Success and The Shrug Effect

Ramit Sethi

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

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

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

What a bunch of horseshit.

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

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

But guess what?

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

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

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

And that means you can start today.

Not surprisingly, not everybody agrees with me.

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

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

(Emphasis mine.)

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

But let’s go deeper.

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

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

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

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

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

As you can imagine, there’s another way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  1. Flexo

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

    history of the internet and the world wide web

  2. Dave

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

  3. george

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

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

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

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

  4. Hazzard

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

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



  5. MJ

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

  6. Wilson

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

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

  7. robbie

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

  8. Kevin Gunn

    “Everything is life is Luck.”

    Yeah, but we make our own luck.

  9. amit

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


  10. Fable Fox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  11. Jonny

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

    Wrong mentality fable fox….wake up!

    Again, you have the wrong mentality, anything is possible.

    Females may choose males with exaggerated features simply because such signals indicate the presence of direct fitness benefits that enhance the reproductive success of choosy individuals.

    You could have prepared or trained for better looks too! By working out over many years and improving your facial features and overall appearance 😉

    Anything can be done with preparation.

  12. What Paper Route?

    For fun, ;et’s do a survey of all Fortune 500 CEOs. Let’s see how many of them even had a paper route. I’d say ZERO.

    Let’s see how many of them that went to an Ivy League school did so as a legacy (their father or mother went there).

    You are right, though. Success starts earlier–like birth. That’s how Class works.

    Welcome to America. the Good news is the rich are getting richer. (The bad news isn’t printed…)

  13. RiddleRocket

    The harder I work, the more luck I seem to find… My father was a chimney sweep/repairman and I’m an engineer. Must have been that lucky penny I found when I graduated High School. The good news is the Rich get richer because they’re working “harder” than Joe Smo factory rat. Thats America, the easy way out always gets the lazy peoples attention. I just found this site today and I love it!!!

  14. RiddleRocket

    Oh Ramit, tell us what your parents did for a living or maybe grandparents… There must be some gene in your DNA that explains your success. Maybe its a new disorder “ADD”… Apathic Diveregence Disorder or something. Or maybe it can be explained by the Chaos theory where “opportunity” only shows itself to those who knock on its door… Keep it up!

  15. ivy league irreleveant

    I saw a study sometime this past year which stated that 10 years removed from school, the average Ivy League grad and the average state school grad had achieved surprisingly similar levels of success (income, job level, etc.).

    The school a person attends is irrelevant; what matters is how they take advantage of their opportunities and how hard they work. Obviously there are some people in this world with advantages over others, but that doesn’t mean there are no great opportunities for everybody else.

    What research was that? Here’s an alternative view that contradicts what you’re suggesting.


  16. Sal Sofia

    Great article as this comparison against each other lies at the core of human nature. Interesting note; why is it so that we never ask how come some have so much less success and what do I need to do to copy their record of ifailures.

  17. AK

    LOVE the first comment!! PERFECT example of the “Shrug Effect” lol

  18. Nobody

    While I was posting on Fidonet and other small BBSs in 1987 and dialing into my local university in 1990-95 to use telnet, ftp and Gopher – all for free – it’s irrelevant. Flexo, you “answer the wrong question.”

    You could have been coding in C or Assembler, laying out PCBs, baking custom ceramic superconductors, selling indie records, investing in Harley Davidson, hacking Linux, or any of a thousand things that excite and inspire you.

    Follow your Bliss, Flexo, or you’ll just be another guy on a bender.

  19. Puneet Saini

    Ramit, excellent post! Although I didn’t agree with Nathan’s position, I did have similar ideas. I especially liked your points of rebuttal, because they make a lot of sense. Thanks!

  20. Minimum Wage

    What did those people do to get into Stanford? Today, many of them received very expensive coaching from highly-paid professionals who specialize in getting kids into top colleges.

  21. Minimum Wage

    Money and high-achieving parents go a long way in producing high-powered kids.

    How many people got into Stanford because their parents paid tens of thousands for professional coaching?

    How are you going to design the next big thing when you’re making minimum wage and you have no money?

  22. escapee

    Respectfully, Minimum Wage, that us utter BS. My parents had NO money to send me to college (or grad school either, but somehow I went!). They STILL don’t have any money or power. I think I have done well with the hand that I was dealt. The key is to get over feeling sorry for yourself. In this world there are people of action, and there are people of inaction. Which are you?

    BTW- what college you went to doesn’t accurately predict how successful you will be -hell, even your INTELLIGENCE isn’t that big a factor!

  23. Minimum Wage

    Yes, I know intelligence isn’t much of a factor; I graduated in the top 5% of my class and my test scores were also in the top 5%.

    I am a man of fruitless action: I work hard (the people who know me and with whom I have worked tend to agree on this) but ha v e little to show for it.

    I have vision, but what I want to do requires money I don’t have. So what “action” can I do?

  24. SR

    You might be interested in “Mindset” by Carol Dweck (also of Stanford). It is a very readable analysis of the difference between the “fixed” and “growth” mindsets. Guy Kawasaki did a nice review of it earlier this year (see

  25. lokerman


    It’s a quick video I compiled to show off the Dervish’s dance from the guildwars nightfall party.
    The dance the dervish does is the same one that Christoper Walken did in the clip for Fatboy Slims’ – Weapon of choice music video (hence the music used)

    Post your comments please


    Original for those that may not have seen it

  26. CorporateAmerica

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

    Wrong. SAT scores might as well be used in place of IQ, the correlation is so high. Also, getting good grades in school at a young age ( which a high IQ person is more likely to do ) is met with positive feedback. Unless you’re born into the out of sight upper class, chances are you life arc is already set in stone with conception by the rigid meritocracy that is American college admissions.

    Did you know that impulse control is highly correlated with IQ? How about sex drive ( less kids/no teenage pregnancy == $ )? Yes, the average person is capable of becoming a middle class millionaire through disciplined, longterm investment, but the vast majority are born without the genetics needed to become elite. A few are born short the means to live without welfare.

    This doesn’t mean society should seek to negate the overwhelming, innate advantages students at elite universities, like Stanford, possess — that would be bad for everyone. But it does mean that people like you should stop sugar coating the genetic and socioeconomic realities of the world we live in.

    The person with the Harvard MBA is very different from the person who shrugged, and it all starting in the womb.

  27. Ramit Sethi

    CorporateAmerica, you are so far off it’s not even funny. But enjoy your “we can’t control anything” perspective…I’m sure it will work really well for you.

  28. Bill

    On Not Failing, and The Shrug Effect: I come from a working-class background, I went to a public highschool, no college, and I currently make little more than minimum wage. Many of my friends come from the same background, and I’m starting to notice the main thing that separates the successful from the failing: attitude, ambition, common sense. Most of my peers are satisfied to blame any number of factors for their poverty (“I could never afford college, so none of this is going to change”, “No one will hire me because of my tattoos”, and the always punk-rock “I’m being screwed over by a corrupt capitalist system”), and they never look for what CAN be done. Most of their free time is spent complaining about “the system”, and getting really really drunk. I’m not “rich”, I’m still lower working class, but instead of being a fatalistic prick about the situation I do what I can while I’m still young. A lot of that is common sense: don’t impregnate anyone, don’t drink or use drugs to the point of jeopardizing your career or finances, stay out of jail, credit cards are stupid. My current savings plan gets me where I need to be (I take a yearly vacation, own a new computer), and after reading this website, I’m going to start putting money away towards my wedding and mortgage payment. It’s not hard to live on minimum wage if you’re not failing… all it takes is a bit of restraint and common sense. After a while, you’re not making minimum wage anymoe. If you need to, move to a city with a lower cost of living. This isn’t rocket science, it’s just hard work.
    And to the gentleman above, babbling about what ammounts Eugenics: the “genetic and socioeconomic realities of the world”? You are a tool. According to your statistics, I should be stealing someone’s car right now. I hope whatever job you have doesn’t give you the authority to manifest those attitudes through your companies hiring practices. Tool.

  29. Matt

    “I saw a study sometime this past year which stated that 10 years removed from school, the average Ivy League grad and the average state school grad had achieved surprisingly similar levels of success (income, job level, etc.).”
    –> As a recent graduate of one of the “final four” schools and a bit of a basketball nut, I’d like to direct you to an alternative bracket that directly refutes this:

    “The school a person attends is irrelevant; what matters is how they take advantage of their opportunities and how hard they work.”
    –> I’m pretty close to agreeing with you on this one after seeing so many kids at my school end up twiddling their thumbs after a $150k+ education and I see others starting their own (VERY SUCCESSFUL) businesses and raking in tons immediately after graduating. However, you’ve got to realize that someone who comes into college uninspired but surrounded by a lot of people determined to do well has a much higher chance of being inspired to change their life and be successful. For example, I think i would not be in the same position in life that I am now if I had gone to one of the “16-seed” schools.

    Did I come from an Ivy league pedigree? No one in my family that I know of has ever been a millionaire (or really close), and no one has gone to an Ivy League school (grandparents, cousins, aunts uncles, etc.). I worked hard in high school, admittedly played the game right in places, and made it to a great private institution. It’s all about taking advantage of the opportunities — and EVERY situation is an opportunity if you look at it the right way.

  30. Barbara Saunders

    It’s also easy to get into the trap of comparison – and only comparing oneself to the people whose lives are enviable. If you are 30 and have no money, don’t compare yourself to the 29-year-old millionaire. Compare yourself to the 50-year-old who has less than you do, and you have no excuse to let self-pity be your activity!

  31. Josh

    I agree with your post here. This is actually an argument I have with friends of mine, but on the topic of ‘talent.’ My friends will point out a star athlete, or a musician, or an actor, and say ‘wow he is so talented.’ As if he was born with it.

    Really? Someone being BORN with an innate ability to play basketball. I understand that the bone structure is defined by his genetics, but that’s about it. I just see the word talent as a degrading word. It seems to me like an excuse people make for not being incredible ‘stars’ themselves. “Well I’m just not talented.” They’re really saying they would rather believe that people were born with whatever abilities that have in life. That belief makes it easier on them to fail. If the success of these ‘stars’ was based on the fact that they were in the military for 4 years (in their 20’s), worked for Boeing Airlines shortly thereafter installing toilets on airplanes, and happened to enjoy music as a hobby throughout all of this time. If after that not so ‘born-with-it’ life, this person went and recorded a few songs which just so happened to be the hits, ‘Use me up’ and ‘Lean on me,’ wouldn’t that make it more possible for anyone? Someone not so glamorous? Bill Withers worked for what he got. When I read his biography, I was astonished.

    Now, I do agree that ‘born-with-it’ talent does exist, only because I have no proof otherwise. In terms of child prodigies, they may have been born with it, or they may have just figured it out faster than others. It’s hard to tell, but no matter what, they have a winner mentality. Now, if only everyone could believe that anything is possible. It would really make for a better world.

  32. Barbara Saunders

    Few comments – I was thinking the same thing as Flexo – I saw my first Web site when I was about 26! Re: Ivy League schools, etc. When I was recruiting people, I used this simple “upside down” rule of thumb. I don’t think getting in means “nothing”; it does suggest a modicum of intelligence and drive, and evidences a certain sort of personality. I also don’t think it means “everything” in terms of traits like work ethic or ability; I looked to other accomplishments to tell me that. Wrt “talent”: I don’t agree that it’s a bad word. I’ve seen failure to recognize the reality of talent used as an excuse for mediocrity, also. In most instances, you want a talented person whose cultivated the talent as well as the skills, connections, etc. The person who “works really hard” and does the politics well but doesn’t have the knack is often misguided and wasting the time of themselves as well as other people.

  33. Adam Bate

    Very much enjoyed this – I can’t agree with it more, especially your argument about starting with small steps toward something bigger. For those who argue that any Stanford grad will go on to be a big-time entrepreneur I suggest reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. It really confirms a lot of what you talk about.

    If you’re serious about something it’s surprising the leaps and bounds you can make by starting small – remember that the competition at the top is a lot less than the competition for being “average.”