From CEOs to Opera Singers – How to Harness the "Superstar Effect"

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Sumo stable in Tokyo, Japan: you don’t need to be a superstar to use the Superstar Effect.

The following is a guest post by Cal Newport, MIT Ph.D and all-around whiz on competing against the odds.

His discussion — and suggested uses — of the “superstar effect” and corollary are mirrored in what I tell first-time start-up founders:

Most of the time, it’s not enough to be better. You need to be different.

Enter Cal Newport…

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Earlier this year, just 2,300 of 32,000 applicants to Stanford University were accepted — a rate of 7.2%, the lowest in the school's history.

The students who survived this screening are phenomenally accomplished. A quarter had SAT math scores higher than 780, and over 90% had high school G.P.A.'s above 3.75, which works out, more or less, to straight A's over four years of schooling. And these weren't easy A's: the average applicant to a top-tier university takes an overwhelming volume of demanding AP or IB-level courses. (Not surprising, considering that the Stanford admissions departments ranks the "rigor of secondary school record" as "very important" in their decision.)

If you eliminate recruited athletes and the children of the rich and famous from this pool — categories that receive special consideration — these numbers become even starker. In short, for the average, middle-class American high school senior, applying to Stanford is like playing the lottery.

Which is why Michael Silverman proves baffling.

When Michael, a student from Paradise Valley, Arizona, applied to Stanford, his G.P.A. put him in the bottom 10% of accepted students. His SAT scores fell similarly short. "Standardized testing isn't my strong point," he told me. Perhaps more surprising, Michael avoided the crushing course load that diminishes the will of so many college hopefuls, instead taking only a single AP course during the dreaded junior year. He kept his extracurricular schedule equally clean — joining no clubs or sports and dedicating his attention to no more than one outside project at any given time.

Michael's rejection of the no pain, no gain ethos surrounding American college admissions is perhaps best summarized by his habit of ending each school day with a 1 – 2 hour hike to the summit of nearby Camelback Mountain. While his peers worked slavishly at their killer schedules, Michael took in the view, using his ritual as a time to "chill out and relax."

Despite this heretical behavior, Michael was still accepted at Stanford. To understand why, I will turn your attention to a little-known economics theory that changes the way we think about impressiveness. To get there, however, we'll start at an unlikely location: the competitive world of professional opera singers.

The Opera Singer and the Valedictorian

Juan Diego Florez cemented his reputation as a top operatic tenor during a 2008 performance of Gaetano Donizetti's La Fille du Regiment. Among professional singers, Donizetti's masterpiece is known as "the Mount Everest of opera"; a reputation due, almost entirely, to a devilishly tricky aria, "Ah! Mes amis, quel jour de fete," that arrives early in the first act. The aria demands the tenor to hit nine high C's in a row — a supremely difficult feat.

In his 2008 performance of Donizetti, at the Metropolitan Opera House, Florez hit all nine notes. The acclaim was so overwhelming that he was summoned back to the stage for an encore, overturning the Met's long-standing ban on the practice.

As a top opera singer, we can assume that Florez does well for himself financially (likely on the order of 5-digit paydays per performance), but not lavishly well. Put another way: he's well-off but not wealthy.

Then there are the superstars.

In 1972, a young tenor by the name of Luciano Pavarotti also made a name for himself performing Donizetti at the Met. Like Florez, he too hit the high C's. But there was something extra in Pavarotti's voice. The audience at the Met in 1972 did more than demand an encore from Pavarotti, they weren't content until he had returned to the stage seventeen times! In writing about Florez's 2008 performance, the New York Times noted: "If truth be told, it's not as hard as it sounds for a tenor with a light lyric voice like Mr. Florez to toss off those high C's…[I]n the early 1970's, when Luciano Pavarotti…let those high Cs ring out, that was truly astonishing."

In other words, both Florez and Pavarotti are exceptional tenors, but Pavarotti was slightly better — the best among an elite class. The impact of this small difference, however, was huge. Whereas we estimated that Florez was well off but not wealthy, when Pavarotti died in 2007, sources estimated his estate to be worth $275 to 475 million.

In a 1981 paper published in the American Economics Review, the economist Sherwin Rosen worked through the mathematics that explains why superstars, like Pavarotti, reap so many more rewards than peers who are only slightly less talented. He called the phenomenon, “The Superstar Effect.”

Though the details of Rosen's formulas are complex, the intuition is simple: Imagine a million opera fans who each have $10 to spend on an opera album. They're trying to decide whether to buy an album by Florez or Pavarotti. Rosen's theory predicts that the bulk of the consumers will purchase the Pavarotti album, thinking, roughly: "although both singers are great, Pavarotti is the best, and if I can only get one album I might as well get the best one available." The result is that the vast majority of the $10 million goes to Pavarotti, even though his talent advantage over Florez is small.

Once identified, The Superstar Effect turned up in a variety of unexpected settings, from the sales of books to CEO salaries. It was found to apply even in settings that have nothing to do with financial transactions. In a particularly compelling example, a researcher named Paul Atwell, publishing in the journal Sociology of Education in 2001, studied the Superstar Effect for high school valedictorians.

Atwell imagined two students both with 700s on their various SAT tests. The first student was the valedictorian and the second student was ranked number five in the class. Rationally speaking, these two students are near identical — the difference in G.P.A. between the number one and number five rank is vanishingly small. But using statistics from Dartmouth College, Atwell showed that the valedictorian has a 75% of acceptance at this Ivy League institution while the near identical fifth-ranked student has only a 25% chance.

In other words, in many fields, it pays disproportionately well to be not just very good, but the best.

Hacking the Superstar Effect

Taking a step back, we likely agree that it's an interesting finding that being the best has a hidden advantage. If reaping this advantage, however, requires becoming class valedictorian or honing a brilliant singing voice — both staggeringly difficult feats — it doesn't seem all that applicable.

This is where Michael Silverman reenters the picture.

The details of his story reveal a crucial addendum that makes the power of the Superstar Effect available to most people. I call this addendum The Superstar Corollary, and it's here I turn your attention next.

I discovered The Superstar Corollary in an unlikely setting: the extracurricular lives of high school students. I was researching a book on students, like Michael, who get accepted to outstanding colleges while still living low-stress and interesting lives. During this research, I kept noticing the same trait in these teen-aged lifehackers: they had accomplishments that triggered The Superstar Effect, but which revealed on closer examination to not require a rare natural talent or years and years of grinding work.

For example, consider the details Michael's story. Starting as a freshman, he focused all of his extracurricular energies on a serial string of environmental sustainability projects. He started by submitting a model of a green house to a competition. This led him to discover that a local energy company offered a grant program for local high school students. He won a modest grant, and used it, with the help of a retired engineer from his hometown, to retrofit a golf cart to run on biofuels. Leveraging this success, he earned another grant which he used to install solar panels on his school's maintenance shed. This earned him press coverage, and the resulting Superstar Effect helped wow the Stanford admissions department into overlooking his borderline scores.

Notice that nothing about Michael's rise to stardom required a rare natural talent or overwhelming work load. His projects required, on average, less daily time investment than participating in a varsity sport. Yet, he was the best at what he did among all applicants to Stanford, and the resulting Superstar Effect earned him a disproportionate reward.

Michael wasn't alone in his success at hacking The Superstar Effect. Consider, for example, Maneesh Sethi (featured recently inTim's lifestyle design case study competition), who got into Stanford on the strength of having written a popular computer programming book, or Steve Schwartz, who got into Columbia by taking on the role of press officer for a student-run environment advocacy group. Both found uncontested niches that required only a reasonable amount of effort investment to conquer, but still triggered the full impact of The Superstar Effect.

I formalize this idea with the following corollary:

The Superstar Corollary
Being the best in a field makes you disproportionately impressive to the outside world. This effect holds even if the field is not crowded, competitive, or well-known.

In other words, becoming valedictorian or a sustainability guru both generate the same Superstar Effect, but the former is much harder than the latter.

[Post publication addition from Tim] From the comments following this post, here is a comment from former Ivy League admissions officer, Peggy Hanefors:

Thank you both for a great article… I was at the University of Pennsylvania for three years. Top schools do indeed love these “super stars”. Students who can easily do the academic work required but who really shine in some way. Why? Well, I think there are a few reasons. Of course most basic is the need of building a diverse class. How boring it would be to have a university filled with all valedictorians who are also tri-sport captains with near perfect SATs!

But beyond that is the need for good stories; interesting students to talk about in promotional materials and alumni magazines. Students who will make campus more exciting simply because they are there. Students who won’t join an investment bank or consulting firm upon graduation because that is the traditional way of “making it”. Michael is one of these interesting students.

Michael has two abstract traits that all selective admissions offices travel the world to find: passion and an ability to take advantage of opportunities they come across. Michael clearly cares about the environment, even hikes a couple of hours a day. His interest rings true, are consistent (common across several of his extra curricular activities and over time), and he could probably demonstrate his passion in his essays and interview.
Michael also took advantage of opportunities that he came across. Teenage students’ interests often change, but the unique ability to take that interest a step further does not.

The one thing I would add to the definition of “The Superstar Corollary” is an ability to do the unexpected. The courage to do something contrary to parental, societal and cultural expectations and stereotypes, including the unknown personal stereotypes of the admissions officers. This ability makes a person that “superstar”. Cal does not tell us what Michael’s parents do, but if one of them works with environmental sustainability Michael’s accomplishment suddenly becomes less impressive. Similarly it is more “cool” if an Hispanic student is a champion of Bharatanatyam dance, a traditionally Indian art form, if an African-American is a violin virtuoso as opposed to someone of Asian heritage, and if someone whose parent is not a Mayor leads a local political initiative. Fair? No, admissions never is.

The Superstar Corollary and Lifestyle Design

Let's move beyond high school students and broaden the applicability of this powerful idea. The Superstar Corollary hacks the neural circuity responsible for producing feelings of respect and impressiveness, yielding a huge return on effort invested. As detailed below, this makes it a perfect tool for lifestyle design.

For the employee seeking liberation…

Triggering The Superstar Effect in your employer provides a valuable bargaining chip when trying to inject mobility and flexibility into your work schedule. Employers don't mind upsetting hard workers, but they fear losing stars. The Superstar Corollary gives you an efficient route to this workplace stardom.

Imagine, for example, a programmer in a web development shop. The Corollary might inspire her to become a top contributor to some new, up and coming, open source technology. Becoming known as a world expert yields more impressiveness than if she had invested the same hours into simply working overtime on her existing projects.

To give another example, imagine an entry-level employee at a non-profit. By taking on responsibility for tracking the organization's web site visitors, and then mastering enough Google Analytics to present beautiful analyses to the board, the employee will be seen as the technology guru of the organization — a star who is helping them understand their audience in new ways. This aura of stardom outstrips what's achievable if he had instead invested his efforts only into being a conscientious, efficient, hardworking, and replaceable employee.

For the owner of a muse looking to increase his rewards-to-effort ratio...

For the post-liberation, muse-owning lifestyle entrepreneur, The Superstar Corollary provides a powerful tool for ramping up returns without ramping up the work invested.

Writer Chris Guillebeau, from The Art of Non-Conformity blog, provides a perfect example of the Corollary at work in a lifestyle business. Instead of starting yet another site offering generic lifehacking hints, Chris found an uncontested corner of his field to conquer. Specifically, he set out on a mission to visit every country in the world. The scope of this quest transformed him into a star among travel/lifehacking bloggers, and his site quickly become a lucrative success.

Applying The Superstar Corollary

Applying The Superstar Corollary in your own life can be tricky. Here are some ideas to facilitate this effort.

Idea #1: Sloganize.

To sloganize is to transform your conquest into an easy-to-describe and immediately interesting quest. For example, Chris Guillebeau, mentioned above, sloganized his conquest of the adventure travel writing by focusing on the catchy goal of visiting every country in the world. Similarly, in my above example of a web programmer mastering a new open source technology, she might sloganize her efforts by writing a definitive eBook on the subject. To say that she literally "wrote the book" on the technology gives the expertise extra power.

The power of sloganizing is clear: it maximizes the superstar impact of your conquest.

Idea #2: Apply the $1000 Wager Test.

Two years ago, I had a series of conversations with my friend Ben Casnocha about the possibility of writing an eBook. Both Ben and I had written and published successful books on the side, and we were exploring the idea of a guide on how successful part-time authors manage to juggle their full time job with their writing. Ultimately, we abandoned the idea. The problem: there wasn't enough to say. The part-time authors who have the easiest time writing books tend to be those who know enough about the industry to be confident in the success of their project. This confidence is what allows them to keep finding time in their schedules to write; fancy scheduling rules and productivity systems prove irrelevant.

This same observation carries over to the quest to conquer an uncontested niche in your field. To follow through you need confidence in your success; otherwise, your efforts will diminish over time, regardless of the complexity of your productivity systems or the fervor of the inspirational quotes you read. Here's a simple rule: If you're not willing to bet $1000 on your success within 6 to 12 months, then either your goal is quixotic or you don't know enough about the field yet. In both cases, you're not ready for the project. A blind adherence to the flawed idea that getting started is the most important step is best left to cheesy motivational speakers — winners make plays with confidence.

Idea #3 Follow Steve Martin's Brand of Diligence

In his memoir, Born Standing Up, the comedy superstar Steve Martin provides insight into his rise to prominence. I've written in-depth about his method, but perhaps the most important concept is Martin's redefinition of "diligence." He notes that diligence was crucial in his rise to comedic fame, but he's quick to redefine the term away from it's standard definition of "hard work applied consistently over time." To Martin, the key to diligence isn't the work applied to your pursuit, but instead the work you don't apply to other pursuits. He succeeded in reinventing comedy because he kept his focus on comedy, even when other, more shiny and interesting side projects presented themselves.

The same concept applies to The Superstar Corollary. When conquering your uncontested niche, it can be tempting to divide your attention. Here is where Martin's diligence is key. The bonus reward you get for being the best far outweighs any small benefit that a shiny new side project can provide. On the large scale, therefore, maintaining a relentless focus on your conquest maximizes your total overall reward.

Concluding Summary

We're wired to be disproportionately impressed with someone who is the best at what they do. This effect, however, is blind to the competitiveness of the pursuit. The writer who is traveling to every country in the world, for example, can earn as much attention as the Rhodes Scholar with a PhD in international relations.

Is there's an uncontested corner in your own working life where you could apply the Superstar Corollary to gain a huge return on investment?

About the Author:
Calvin Newport is author of How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth College in 2004 and earned a Ph.D in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT in 2009. Newport’s work and findings on student success have been featured on ABC, NBC, and CBS.

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Odds and Ends: Birthday Give-Back Results and Winners

You all are amazing human beings and should be so, so proud. The birthday give-back experiment raised more than $45,000 in a little over three days, which means $90,000+ to schoolkids in need, since I’m matching. This means you impacted more than 9,300 kids, and together we will impact closer to 20,000.

Check this image out — to put things in perspective, that’s about 20,000 people. Holy $#%&!

If you donated by midnight on Sunday, you should have received the following e-mail from Donorschoose.org:

Subject line: Gift from Tim Ferriss

Wow!

Thank you so much for celebrating Tim Ferriss’s birthday by supporting a classroom on DonorsChoose.org. This short email contains a gift, so please read all the way through.

Thanks to you, students will have the opportunity to take interesting field trips to amazing places, including sea research vessels and Shakespearean plays! The students you helped will have access to reading activities, word games, listening centers and — most important — books for improving literacy skills. Through the Great Give-Back Birthday, you have brought valuable resources to more than 8,600 kids [Tim note: this has since increased] – incredible!

Not only are you passionate supporters, but, as you know, Tim Ferriss has agreed to match your donations, bringing even more supplies to high need schools. But here’s the cool part: he wants to give it back to you! You get to decide where to put Tim’s money, whether in your hometown elementary school or into music programs across the country.

So please use the below $50 gift code from Tim Ferriss to select a classroom project of your choice on DonorsChoose.org. Just find a project that speaks to your heart and enter the code when you checkout. Your gift code expires on September 30, 2010, so don’t forget to fund a great classroom!

[UNIQUE CODE]

On behalf of all the students and teachers you have touched with this gift, thank you very much!

Your friends at DonorsChoose.org

P.S. Here is a note from Tim:

You rock!!!

It’s hard to describe how amazed, overjoyed, and touched I’ve been by you all, and your selfless contributions to kids who need it most in our schools. PLEASE use your gift code! I suggest you either use it today (it just takes a few minutes), or put it in your calendar for this week so you don’t forget. It makes an incredible gift as well.

Just don’t forget to use it! Chances are, if you don’t use it this week, you will forget. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have enjoyed this incredible experiment. Wow.

All the best to you and yours — thank you, thank you, thank you,

Tim

And that’s the damn truth.

But let’s not forget out prize winners (though I hope you all feel awesome after the experience, which you should):

The lucky winner of the round-trip ticket is Brian Brereton. Please contact amy-at-fourhourworkweekdotcom when you know your timing for the trip!

For the Maui Jim gift card and glasses, the winners are Ty Kroll (VIP gift card), Douglass Lodmell, and Jesse Walters. Please allow a week or so for them to arrive.

This has been the most wonderful birthday I could ask for. Thank you all.

Posted on: July 27, 2010.

Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.

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202 comments on “From CEOs to Opera Singers – How to Harness the "Superstar Effect"

  1. Tim,
    I really enjoyed this post by Newport. It teaches us that we need to search our lives and find our own niche, and exploit that niche. When we become the best at something we are unstoppable. People talk about you, they listen to you, that is probably why so many people respect and follow your blog, because you are the best at lifestyle design teaching. Keep it up man and we will all do the same.

    Like

  2. I’ve read Calvin’s book How to Become a Straight A student and continue to have success in school due to his advice. This post shows what type of quality that needs to be put into guest post for these larger 100k+ subscriber blogs. I think its better to write a beautiful well thought out post like this then to have 20 quick guest posts on smaller blogs.

    Like

    • Calvin did a great job. For would-be or current bloggers, my advice is this: guest posts should be BETTER than you could do on the topic. Guest posts should not just be a way to take a break from writing. The guest posts should appear only because they provide value or content in a way that you could not. Thus, the bar for quality should be very, very high.

      Like

  3. Great guest post :-)

    I definitely agree that it takes confidence to finish a big project like writing a book.

    And Steve Martin’s lesson was very insightful. Saying no to more opportunities is a hard thing to do… it’s always been a challenge for me.

    Thanks again for the high value content :-)

    Like

  4. Very good read. AN underlying bit I noticed is that sometimes being best, is marked by being first. Which is akin to why you had brainquicken set up as a neural enhancer, am I correct?

    Like

  5. Tim – I love the article. I have been applying some of this at my work; however, I didn’t understand it like this before. Thank you so much.

    Like

  6. Hi Tim! Thanks for the great article, it really hits home for me. And congrats on the Birthday Give-Back, glad to have helped (and hope you HAD a good birthday btw!).

    I liked the picture of my Alma Mater’s stadium, as well, although you are looking at 104,000 Big Orange fans there my friend!

    Like

  7. Wow, yet another captivating post that is keeping me up too late! :)

    Awesome read Tim, thanks so much for all you do. I’m sure you get it all the time, but I truly want to thank you for all the priceless knowledge that’s on this site. I don’t take it for granted that instead of having to do all of the research and experimentation myself, I just click my bookmark to your blog. It’s a wonderful gift. I just recently discovered you and your site a couple months ago, so I’m working my way back from the last blog page (27 I think right now). I’m trying to catch up, but I wanted to read this post to stay current!

    The problem I often have is that all too common feeling of being unsure what my niche could be. It’s a fine line between what I’m passionate about and what is a need to people, and I don’t know that there’s one best way to find it. One thing is for sure though, putting pressure on one’s self is not the answer, which is sometimes easier said than done.

    Until the next post, I will have been catching up, I’m on page 21 now, so maybe if I re-read your speed reading article, I might be on page 5 in a few days :)

    Thank you!!
    Paul

    Like

  8. Crappy cconomy or not, there is Always room for the Best!

    This is a very interesting take. I always love social applications of economic theory.

    Its really just another way of ‘niching down’ as mentioned in 4HWW. But stepping back, its amazing how well this worked for you, Tim.

    Escape 9-5, live anywhere, and join the new rich! Perhaps your method of Adword testing taglines could work well for someone looking to ‘sloganize’?

    (I did this without realizing it, when I wrote the manifesto for my ferriss-inspired blog: College Lifestyle Design: Making the starting salary of my degree before graduation, its not the paper, its the experience)

    Like

  9. Right on Cal!

    This is a superbly thought-out, well-researched post!

    Having been a semi-professional Opera Singer myself, I believe that the ROI on time invested RARELY pays off for the vast majority of aspiring singers in terms of monetary reward and freedom of time (though travel is a distinctive perk of the business).

    Analogous to the valedictorian issue:

    I personally can’t find the justification for the insane amount of practice required to remain competitive in a field like opera singing, where a tiny fraction of people make big bucks and the great majority stay in it (if they do) for love of the craft.

    If your passion is to sing opera, design telescopes or re-reef the oceans, I would go so far as to say that it’s more efficient to start a muse, automate income and do those things when you have less at stake.

    Having how well an opening night goes (or whatever parallel scenario) impact one’s ability to pay bills, etc., is not a fun situation to be in! :-)

    Best Wishes!
    Vic

    Like

  10. Great article. Find a niche and focus. I’m currently guilty of applying work to pursuits other than my main goal, supposedly to support my main pursuit. I’ve known intuitively that it means less than stellar work at two things. Your article will be a catalyst for a renewed focus. Thanks.

    Like

  11. @Cameron – Most the examples were firsts, but within already defined genres. Pavarotti was the first to bring a special sound to the notes, but within an already known opera. Michael was a first in that he made pushes in sustainability while in high school, something usually taken on by college graduates, yet it was still within the known field of sustainability (although likely just burgeoning at the time).

    To be first in a completely new area, you face challenges such as explaining the very area you are defining to others. They likely won’t “get it” until you infect them. It’s like making up an award and saying you won it, except that some of those victories are actually real… and people will latch on to the real ones as long as they understand it.

    @Cal and @Tim – Awesome post and great writing, both in examples and in analysis. The unique-ness factor applies to so many aspects of life. I had to laugh when I read “Employers don’t mind upsetting hard workers, but they fear losing stars.” Once when I was working for a certain unnamed fruity company, I was eventually placed on a team of three people on a program where teams usually consisted of no less than thirty. Because of our unique position, we really got away with anything, but at the same time what we gave back was nothing less than the best.

    Everyone should aim to take on superstar status.

    Like

  12. Thanks for the post Tim

    I work in a call centre in a business and I put together a wikipedia for the business using mircosoft sharepoint. All the backend stuff was taken care of but, I had add all the data and get others on board. It runs for around 200 employees

    Previous to wiki, no one new my name. I worked hard but everyone else did aswell. I was no Valedictorian by any means.

    Now I’m know as the wiki guru. Now I can say hello to a lot of different people in the business and they know my name. Which is awesome!!!!

    This post cemented a belief I was trying to grasp. That you need a niche and people to belief you have a niche to stand out. Or be a superstar in your terms.

    Thanks again.

    Adam

    P.S Whats the story behind you and the sumo’s?

    Like

  13. You always have the coolest posts that have so much impact on how I perceive things. I have Seth Godin’s audiobook “The Dip” and listen to it regularly as inspiration to find how I can find my “Superstar Corollary”. Looking forward to your new book :)

    Like

  14. Great post, Cal.
    I’ve been reading your blog for a while and love the principles that I have learned.

    Glad to see your philosophies being applied beyond academia.

    Side note: the world famous phisicist Michio Kaku has a similar story of how he got a scholarship to Harvard.

    Also the last sentance in this post starts “Is there’s an uncontested corner…” I think the “‘s” might be a mistake.

    thanks for your work.

    Like

  15. wow amazed that the gift is already so large in such few days, good job.

    in Jen Brady voice: It’s all aout Marcia Marcia Marcia! lol it’s always about the best. I feel so sorry for the runner up, you know, i think they try the hardest. one yr my boarding school had an evil plan to group us by academic achievement, and they had the top student in 1 class, etc. I always felt bad for the B’s, the A’s were naturals, but the B’s smh they kept trying without the glory

    Like