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Persuasion Classroom: Don’t try to help everyone

I believe in trying a lot of things, getting really good at a few, then teaching other people how to do it. But I don't believe in helping everyone.

Ramit Sethi

I believe in trying a lot of things, getting really good at a few, then turning around and teaching other people how to do it.

I did this with money, negotiation, earning more, and I’m doing it with psychology and behavioral change.

But I don’t believe in helping everyone.

As I’ve written before…

Imagine the world has As, Bs, and Cs in any field. In this one, the As are already managing their money, they’ve read my book (and others), and they’re earning as much as they need to lead the lifestyle they choose. They’re already doing it.

The Bs are the greatest in number. They have the potential to do something great, but for whatever reason — like actual barriers, self-imposed barriers, or external responsibilities — they haven’t achieved what their potential first. They can be reached if you communicate to them in the right way.

The Cs are a lost cause. Sure, they might be salvageable to help, but that’s not something I’m interested in or capable of. This enrages certain people who believe that we should help everyone, but I live in the world of practicality, not utopia. If I have the chance to help an A become an A+ in 3 months, or a C become a B- in 3 years, who am I going to choose? There are other people who make it their life’s work to work with Cs, but it’s not me.

And so this is also applicable for you. When I teach negotiation, or interviewing, or automation, or even earning more money, I teach you how to focus on the right level of analysis for you. It’s ok not to please everyone. I’d rather spend my time hyper-focused on exactly your needs than try to serve everyone.

As an example, I love these 2 emails I got last week. They reveal a lot about human behavior.

Psychology of Persuasion Email #1: “I thought you were a pompous asshole”

Lee K. writes:

“I once thought that you were a pompous asshole. Then I graduated college and found out that you were just being honest (and that you were right). I’m going to make my first 1k through freelance editing and your site will be to be an invaluable resource.”

My response:

“ha. what changed to make you not think that?”

His response:

“The change in perspective that comes with graduating college and planning to get married.

While your rhetoric hasn’t changed and it still retains a unique style, instead of getting the impression of “I’m better and richer than you so buy my services” that I did when I read your materials a year or so ago, this time it gave me an impression of “I have something of value to offer you if you’re interested and ready for it. But if you’re not ready, I’m not interested.”

Likely, my perspective has shifted closer to that of the audience that you’re aiming for.”

My analysis:
Look what’s going on here. There’s a reason why I’m so hard on frugality zealots, and why I tell people who whine to go away, and why I even don’t accept people with credit-card debt for my Earn1K program: I Will Teach You To Be Rich is not for everyone. Paradoxically, when you tell people precisely who you WANT and DON’T want, the wrong people will whine (and go away), while the best people will stay and be even more committed.

This is not some gimmick or trick. I genuinely hate whiners and actively unsubscribe them. I ban people from ever buying another product if I find out that they’re not following through with my product. But I coddle and give ridiculous attention to the people who take the time to implement my material.

When I started IWT, it was actually an informal, 1-hour class I taught at Stanford to my friends. Unfortunately, nobody came. I spent a year and a half getting really frustrated since people would “say” they were interested…but their behavior didn’t reflect it (i.e., they never came — even when they said they would — leaving me a sad shell of a man). Instead, once I started my blog and learned how to reach out to the right people, I didn’t have to try to CONVINCE people to come. The right people found me and the wrong people never came. Which is great! Don’t waste my time and I won’t waste yours.

Whenever you’re trying to influence others (and we all do, all the time) you can use this by targeting the right people — people who ALREADY want what you’re offering — instead of trying to persuade people to care in the first place.

Psychology of Persuasion Email #2: “I have basically no ambition”

James P. writes:

“I’ve been reading your blog for probably about 15 months, and it’s been an exercise in elaborate excuses. For awhile I would tell myself that I would be taking initiatives and being proactive once I was out of school, or I would if only [insert excuse]. I’ve put into use a lot of your mindsets, and minor lifehacks, but I haven’t taken real action like you urge, and I doubt I will in the near future. The fact is, those things are scary, I’m pretty comfortable, and I have basically no ambition.

I was speaking to my older cousin recently, telling her that I feel I’ve wasted my fortunate upbringings and associated opportunities. She then informed me that “You come from a long line of underachievers. Look at me. Your grandmother had a Harvard education and could type 90 words a minute on a typewriter. She chose to work as a janitor”. I don’t make excuses anymore. I understand that I’m lazy, and am unlikely to be proactive throughout my life. When I see you to tell me to do some action, and if I don’t, it’s because I didn’t want it enough. I use your content primarily as entertainment. Over time, I want to become a person who, after identifying a solution to a problem or a course of action, initiates it promptly. Your content has helped me improve a tiny bit over the last year, but for each time I get inspired by something you write, I do nothing.

I had a point when I started writing this, but I’ve forgotten it. This is just then a glimpse into the mindset of one of your readers. I love your content and feel blessed that someone puts so much effort into so many lost causes (that is, people like me).”

My analysis:
When it comes to my material, James is clearly a C — and nothing I say or do is going to change that.

I’m sure James a nice guy and a caring father/son/brother, and he’s likely productive in other areas of life, but he just doesn’t care about my stuff. Could I get him to care (meaning, change his behavior)? Maybe. But it would be prohibitively difficult. So I won’t.

“But Ramit,” you might say, “everyone deserves a chance! How can you turn your back on him like that?” People get uncomfortable when you label someone like that, but the best predictor of your future behavior is your past behavior. And by not focusing on Cs, it gives me a chance to interact deeply with As and, sparingly, Bs who are likely to turn into As.

Which will have more of an impact on the world?

Bonus! Cognitive dissonance and learned helplessness

Interestingly, you’ll notice some cognitive techniques he uses to justify his (lack of) behavior. For example, he says “I don’t make excuses anymore. I understand that I’m lazy…” which is a label he gives to himself because, of course, what does a lazy person do? Nothing! And because I am lazy, I do nothing. The perfect tautology. (For more, read about Learned Helplessness.)

He then says “I have basically no ambition” and “I use your content primarily as entertainment” — each designed to excuse his lack of action.

What James is doing here is dissonance reduction: He knows that he “should” be taking action, but he clearly is not, so how does he reduce that dissonance? He creates narratives (“I have basically no ambition”) and labels himself in a certain way (“I’m lazy…”), which provides the perfect rationalization for why he is not taking action. The alternative would be too painful.

When you begin thinking about behavioral change — first yours, then others — be very careful of understanding who you’re targeting, their biases, and their reactions to persuasion. Today, we saw a guy who initially hated me, then changed internally so that my message — the same one! — resonated with him. Then we saw a guy who is using creative cognitive methods to excuse his lack of action. He is unlikely to change in the short term.

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  1. avatar

    I’m so wanting to hate you, not least for being a pompous ass; I don’t think I’ve learned much from your posts I hadn’t heard before – and I’m sure going to keep following your posts, for they are always worth thinking about.

    Sometimes, I think the main problem people who don’t act have is thinking – and that from someone who’d dub himself an academic adventurer, at best. …
    Thinking, finding all the things that could be done, should be done – and turning on the TV, back to Facebook, rather than just getting up and doing one thing, now.
    Running’s the perfect example. When you think you should do it, you’ve probably lost already. When you just get into your running clothes and out there, you don’t give it a second thought, and you’re out the door. Win.

  2. avatar

    I’m a little confused on your critique of James. I understand the point you’re making and agree completely that people create self fulfilling prophecies by labeling themselves a certain way, and denying the possibility for change. James labeled himself the same way you would label him, a “C” based on past experience as a prediction for his future: He’s been lazy.

    To me, James is just being honest. Presumably he would still like to change but to phrase it in simple psychology, he has given up.

    My only other question is what the more painful alternative is that he’s avoiding. I can’t think of a worse realization in his case than admitting to yourself that you’ve been lazy, you’re going to be lazy your whole life, and most likely won’t accomplish anything of any ambition as a result of it.

    Good post though, and if James is reading, just find anyway to make yourself uncomfortable. For me that was dropping out of college, living on my own, and not accepting anything from my parents. As a result of had to do freelance stuff on the side to avoid going into even worse debt to pay for my living expenses until I got a job. But now 3 years later I’m married, working at the university I dropped out of while they pay for me to finish up my school, and have gone from 6k in debt to 22k in savings, and plans to quit my job within the year to start my own business.

    and the good news for James is that my default is definitely lazy.

  3. avatar

    This is why I returned my TV a week after I got it. Least productive week of my life, and I doubt I’ll enjoy reminiscing about my time watching TV 20 years down the road.

    Also, I blocked all my time wasting websites like Facebook, ESPN, Tetris, youtube, hulu…etc… for all but an hour of the day and pasted in a randomly generated password that I didn’t look at (you’d be amazed at how hard it is to make yourself forget a password you have seen). The thought of resetting my router to access facebook is just enough of a inconvenience.

    But I would use thinking as an excuse. Facebook and TV are an avoidance of thinking.

  4. avatar

    1. Learned helplessness isn’t being honest with one’s self, and “giving up” isn’t psychology, it’s a behavior. The “why” is the psychological part, is the learned helplessness.

    The classic experiment (to the best of my recollection, as I’ve been out of Uni for a while) is rats in cages and electric. Some rat cages were electrified so that if they did certain behaviors, they would not receive shocks. Other rat cages were set up to shock the rat no matter what it did.

    After a while, both sets of rats were put into a cage where a simple action (pulling a lever, I believe?) would stop the electric current. Those who were in cages where they had self-efficacy (could change their situation via action) quickly adapted to the scheme and learned to stop the electric. Those who were in the group that could not stop the electricity DIDN’T EVEN BOTHER TRYING in the new cages. They just curled up and wimpered/squeeked/whatever rats in distress do. In fact, if I recall correctly, at some point, the cage doors were left open and they didn’t even bother to escape.

    That’s not laziness. That’s learned helplessness — they’ve learned that they can’t do anything right, so they take the path of least resistance–they don’t even bother trying anymore.

    And that, by the way, is the answer to your second question “iwhat the more painful alternative is that he’s avoiding”? (I’ve helpfully added the question mark for you.)

    He’s avoiding failure, because learned helplessness is about constant, unavoidable failure.

    If you’re told you’re lazy, you’re from a line of lazy people, you’re going to be lazy, then any failure in your life is masked not by this easy answer and you do not address the root cause.

    Maybe you attempted something you did not have the necessary skills to complete and thus could not have completed the task.

    Maybe you suffer from depression, OCD, or another psychological barrier that keeps you from answering the phone, finishing that novel, managing your bank accounts?

    Maybe you failed before because you simply weren’t the best at what you needed to do.

    What learned helplessness does is give you a reason to not even try. Maybe James could succeed if he addressed the cause of his “laziness” — whatever that may be. However, if he keeps telling himself “I’m just lazy,” he’s making an excuse and masking the real problem, and he’ll never achieve if he doesn’t stop.

    The problem with learned helplessness is that it’s not something that comes naturally–there are reinforcers (like that sister) who said “Oh, well of COURSE you’re lazy; grandma’s lazy! It runs in the family!” who are basically telling him what he is, reinforcing the behavior.

    James needs to succeed at something, he needs to keep track of his little successes every day to see he’s not lazy — if he truly wants to change, of course.

    As Ramit said, James is a “C” in Ramit’s hierarchy of people — he absolutely can change, but it’s going to take a lot of baby steps including keeping a log of successes, seeking reassurance, and other tactics that sound new agey and psycho-babbly, but will actually help him. He’s going to need a hand held, someone to keep him on track, and that’s not Ramit’s deal.

  5. avatar

    […] Post ist durch einige Kommentare die ich ueber den Blog erhalten habe und durch Ramit Sethi von […]

  6. avatar

    Thanks for that question mark, super helpful. (I actually didn’t realize it was necessary so that was kind of interesting, but still a little obnovious, haha.)

    I do see the distinction you’re making between Learned Helplessness and laziness and I agree with you. But It still seems to me that whatever you call it, and regardless of whether external forces are reinforcing it, he is simply admitting to being a “C”. Not denying the the possibility of change, but admitting that whether its lack of ambition, fear of failing (like you said), or learned helplessness, he is in a situation where he recognizes that he’s unlikely to change.

    While it may be negative, learned helplessness does sound rational, so I can see where that would be tough to overcome

    Anyway, thanks for your response.

  7. avatar

    This is a great way to explain how this process really works.

    It makes me think of Tim Ferris’s idea of being effective, not just efficient. You might be the most efficient personal finance advisor ever, but you’ll still never be able to help the dude who’s got $20,000 in credit card debt and can’t wait to get that new card in the mail so he can max it with a new TV.

    But obviously, you won’t be effective trying to help that guy. Instead, you can spend the same amount of time helping 5-10 people who already have no debt and a side business started to get their business making good income.

  8. avatar
    Chris Parsons

    You need a “Sign me up for everything Ramit knows” button.

    Can’t wait to see what great material you have for persuasion. Keep kicking ass!

  9. avatar

    On efficiency: Best takedown of that I ever heard was real simple, too – “if you think efficiency is everything, tell me this: is a more efficient WWII Nazi a better Nazi?”

    The point about effectiveness is well taken. At the same time, where is it persuasion when you can only persuade those who are already basically persuaded? (Types A and B.) There’s still good teaching, or at least necessary ass-kicking, happening, but it’s also like so much of the whole “lifestyle businesses”-business: you look until you find something that works, and exploit that to no end. Social awareness, a desire to change something, etc., not required. Feel better about not watching TV but sipping wine in a Chilean wineyard, jet on to another mini-retirement, and say you are changing the world by helping others achieve the same, and you are oh-so-successful in helping those people (who only just needed a little push more)…

  10. avatar
    Emma Chace

    I’ve been reading IWTYTBR for a few years now, and it’s been interesting to see you grow from not just personal finance advice for that “B” group, you take it to the next level with Earn1K.

    Have always enjoyed your writing style, and while I don’t have a lot of money to manage yet (let’s say I’m a future B… hence why I still have not signed up for Earn1K), I have always found your suggestions helpful, especially automation. It’s safe to say some of your articles have been more valuable than the MBA I’m currently in, especially the one about taking people to lunch and just asking them about their experiences.

  11. avatar
    Mark Fuller

    When someone is presented with something new and unconventional, even if we know that in real life it is in fact happening, our emotion of anger gets in. we want to stick with what we know or thought we know. The things we were taught is moral. But you have a way of presenting things, controversial in a sense but something you could always think about after reading every post.

  12. avatar
    Open source portfolio

    I think you are spot on here about trying not trying to help everyone. Some people are simply not worth the time and effort.

  13. avatar
    AE Thanh

    I forgot who said it, but trying to please everyone is a sign mediocrity. You can’t focus on everyone but you can on the people who are willing to take in what you have to say.

    For people looking for a great book on behavioral change, “Switch” is really awesome. It’s like self-help on steroids. One of the concepts they talk about in there is looking for bright spots, which sort of applies to this article.

  14. avatar
    Justin Stoddart

    Ramit- Enjoyed your thinking around our internal narratives. Rationalizing our poor decisions is the first step to ending up in a less desirable place in our lives than where we could be. We rationalize every less-than decision that we make so that we trick ourselves into thinking that this is where we really want to be–that this life that we’ve created for ourselves is the one that we really want…yet occasionally we’ll get glimpses, often through the observation of others and what they’ve done with their life, of that better place that could have been or still could be.

    Your post has inspired me to take a closer look at my internal narratives and eliminate the BS.

  15. avatar
    Compulsions, Behaviors, Writing, Writers, and You | P Dugan

    […] this idea of needing to think longer about a project is a stall or an excuse. Ramit Sethi would probably think […]

  16. avatar
    P Dugan

    Devil’s Advocate…. Maybe James is lazy. Maybe he has the “lazy” gene, like the “slut” gene or the “warrior” gene. Maybe he has relatives reinforcing the idea this lazy gene that runs through their family like pattern baldness. In order to reduce his mental dissonance, couldn’t he, instead of justifying his behavior in the face of what he “should” do, just tell everybody that he doesn’t want to do what he “should” do, that he is quite content being lazy and if you don’t like it “F@!% off!”? I mean, there has to be two notes to create dissonance. You can adjust either or.

  17. avatar

    I appreciate your view very much. I’m paid purly on commission, which means if I don’t work, nobody complains, but I don’t get paid either. Many of my colleages whine & complain about how hard it is, and many have another job as well. But the reality is that they’re lazy, or full of excuses. Myself, I’m still in the category of a “B”, but I know I want to be an “A”, and I don’t care how hard it is, or how long it takes (of course, I’d rather be an A right now). I do still want make excuses for myself, but at this point I know there BS, so I don’t let them stop me.

  18. avatar

    To P Dugan;
    I really don’t believe that there’s a “lazy” gene, I think that’s just another excuse. I wouldn’t be surprized if it had something to do with the way he was raised (but that’s something that can be overcome as well).

    Anyone in category “A” doesn’t care why you’re lazy, because they can’t fix it. You can’t train someone that’s blind how to drive a car, but that doesn’t make them useless. It just means you shouldn’t try to teach them to drive.

  19. avatar

    I am lazy too but I don’t treat it as a disability. I always look for easier ways to do things but sometimes you have to stop making excuses and do it the hard way.

    Much respect for you Ramit, you understand your audience and where your paying customer’s heads are at, you focus your energy on them and if people don’t like you for it they are probably just here for the free stuff and they weren’t good prospects anyway.

  20. avatar

    i think people like you are making things worse for america

  21. avatar
    Carlos Molina

    Hi. Ramit.
    I don´t think you can label people so easily. I am one of your readers, and I read as well other people that I know is related with you. I have been reading free stuff for five years. A long time you know. Maybe I am a B. Although I myself think that´s a long time, I never was in a position to become an A the way you and other successful people expect. First it was time. Then It was money. I live in a country where the exchange rate for buying everything made in dollars would make me bankrupt if I get careless. And usually all services and products of are a monthly fee (for example, I use mailchimp because I cannot pay Aweber, and actually I am in fear of surpassing 2000 suscribers without a product). I only just completed my emergency fund right now and there comes this oil crisis and I got laid out…. I can´t buy expensive products or services right now. If I pay a premium course, I don´t know if I will be able to pay the tools they tell me to buy in that course. For me, it is essential that I buy products that are not based in a monthly dollars fee and that are personalized. I mean, where I receive teaching and accountability from the person in charge. And yes, I am taking steps to generate income from my 1 1/2 year blog (improve my design, I am advanced in book and software creation), but I am trying to make it in english so I can earn i USD so I can pay for courses and fees. The conclusion I´ve formed in my mind is that I have to work in my own until I have generated enough to go big. But for some of us, all of this I have told you only slows the proccess.