What happens when you work with the best

Ramit Sethi

My friend Noah Kagan, chief sumo at AppSumo and writer at, tells a great story about the biggest growth period of life, when he was surrounded with some of the smartest, most accomplished people in the world.

I’ll let him tell you it himself via this video (you can skip to 1:03 – 3:20):

This is a great insight.

It’s one thing to be great at what you do. But when you combine your skills with other top performers’ skills, that’s when you get magic: The iPhone. Leica cameras. The trip to the moon.

Of course it’s hard. Noah talks about how it was one of the most challenging times of his life. But a lot of us CRAVE the challenge. For example, lots of Apple engineers talk about how demanding Steve Jobs was — some even said he was an “asshole” — but nearly all of them say they would do it again, any day.

I’m curious about you. When was the last time you worked with the smartest, most driven people? When was the last time you were CHALLENGED in a defining way?

Leave a comment below to share. I read every comment.


P.S. Tomorrow, I’ll share more lessons from Noah, including his strategy for shortcutting the road to success.

P.P.S. If you want to learn about my road to success, I just talked about it in a two-part interview on the Tim Ferriss podcast on iTunes. In these episodes, Tim and I dig into the nitty-gritty tools, software, and experiments I’ve used to turn a horribly-named college side project into a multi-million-dollar business with 30+ employees.

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  1. Erin

    Every few weeks therapists in my area get together for study groups to ask and answer questions and receive, give treatment together. Last time a month ago – it is incredible to be surrounded by at least 5 other therapists who are much more experienced that I am. I’m forced to bring my best skills to the table and I take away great stuff in conversation with them and on the table.

  2. Jeff

    I wonder how, if you can’t be surrounded by Top Performers, do you overcome the fears of uncertainty and BECOME a Top Performer in your field….thoughts?

    • Brandino

      I think you should reconsider whether it is impossible to be surrounded by Top Performers. I think it would be better to focus on that than clenching your teeth, squinching your eyes and fighting to develop that character yourself. Personally I’ve tried and tried, it’s so hard to change yourself in that way. No, I believe we tend to become like the people we surround ourselves with, so if you want a certain kind of person, go find people like that and start hanging out with them. Maybe re-evaluate your current friendships/aquaintances.

      Ideas: move, find a forum or group online, call them, email them, whatever you got to do.

  3. Chey Rasmussen

    In my graphic design program, I had one professor who was an amazing all-around artist. His projects were often notorious for being really time-consuming or just difficult. A handful of students didn’t like him because he demanded a lot. I’ll admit, sometimes I’d get pissed at how specific some of his assignment’s parameters were, how tight his deadlines were, and the vast amount of conceptualization he would require in a short amount of time. BUT the results were undeniable, he contributed a lot to the overall creativity and skillset of our program and I personally made some of my best student projects in his classes.

  4. Greg

    It’s been almost a year since I was consistently around a team of driven top performers. During that time I was challenged weekly to pull something together that we hadn’t done before. Our pace and performance were high. It was one of the most difficult times of my life, yet so rewarding.

    Since that time it’s been a struggle to maintain my previous performance.

    There is no doubt that injecting yourself in groups of top performers fosters an opportunity for massive personal growth and output.

  5. Kurt

    I was the 5th employee at a startup in SF at the beginning of the dot com boom in ’99-’01. I worked with the founders (all Harvard MBAs) and remember going home in a daze from the pace of the work, the mind expanding brainstorming we’d conduct and constantly thinking about how to get better. One of the founders, my boss, was considered a huge jerk. He would yell at me in front of people when I screwed up and he had incredible standards, but he only did it to make me better. Which he did.

    He’s now a 100 millionaire.

    The point is, for this to work, you need to know your number one commitment. If you don’t fully commit, you won’t get the type of results you’re looking for and…. fully committing means taking other things off of your plate.

  6. James

    Since I moved to San Francisco, I’ve had the opportunity to work in two very different environments. The first was at the brand new fitness start up Fitmob where we were challenged every day with getting the company off the ground. Observing the leadership team was a great learning experience and motivated me to improve myself every day.

    Now I work at Yelp in advertising sales and love coming in everyday being around people who are always setting goals and knocking them out of the park.

  7. Ken Haberman

    Great article. Working with the best and getting a great mentor are two of the best things we can do for ourselves. And teach our children and others we care about.

  8. 30 Something Dude

    This goes back to an old Jim Rohn quote, which in essence said you are the sum part of the 5 people you spend the most time with

  9. ElJefe72

    When I was in the Army, I decided to become a commissioned officer and attended the challenging Officer Candidate School. The school is physically, mentally, and emotionally taxing. It was probably the toughest 3 1/2 months of my life, but being surrounded by like-minded individuals (many who had several years of service and were very experienced) who were constantly pushing each other made it bearable. The sense of pride, satisfaction, and camraderie I felt after graduating was nothing like I had felt before. I feel fortunate to have had that experience.

  10. Ilan

    I just finished my undergraduate degree at The Cooper Union where I was privileged to work with some of the top engineering minds in the country. It was probably the most challenging experience of my life so far, classes were very hard and it sometimes took many of us coming together during study session to properly prepare for class and tests.

  11. Matt T

    I am just now challenging myself, following a business opportunity that scares the crap out of me but there is no reason not to pursue. I have always sought stable, safe options that this more volatile business is terrifying. The goal is for it to become my Eark1k project.

  12. Lisa

    Two of my friends and I are doing Ramit’s “Dream Job” course together, and we’ve been meeting up every week for the past year or so to keep each other accountable. The biggest benefit I’ve experienced is not that I have people to give me resume feedback, but that I have two very sharp, talented friends who will call me out on my own psychological barriers and weaknesses that are holding me back. It is a very painful and challenging process at an emotional level – allowing a trusted friend to poke around in your innermost weaknesses with a sharp fork is not pleasant at all – but it has produced amazing insights and propelled me so much farther ahead than I otherwise would be. I am proud of my growth, because I’ve stuck with the process even thought it’s been hard – and I’m so grateful to my friends for pushing me to grow.

  13. Soren

    I grew up in small town suburbia and I am currently living in London. I do not give it much thought day-to-day, but going back for school re-unions and the like definitely drives the point about the impact of your environment home. Everything just seems to be happening in slow motion…

  14. Gianni


  15. James

    I work as a teacher who has just been promoted to a more senior position. We also have a new principal who is challenging us all to raise the bar.

    I am so busy – I have no time in the day to be anything other than fully engaged in doing a good job – because that’s what I want to do.

    Yet there are other staff who find it tough and choose to respond negatively.

  16. Dee

    I’ve had this experience now and then, where I am working with people and thinking: ‘Wow.’ Mostly while being a part of teams that build cool high-tech things like robots or spacecraft. Occasionally in teaching-teams.

    It’s awesome. It doesn’t make me insecure; quite the opposite. When they like your idea, it really means something (as opposed to most people who are easily dazzled by things that sound fancy).

    How do you orchestrate that situation? I’m in grad school now, and I am surrounded by people I’m dying to work with, but I don’t know what we’d work on.

  17. Ehren

    It has been a very long time since I felt like I worked with the smartest, most driven people. The last time I work with top performers in my field (video production), it was scary and thrilling at the same time. I was terrified in my lack of experience but so excited to see how these top performers worked. Noah hit it right on the head. I wish I was around top performers all the time.

  18. Keith

    Hello Rammit
    I really enjoy reading your insightful emails and website. I have been struggling lately and have found myself in a hole. But finding a site such as yours and the job I am currently at shows that anything with money is possible. I urge you to please keep sharing your wisdom and knowledge and showing everybody the light in this dark world, cause-less world we live in.

  19. Jason Kwan

    Hi Rammit,

    I’m currently in a consulting startup called Life Skills Foundation in Hong Kong. Both of my bosses are Indian, one of them has created a logistics company on her own, and now she’s starting a new business in Hong Kong. Both of them are motivating, goal-driven. Working with them gives me a role model to follow, plus their energy motivates me to work even harder!

  20. Zach

    Hi Ramit,

    I just started a Dream Job at a mid-sized startup in the Bay Area. Everyone on my team is an A player dedicated to doing things the right way. Their technical skill and leadership inspire me to raise the bar every day I come into work. I’m extremely lucky to have access to experienced mentors and rapid growth opportunities directly out of school (in no small part due to your Dream Job course).

  21. Zambian Lady

    My boss at a former organization was a very hardworking person and expected me to work as hard and as efficiently. At first it was overwhelming and so I found it irritating since it was the first time I had ever worked with such a driven person, but I soon learnt to be a smart worker and take initiative. Whenever I told him about a problem and asked for his advice, he would instead always ask “How do you think you should resolve the issue?”. Because of this question which he asked every time, I started solving the problems first then reporting to him. If the solution was not the best, he would then guide me on how to correct the issue. This is the most I appreciated about him. He really shaped my career and life.

  22. Kayla @ Red Debted Stepchild

    I don’t know that I can say that I’ve ever worked with the “best of the best”. I don’t say it to brag, but a lot of times I find myself wanting to bang my head against the wall because of people’s stupidity…

  23. Danny

    I find that I am challenged to grow the most when I work in music. I do it in service to others as a hobby, but I’ve had the privilege to work with professionals who produce incredible music. Whenever I work with these people, I am pushed to become a better performer.

  24. Bill

    I had the ‘pleasure’ and great fortune to work for and be challenged by the greatest builder an insurance empire in the 20th century. But it was so funny…that for my semi-annual meetings with this icon of a CEO I would prep and sweat like crazy….and STILL he would seem to know more about my business, ask the most probing questions, tell me to think of new risks, yell at me for any variety of reasons…and end our 30 minutes of pain with something like a “….now, you can do this…so go do it!”…more like wisdom to family than an order from the boss. And that was it. Always came away MORE motivated to do better, NOT downtrodden from the pummeling. What a gift of a leader.

  25. Katie

    Watching the video, it seemed like Noah was intimidated by the best of the best – and I can relate to that. The first time I experienced this was when I started college – a much better college than Stanford: UC Berkeley 😉 I was a first-generation US-born student from a shitty high school in a shitty neighborhood – competing with the best students in California. I remember being intimidated, having impostor syndrome, feeling like I didn’t belong, etc. After I got through the first semester with a solid GPA, my confidence increased and so did my appreciation for my super smart classmates.

  26. Jennifer Sotelo

    So many great take aways from this video. This video couldn’t come at a better time since my upcoming blog post is about when your business plateaus. This link will most definitely be part of that post.

  27. Matt Madison

    I have been working for myself in a family business structure for the last 14 years, shortly after graduating from college. I have not had the opportunity to work in an environment where there were top performers who are driven. Where I have been challenged is with my customers. I am now working on expanding my business beyond our local markets and I am working with distributors and buyers that are serious about selling and making money. They are forcing me to look in the mirror and ask, Am I serious about selling? It has been easy to coast along with independent shop owners who are ok with out of stocks now and then. At this next level an out of stock could cost me the entire account. I am thrilled to finally be asking more of myself now than I have ever had to before. It feels good to be challenged in new ways.

  28. Laurisa

    I haven’t been challenged in a long time.

  29. Simone

    Working in healthcare in the UK, I can honestly say that I feel I have not worked with the smartest or most driven of people, there was only one person whose skills stood out to me and our working relationship started very poorly but developed strongly until I left my post. As for being challenged, it was during that job (a leadership role) that I last felt truly challenged in a way that allowed me to indeed define my response and be defined by my actions.

  30. LizC

    Finally, someone who is successful who comes out and says, “I felt like the most retarded person in the room.” I went from a very go-nowhere career at a large telecommunications company to a leap into the legal field a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, eight years at the first company with other go-nowhere colleagues made me cocky. And weirdly, that was combined with a fear of looking stupid, so I never asked questions. I made so many avoidable mistakes. I began to be seen as the dumb one at the law firm. By the time I started analyzing my mistakes and going about fixing them, I lost the job.

    Thanks for sharing this. I’ve been paralyzed by fear over starting at another job in the legal field (fingers crossed), but I’ll remember this interview. I’ll work smarter this time and try to take nothing for granted. And ask questions!!

  31. Josh Skaja

    I feel the same way Noah felt at FB every time I step onstage––I am the least talented person in that band.

    When we recorded a live concert for PBS last year, it was even more so. There were dozens more people involved, all incredibly good at some tiny aspect––sound, lighting, set design, recording engineering, wardrobe, audio mixing, video editing, marketing…

    I worked my ass off from May until September just to be ready for a one hour event. Biggest growth period of my life.

  32. Mike

    I always learn best surrounded by people who are smarter than me, my dad always gave me that advice as well. Put yourself in pressure situations with good people, and great things will come out of it. Great post. thanks

  33. Jason

    This summer there was a meet up and brainstorm with team pressure problem solving games at my firm. It sounds cliche but it was actually pretty fun, everyone seemed to be really on their game. This interview really backs up that idea, get yourself surrounded by the right kind of people.

  34. Tirryn

    I’m currently finishing off my studies to become a high school teacher. On my first ever practicum this year, I was lucky enough to have a very motivated, enthusiastic and hard working mentor teacher. She worked harder beyond any other teacher I’ve seen. The bar has now been set high for me, I’ve seen the some of the best and how they operate. I have challenged myself to work towards that level for now. Then go beyond that once I reach that level.

  35. Matt

    No, I believe we tend to become like the people we surround ourselves with, so if you want a certain kind of person, go find people like that and start hanging out with them.

    • James

      I completely agree.

  36. Sarah

    I have no doubt that there is a ton of power of working with the best of the best – or even just passionate, driven people who are smart and wanting to make a difference in the world. I’ve just recently bought into this, and I’m trying to find a way to spend more time with like minded people.

  37. Feiraz

    The simple answer for title question is : you will get best result. Whatever you do you must with your full passion and you achieve the maximum result at the end.

  38. Michael

    Until he surrounded himself with the people at Facebook did he internalize the “you are the average of the 5 people you hang out with” mantra. I loved Noah’s story!

  39. mohammad

    of course we should choose the best for our works.if you want to progress you have to select the best people .