for him to build a valuable skill before going freelance. […]

  86. avatar
    Starting Is Easy | Justin Mares

    […] on something you don’t believe in. Cal Newport echoed something similar with his recent post on taking an idea-centric approach rather than one focused on progress and starting at all […]

  87. avatar
    Jack Startup

    All of this is easy to say, but hard to work. What ever, for me incredible man is a Tony Robbins, wow he`s got incredible energy.
    I know it`s not so easy be like him, it`s years work, but all is for people…

  88. avatar

    Cal’s post has stirred up some interest!

    As an avid reader of Cal’s work, it seems to me that the essence of this post is: 1) you need to work hard and smart – not just in the beginning of your career, but throughout your life 2) you need to appreciate learning and the value of feedback – whether in the form of peer review or market response 3) you really need to strengthen your ideas to a robust quality.

    The underlying idea of course is that you don’t work (solely) for money. You work because you think that what you do has merit enough to be done in the first place. A job only exists (or should exist) because surrounding society needs it, to quote Peter Drucker. Cal’s approach is one of an intense will to do good work. This approach also assumes that work is an end in itself, not just means to other ends.

    It’s seems to me that this post is also about basic ethics: is my work any good or am I just thrashing around by spawning lots of projects only to waste co-workers (or employees) time.

  89. avatar

    I think one of the problems being though of in the background for some people is that for talented but not brilliant people, the issue of workshopping an idea (or even several ideas in parallel) for 18 months (probably while holding down a job) to produce an idea with a “90%” failure chance results in a mathematical scenario that isn’t very palatable…however I’m not offering any solution. And I know you’re not trying to get into the psychological issues.

    Forgetting extremes, I wonder if there is any consolation in expecting failed well workshopped ideas to have a better chance of yielding some minor dividends…

  90. avatar
    Stanley Lee

    @Dustin: If you have subscribed to my blog, here they are: <— Part 1 as a guest post on the University blog <– Part 2 on my blog as a video

  91. avatar

    Some folks above clearly think that progress centric is a better approach for business than idea centric. But I would ask you to think about this: The entire corporate world is progress centric, while speaking about quality vision such as “perfect one customer transaction, and then repeat it a million times”, or “put the customer first”, blah, blah blah.

    And this corporate style has small business following in their footsteps, bleating “visions” and “missions” yada, yada.

    Btu how many of these businesses actually improve their products and services over time? They change them, but change does not = improvement; improvement = improvement. The point is that it is very low level of sophistication that thinly veils the numbers game: to increase sales, pitch more deals. Because today’s business has too much invested in their core production processes to simply scrap it and start over the way they should have in the beginning.

    This is the downside of “economy of scale”; there is a point of no return. The upside is that the numbers can hide it easily, especially when there is huge scale as in a mega corporation.

    So here is what I am droning on about: If you do not start with an idea-centric approach in business, you might not have the time, money, and resources to “fix it as you go” in any significant way. So you can wind up telling your customers what they want/need/desire/ instead of actually delivering that. Sound familiar?

  92. avatar
    Sue Peterson

    As a college professor and a coach of an intercollegiate speech and debate team, I really appreciate this article. I had not thought about it in these terms, but much of what I have been telling my college competitors over the last few years is that they will only go so far by “working hard,” without having the foundation to set that work upon (the knowledge of the topic, the reason the idea for an argument came about, the theory behind the way an argument is presented or refuted…). I also spend an inordinate amount of time trying to convince my students that they will perform better on papers and exams if they invest time discussing ideas, playing devil’s advocate with each other on their understanding of concepts, etc. I think that our “teach to the test” and “fast return on investment” society really does a disservice to students and the results of their education.

    I’m going to mull this over myself! 🙂


  93. avatar
    Justin Jackson

    Hal: you said “the other benefit to vetting would be those ideas that do survive are of a higher quality.”

    Ok, I’ll bite: how do we determine if an idea is of “higher quality?”

    I say, in business, “higher quality” means a viable, profitable product. Is there any research, in business, that shows that going through Cal’s process will produce these types of ideas?

  94. avatar

    Amazing serendipity. I just watched Stephen Johnson’s TED talk on “Where good ideas come from” and saw many parallels with Cal’s idea-centric process.

    It’s wonderful to see such indepth work being done about what really does happen leading up to great ideas. At one point, Johnson calls the extensive incubation period that seems to occur before many eureka moments as “the long hunch.”

    For me, Cal’s explanation is the next step (and possibly of greater value) because it deals with specific actions we can take, not just the overall notion of what is actually at work in spawning ideas. Johnson’s overview is vital to my understanding, but Cal’s real-world step-by-step approach of Hard Focus and Hard Work let me get moving.

    There are many difficulties ahead, but reining in my impatience will no doubt become a familiar and unwelcome obstacle. But that, as others have pointed out, ventures into different territory.

  95. avatar


    Isn’t the driving force behind the “teaching to the test” approach, the inadequacy of the testing itself? The more rigorous the assessment, and the more sophisticated the correct answers must be, the more difficult it is to grade because it becomes harder to represent complex responses with colored in circles, or else you have to rely on more subjective or qualitative assessment (opinion).

    Stated another way, if the test consists of the list of “things you must know to pass”, then yeah, teaching to the test is sort of lame…and so is the test.

    But if the test consists of assessing your understanding of the connections between ideas, then teaching to the test is not so bad. But today’s testing is incapable of doing that. So I would submit that our current limitations of teaching are due largely to our limitations of testing.

    I think it is time to question our assumptions about testing in general, and i mean ALL testing, not just the idea of using Scantrons, in order to breakthrough the current barriers to education.

  96. avatar


    I like the fact that you tied this back to ethics…very good insight there. Sort of basic when you think about it, and the basics are things we should never forget, yet we often do.

    Good summary as well!

  97. avatar
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  98. avatar

    In short – arguing a point for those who care to listen.

  99. avatar


    The story about Crate and Barrel seems to show that even today, the founder does not understand why he made such a success. The fact is he knew more than he is admitting. First, he says that “he figured other young couples felt the same way”, which indicates that he knew who his potential customers were, and how they thought…because he was one of them. So he started with a great idea (relative to his perfect customer) not a lame idea that he just pushed forward with passion. He also new about service-based business, so he was not a neophyte in the business world.

    Why is it hard to predict how customers will react? Because many people do not know their customer’s as well as they think. If you can think like your perfect customer, then you can largely predict their reactions. If you try to make everyone your customer then yeah, their reactions will look more randomly distributed.

    But the key question is, how many people could replicate this success story? Cal’s point is that you can make greatness a repeatable act, and the folks he is writing about do exactly that, over and over again. Crate and Barrel is not repeating his approach over and over again…in fact he is saying some pretty similar things to Cal, because he is pointing out how “just filling up mall space” is not the way to greatness, but to mediocrity.

    So I have to say, I think the article supports Cal’s thesis more than the “just get started” approach.

  100. avatar
    The iterative approach to creativity and problem solving «

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  101. avatar

    Great article and foreword!

    After giving it a full 2 minute thought I think both idea-centric and progress-centric ways can and probably should co-exist.

    Think of it in terms of a CTO who actually looks through various ideas from their R&D department and picks one that s/he thinks will be a money maker (idea-centric). S/he then hands it off to a Project Manager to make it happen (progress-centric).

    Clearly the idea-centric approach must come first if both are used.

    I don’t see how a progress-centric approach would come first unless you apply the progress-centric approach as a dependency within the idea-centric approach of “finding what to do” which I don’t think counts since it’s not at the same level.

  102. avatar
    Alex Dumitru

    That’s a very interesting articles. Also I’ve found out some things I was really curious about 🙂

  103. avatar
    Hal O'Brien

    “Ok, I’ll bite: how do we determine if an idea is of “higher quality?””

    No idea. It’s wholly subjective. Like Justice Stewart, though, I know it when I see it.

    “I say, in business, “higher quality” means a viable, profitable product.”

    Ah. An optimist. That’s an idea more honoured in the breach than in the observance. In most businesses, at least in the way you’re talking, “higher quality” means it flatters one superiors. Any profit it makes beyond that is a happy accident.

    “Is there any research, in business, that shows that going through Cal’s process will produce these types of ideas?”

    Probably not. There’s probably no research indicating children feel comforted by teddy bears, either.

    There’s ample observable empirical evidence, though, that you’ve decided to be a contrarian on a pro forma basis. The problem is, readers begin to doubt the sincerity of your objections after a point.

  104. avatar

    The first is always the hardest one, but if you have your mindset and your goals in mind then stop thinking and start doing.

  105. avatar
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  107. avatar
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  108. avatar
    Luqman Ismael

    Good post Cal.

    I still think that idea-centric and progress-centric people need to co-exist for the organization to perform. They are not rivals.

    Top management need to be more idea-centric (know the direction) while lower levels are more progress-centric (know the best execution).

  109. avatar

    Good article, and I agree sometimes its true we should think before we start, but for the overthingking majority I believe they should just start, or as I have seen many of them will just give up. Angela you are right, researchis key before the blood sweat and tears or it might just be a waste, but if you have done your research, have had some expert opinion (not friends and family who tell you your idea is great) – then if you are still convinced go for it. Some things in life are unknown, but if your have all the right information you will take the best descision and be abel to look back and say i tried.

  110. avatar

    I have spent a decade preparing for a career in insurance and financial services, but despite many appointments during the past 6 weeks have yet to sell a policy.

  111. avatar

    I think this oversimplifies. A lot of people have the problem where they cannot “just get started” because they are paralyzed by their perfectionist tendencies. People haven’t just had intellectual discussions to weight the pros and cons of their actions – people are so afraid to make a mistake they can’t bring themselves to begin. Mistakes are an inherent part of the learning process, and many would not have been anticipated no matter how long one thought over the issue. So while I agree that you should not leap headfirst into an important project, after a certain point deliberation has diminishing returns.

  112. avatar
    Justin Jackson

    Hal: You think I’m being “contrarian on a pro forma basis?”

    I don’t think so: I’ve challenged, from the beginning, that WHEN IT COMES TO MAKING MONEY, a PROGRESS centric approach isn’t necessarily better than an IDEA centric one.

    This blog is about making money. That means profit. On a blog about money, Cal’s approach needs to be evaluated based on whether it INCREASES the rate of profits for a company, individual, or product.

    I haven’t said anything about “flattery of one’s superiors.” I’m just talking about which ideas make money, and which don’t.

    If Google releases a PRODUCT and that products doesn’t make money, that product has failed. That’s how we determine the “winners and losers.”

    My observation was: Google seems to put out a lot of products that don’t succeed. I said that was an example of “IDEA centric process.” Cal replied and said: “No, Google uses “PROGRESS centric process.”

    Under the IDEA centric process, the failures aren’t a big deal: it’s all a part of the journey.

    Under the PROGRESS centric process, the failures mean a failure of the whole process… because the process hasn’t resulted in better ideas. (ie. ideas that make money).

    Just a reminder again: this blog is called I Will Teach You to be Rich (we’re talking about making money).

  113. avatar
    Hal O'Brien

    “You think I’m being “contrarian on a pro forma basis?” I don’t think so…”

    I see what you did there. Quite funny; quite droll.

    Skipping most of the rest of your demonstration-by-example of what pro forma means, we get to: “… this blog is called I Will Teach You to be Rich (we’re talking about making money).”

    It’s true, it is called that. But, again, given that neither you, nor Ramit, nor anyone else I’ve noticed here actually *is* rich (at least, according to Forbes), and therefore there doesn’t appear to be any empirical experience being shared, I assumed the name of the blog was sarcastic and satirical, in the insincere Limbaugh/Colbert mode.

    Not unlike your comments, if it comes to that. And no evidence to the contrary has been shown. {shrug}

  114. avatar
    Ramit Sethi

    Justin and Hal: I’m all for good comments but you guys are debating minutiae and driving me nuts. And if you think “rich” means you appear in Forbes, you don’t understand this site. Take it offline.

  115. avatar
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  116. avatar
    Luis Fernando Imperator

    Well, the thing is that sometimes you don’t need to have a great idea to make a successful business, you just need great execution. The world is full of great ideas that are never implemented and is also full of profitable bakeries and laundry shops.

  117. avatar
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  118. avatar
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