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.

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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

  16. Tim,
    This is such an excellent article. I guess if I’d thought about it, I could say I knew some of this just from life experience, but I’m so grateful to you for connecting the dots so beautifully! And your research provided such awesome illustrations – what I needed to get my head around this. We hear so much about picking a niche, and this is proof positive that when you do it right, you don’t have competition and you can become the superstar (and only game in town) without working yourself to the bone. This article came at such a great time for me in my business development and helped me get really clear on my direction. Thank you!!
    Warmly,
    Jessica

    Like

  17. You made a good point about the professional who writes a book on a topic, which gives him the “Superstar” effect. But I think you can also create a following behind the book or medium.

    This can not only accelerate but even magnify the “superstar” effect. In other words, build a story behind it. Something people can follow and become intrigued. Video is a great way to do this. Just look at the Dodo iPad case guys you mentioned in your last post. They created videos showing the manufacturing process of their cases. Tens of thousands of people liked it and became followings of the story.

    Like

  18. Great Post!

    Steve Martins wisdom is awesome.. Tyler Durden from fight club had a similar saying ……….

    I know this because Tyler Knows this……

    ” No Fear. No Distractions. The Ability to let that which does not matter truly slide!!! “” Tyler Durden

    Being able to focus on the one thing that will make you great can be tough in the world that we live in. From the time that we are born we are inundated with content, commercials, etc. Even has an entrepreneur once you have some success with something it is easy to get pulled in all sorts of directions because people want a piece! Gotta let it slide and focus on what is important.

    Peter Drucker, Father of modern management, was renowned for turning down speaking engagements, and business dealings because it did not fit in the scope of what he was good at!!

    Love it, we all need to be reminded of this!

    Thanks Tim.

    Like

  19. Amazing phenomenon indeed! All the more reason to really go out and do some wild things. I love the idea of traveling to every country in the world and writing about it. That’s just what Chris Guillebeau of The Art of Non Conformity is doing. Very sweet idea!

    I am a huge believer that you have to go out and do crazy things that people point laugh and say youre crazy for doing since they see it as attempting the impossible. But then again what do you have to lose? There are some major asymmetric payouts for trying really odd ball stand out things. Maybe taking the record for most Tango spins is a good example. Last week I went out and ran a 50k Ultra Marathon in my Vibram’s with two week of training just to see if it was possible. It took over 8 hours but I made it. Made for an awesome experience in expanding the realm of what’s possible (and gave me something fun to write about).

    Right on guys!
    Scott

    Like

    • I have the personal philosophy with making life decisions. If it will make a great story, then it is worth doing.

      The only problem I see with relation to this article is that is sounds like it is better to have all those stories connected under a theme. Rather it be Stand-up comedy, environmentalism, or non-traditional career paths.

      Like

  20. I don’t like to be the one to split hairs, but I’m sure I’m not the only opera singer who is a fan of Tim’s blog, so I might as well get in there before someone else does.

    What is the author referring to when he says “To avoid embarrassment, most performers resort to the far easier natural C”? All 9 high C’s are C naturals. I have the score right in front of me to double-check. Perhaps the author meant taking the C down an octave? I’m pretty familiar with the opera, having performed the lead soprano role, and I’ve never heard anyone do that; I don’t think one could get away with it. (Someone correct me if I’m wrong on this?) The only other thing I could think of was that the tenor could sing the high C’s in falsetto, but these days you’d be laughed at for doing that. No, pretty much you sing them and they sound good, or you sing them and they sound bad.

    For the uninitiated, here’s a YouTube clip (not by me) splicing together 8 different tenors singing the same 9-high-C’s section of the aria, so you can hear the difference between Florez and Pavarotti. (Tim if I am breaking the rules by posting this you can delete this part!) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5I3-55pmSe8

    I’ve heard Florez sing this live and can vouch for his awesomeness. Wow.

    Like

  21. I’ve always knew that concentrating your forces on one small, yet important point yealds great reward, but case studies and repeting are great for focusing even more on that idea. I’m going to apply it to my business – stripping it even more from side chances and focusing on needs of my target group.

    A little question on the side though: Tim, I’ve seen your presentation about haters and loved it. But that’s not all. You have a great way of dealing with envy (with can be very dangerous and damaging btw.) – whould you be so kind and share it with us? I catched already some patterns, but have a feeling that it’s not all.

    Like

  22. Great blip, truisms abound and I emailed my daughter (applying to colleges this year) whom I’ve told multiple times this very important factor in college acceptance. Maybe you’re explanation will help her better define her superstar effect.

    Like

  23. Although I ultimately think your article is very inspiring and motivational, I’d like to mention that this is not really an original idea. Of course you should find a niche where you can excel and work your way to the top quickly. The challenge isn’t about figuring out that you need to go after a niche but figuring yourself out and discovering the niche where you can excel. I think a piece on discovering that niche would be far more helpful.

    Like

  24. Great article! I have considered this Superstar Effect and Corollary many times before, but never new it existed as a theory. I think the Superstar Effect stands true as it is measurable and stands as a landmark in a person’s memory. Which are you going to remember or find more impressive: Sue runs everyday or John is the only person to run in all 50 states? I think one of the most famous examples of the Superstar Effect is David Beckham. While he was one of the better players in the world his true notoriety came from his uncanny ability over the ball on free kicks.

    I also appreciate your tidbit on guest blogs. When you are using a guest post to you actually invite that person to write a post for you or do you see a post on another blog and ask permission if you can use it on your blog? Do you even ask permission for that matter? Thanks in advance for you answer.

    Like

    • Hi there,

      Guest posters are usually writers whose work I’ve read (in that case, I ask if they’d like to contribute), or I’m approached with a pitch via referral. That’s usually how they happen. I would never post an entire post without permission from another site. Bad karma and bad manners.

      Tim

      Like

  25. Douglass Lodmell the attorney? I’ve been reading that guy’s weekly emails and youtube videos for 2 years now! He is a Superstar. You should ask him how he became the go-to guy for professionals like myself for asset protection.

    Like

  26. Very interesting! I hadn’t heard of the Superstar effect before, but it kind of always made intuitive sense to me to master something unique and original.

    I have this little real estate venture going on offering housing to people in large West African cities who are at an income level above slums but below the middle class. There are millions such people and their housing needs seem to be somehwhat ignored. So far I havent heard of any company or entrepreneur in the developed world doing the same thing in the same way. Hopefully this is unique enough for a bit of superstar effect!

    Like

  27. Hey Tim,

    Happy 33 and thanks again for the inspiration. Great read. There’s one thing I’ struggling with though, and I felt the same after finishing the 4HWW.

    Isn’t the need to be the best, to be seen and respected, in ways the same thing as the need for a big career, mansion and BMW convertible?
    Are liberation and vagabonding not also about being free from the judgement of others?

    To be clear: there’s no hidden truth in my questions, as I haven’t found my own answers yet. Just wondering if you found yours :)

    Cheers,

    Daan

    Like

  28. Wow! What an awesome article. I find the idea of long-term focus fascinating. It would be really cool if Cal wrote another guest post on this subject. While you have success stories like Steve Martin, you also have success stories like Twitter which were a result of making a major pivot / change of focus. When is it good to change focus vs. stat on your current path.

    Like

  29. Great piece. It’s just a simple idea with huge effects too. You never remember the 2nd best after all. The principle’s apply everywhere.

    If you want to be a celebrity sports-person, win 1 Olympic gold. 20 silver medals whilst technically more impressive just doesn’t compare.

    Like

  30. Very thoughtful and encouraging piece from Cal – I’m intrigued as to how this is working out for me (might explain some of my own niche involvement career-wise) and how to share this with others… – thanks!

    Like

  31. Excellent, thought-provoking article!

    Yes, I do recognize the Superstar effect in many fields…and oftentimes these “superstars” are even below the level of others, but through their combination of little talent,above average skills, and media savvy, they tend to project this impressive superstar profile.

    Like

  32. How do you decide where to focus your attention to the exclusion of other avenues? Do you follow your instinct and go after the Top Idea in Your Mind? Maybe. You need to make sure what you’re doing will be valuable to others. Easier said than done, but worth pursuing. Great piece and nice to see Cal’s work here.

    Like

  33. Great post Cal / Tim!

    This was like a wonky life-hacker “Seth Godin-esque” blog post. I’m now left feeling inspired and ready to conquer… anything!

    I also love the way Cal takes a seemingly obvious point (you need to stand out to get into Stanford) and makes it come alive.

    He’s obviously a smart guy, but I’d imagine the art of storytelling is what has helped make him a superstar.

    Like

  34. Hi Tim-
    I about fell over reading your blog posting when I found out I won the round trip ticket! Thank you so much, glad to have helped the kids and very glad to have won the trip. Now off to explore destinations online. Cheers!

    Like

  35. Methinks, in this increasingly connected and complex world, the natural next step is to collaborate in smart ways with others, using your main talents to accomplish greater things than you could on your own. Moving From Me to We

    Like

  36. This totally got me thinking about how to apply the Superstart Effect to my business and the book I’m currently working on.

    Thanks for another inspiring post!
    Cailen

    Like

  37. Tim and the greater community,

    I had a revelation today after reading this article. I always walk away from Tim or his guest’s posts feeling energized and educated. I try to take a few key points away and experiment with them in my own life. Some of the experiments have stuck (investing in areas where you have superior knowledge or some form of an edge) and some of the experiments have gone by the wayside (checking my email only twice a day).

    My revelation is as follows. Many of the articles written, including this one by Cal Newport, are in a tone which leads the reader to believe that if they apply the principles then the desired results will be achieved. To put it another way, if we did an experiment where 100 people all applied the principles exactly as written over a 90 day period then based on the tone of the article we should expect all 100 people to end up with the same results. I reason to say, though, that after 90 days we would not end up with 100 full blown super stars. Some members of 100 will have achieved the desired results, but not all.

    The light at the end of the tunnel… it may sound like I am trying to discredit the author and his methods, but my ultimate goal couldn’t be farther from the truth. While I highlight that this article and many others by Tim and his guest’s are not a replicable science they are still relevant. Here is my point. I used to feel bad when a personal project didn’t gain traction or an experiment didn’t go as planned thinking to myself “Geez, why is it so easy for Tim, but so hard for me?” The answer, because it isn’t a science. You and I (and Tim for that matter) will fail many times before we gain traction, but Tim and his guest’s don’t write about their failures. All of the results shown by Tim and his guest’s have a success bias since that is what we want to read about. This leads myself, and I would imagine other readers, to believe that they are inferior or incapable of achieving the results desired after a certain number of failed attempts. The truth, though, is that the failed attempts are a necessary piece of the equation even if they are left out of the articles. Why I have always missed this I have no idea. To think that I was the only one failing is ludicrous! …Right?

    *NOTE TO TIM* Perhaps, you could write one blog post on your most epic failure? This would give the slightest counterbalance to the unflinching tone of constant success portrayed on your blog. We know you are superhuman, but perhaps you haven’t always been? Oh, who am I kidding. I’m sure you are an outlier who has always had success. =)

    Like

  38. So often people get caught up in the “rat race” and compete to be at the top. Yet they often follow the rules to do so, always doing what their boss tells them to do.

    However, like Calvin points out, it is the guys who create their own path that get noticed. This is a great blog-post. Now its time for everyone here to create their own path!

    -Kai

    Like

  39. Lots to think about, although I think that idea that Stanford BSchool student Michael was “disproportionately” rewarded for his previous accomplishments relative to his SAT scores and GPA is inaccurate.

    That Stanford is so preoccupied with grades and standardized test scores to begin with shows that even top schools are not immune to the herd thinking that business school ranking systems are driving. What people accomplish in the real world SHOULD mean more for entrance to top schools than the marks they get — one can become a great student without leadership, inititiative, creativity, vision, or values. That’s probably why so many great entrepreneurs side step business school anyway — maybe that’s not a bad thing.

    Like

  40. Great post!

    I love it and the way you’ve presented it in such a focused way (as always). I can also see how this approach is taken to extremes and seems to be a favorite of would-be “celebrities” (Paris Hilton, et al), who are willing to do just about anything to get and continue getting attention to stand out.

    Time, do you think there is some line where this approach becomes cynical? What human psychological effect (maybe evolution?) do you think is at play when we judge something better just because it stands out? It could be legit or just window dressing.

    Thanks!

    Like

  41. Tim,

    Remember the “laws of marketing” either you or Rose recommended on an episode of random? The college admissions example relates directly to one of the laws: if you can’t be first in a category, create a new category to be first in. I think this is the essence of the superstar corollary.

    — Steve

    P.S. I deadlifted 465 raw, overhand grip, close stance. Hope your DL goal is close!

    Like

    • Yep, that’s my fave: The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing.

      And… dang! 465 raw with double overhand (no wraps?) from the floor is a damn respectable DL. I blew out my left groin a few months ago, but I’ll get there…

      Like

  42. I have experienced this effect and the positive outcome involved. For my birthday my wife entered me in a rock race, where you drive vehicles over insanely difficult obstacles as fast as you can. I handily won the even with no penalties in a vehicle that cost only $250! Having beaten people in much nicer vehicles who race competitively, it is assumed my driving ability must be the determining factor in race. All of a sudden I have a trophy and some interesting street credit. I’ve done this type of driving for years now but to be “the best” if only for that one day and one competition, disproportionately enhances my perceived abilities. As a matter of fact, just entering the arena and becoming a competitor gets the Superstar Corollary started and begins to set you apart from others.

    Like

  43. Great post!
    I can vouch for the uniqueness theory from personal experience. I worked selling software training courses for the world’s largest IT training company. In my first month I broke the world’s record for sales. Highest sales ever, and they operated with over 6500 reps in over 60 countries at the time.
    From that point on, in my several years with the company, I was well known as “that guy” who set the record. (and I still am known as the guy who set the record!)
    Many others were probably better salespeople overall, and outsold me in the long run, but no one ever forgot my achievement.
    As such, I was pretty much given carte blanche to operate as I wanted.
    Be unique in something…anything! The rewards are always worth it.

    Like

  44. At times, it’s as though this site is meant to happen for my life… As I’m questioning certain topics and aspects of my businesses, time and time again I look at my email and see a topic exactly on point with my questions and concerns… From the Shopify contest to motivational pushes to fine tuning the niche, your articles are always on spot. Kind of perplexing to be honest…

    Thanks for that Tim! Cheers…

    Patrick

    Like

  45. Great post! Guest posts are usually hit or miss for me – this one hit :)

    To Jason Ford
    My favorite posts on the blog leave me feeling energized regardless of the true probability of success. And don’t worry – I’m a serial-failure too (although compound learning is starting to pay off).

    To Cal
    I don’t know if you read the comments on your guest post (some authors do), but I think a lot of readers would be interested in how you used the Superstar Effect to promote your book (other than the obvious credentials – very impressive btw). It would be fun to see the real-life applications of your own advice :)

    To Tim
    Happy Birthday and congrats on +20,000 karma points! I agree with Jason – it would be cool to hear about a failure (Chinese mafia?), especially in terms of how you coped with the resulting self-doubt and disappointment. As good as your book was, my favorite part is the Chronology of a Pathology. A sneak peak into your life experiences would be twice as interesting (IMO) as a post containing useful “information.” Feed your fans ;)

    Like

  46. Hey Tim,
    Would you apply the same logic to companies / businesses? That is, it’s better to be the top player in a small market than a good player in a big market? It seems like the argument only holds up if the small market is big enough to support you. I can start a blog right now about “High tech product managers who also love to work out, hike and sing karaoke” and I’m pretty sure I could easily conquer that niche, but I think it my target audience would be a bit small.

    Like

  47. Tim –

    The picture you linked to is Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee. It actually seats over 102,000 people.

    Thanks and keep up the good work.

    Jason

    Like

    • Wow, that’s strange. It was described in the post and via Google images as holding 20,000! Ah, well, I’ll have to aim for more students then :) Any ideas on a stadium that holds 20,000?

      Tim

      Like

  48. Great Post. I started thinking of accomplished people in a slightly different way, and a question came to mind. Is the Superstar Effect easier? I don’t know….it seems to require MORE creativity, resulting in less ‘hard work’…..

    Ahh–always good to visit this site, leaving with answers and questions.

    Like

  49. I think there’s a missing detail here with respect to how “field” is defined. There are people who are the best at what they do and are not generally respected nor hyper-compensated, people whom the public find amusing yet hold in mild contempt, i.e. Guinness World Record holders. The difference between engineering a biofuel prototype and eating more crickets than anyone in the world is the perception of monetizability. To my mind, the “Superstar Corollary” holds so long as the field of endeavor has a market greater than zero. This is necessary to reap respect outside of the niche; opera aficionados and cricket eaters respectively will appreciate their best in class for pure reasons, but outside of the field, what the layperson is reacting to is probably the implication of wealth-generating power.

    Like

  50. Hey Tim,
    I’ve got a 14 year old brother I’m mentoring through starting his first muse, and this is perfect for him. Just bought the book, thanks for another great recommendation.

    Sean

    P.S. Looking forward to the Becoming Superhuman release date, I’ll definitely be getting several for myself and friends/family.

    Like

  51. Tim and Community,

    What a smart bunch of people and interesting comments and what a great post by Calvin Newport. Not sure which part I like the most.

    Was it the ‘The Sumo picture part’ ?

    or…

    The Calvin Newport’s superior writing skills and message part ?

    or…

    The “Hey it’s my birthday, let’s celebrate by doing something valuable that makes a difference in the real world for kids” Part…

    They are all favored.

    Calvin’s ideas about becoming a superstar in your own micro-niche really got me thinking – not just because I’m participating in Ed Dale’s Challenge this year and there is a lot of focus on keywords and micro-niches online.

    The post created an alternate perspective – new eyes for me – to look at the ‘micro-niche super star’ formula from an offline perspective, in a totally different way.

    The article also caused me to step back and take a look at how I use my energy and focus. I read part of Steve Martin’s book prior to this post and his definition of diligence goes right to the heart of the matter in many of my own personal experiences. In retrospect, I can see where my enthusiasm – coupled with a high level of energy – has often resulted in a fragmented or haphazardly diffused focus. I have always admired Steve Martin for his intelligence and perspective and I think Calvin’s use of that example really fit well for me.

    Simultaneously, the piece created a sense of ‘internal encouragement’ around pursuing some of the ideas I have had on the back burner for a long time.

    While I think Jason Ford’s comment has real value in proposing a different perspective on success – kind of the flip side – there is no lack of personal examples of failure from which to learn. I have a whole portfolio of my own over the last 40 years.

    And yet Jason brings a valid point to the table, I believe, in these ways

    1) I learn a great deal from observing and understanding other people’s (company’s) mistakes. This is a much more intelligent use of time and energy than at earlier points in my life where I “had to make the mistake myself” and in fact, had to DO everything myself.

    In college I had an upper division seminar class doing Harvard case studies of ‘real world corporate’ marketing mistakes. It was called, “Mis-marketing.”
    It was a challenging class where we had to take different sides of the issue – without knowing the outcome and develop a marketing plan with the original real world data and then compare and evaluatethe actual real world outcome with ours (the students’ proposed plans). All were critiqued by both our student peers and the professors (we had two in this class).

    My point: studying other mistakes can be a great learning model.

    My thought about using Tim’s examples of success is to mentally do an overlay and apply Tim’s or Juan Diego Florez or Michael Sullivan’s successes as a comparison tool template against my current ideas or past failures and re-evaluate.

    So in response to Jordan, I think observation, evaluation and comparison are the essence of the scientific model. Tim throws in both some common sense and some un-common sense into the mix to spice up the recipe and operate the game on the cutting edge – outside the norm. My take on this is that while success is natural, it is not “normal”.

    2) I have another approach to Jordan’s suggestion…

    I am exited by intelligence and successes both intellectually and emotionally. Hearing about success and feeling it vicariously tends to rev up the hero archetype inside. It activates the ‘if he can do it, I can do it’ aspect of my personality – more with a sense of admiration and modeling than competition.

    So concluding:

    What interesting and stimulating discussion and I’m off to create my own piece of super “star” dom in a micro-niche.

    I’ll be back.

    Great blog Tim.

    Michael

    Like

  52. Tim and Community,

    What a smart bunch of people and interesting comments and what a great post by Calvin Newport. Not sure which part I like the most.

    Was it the ‘The Sumo picture part’ ?

    or…

    The Calvin Newport’s superior writing skills and message part ?

    or…

    The “Hey it’s my birthday, let’s celebrate by doing something valuable that makes a difference in the real world for kids” Part…

    They are all favored.

    Calvin’s ideas about becoming a superstar in your own micro-niche really got me thinking – not just because I’m participating in Ed Dale’s Challenge this year and there is a lot of focus on keywords and micro-niches online.

    The post created an alternate perspective – new eyes for me – to look at the ‘micro-niche super star’ formula from an offline perspective, in a totally different way.

    The article also caused me to step back and take a look at how I use my energy and focus. I read part of Steve Martin’s book prior to this post and his definition of diligence goes right to the heart of the matter in many of my own personal experiences. In retrospect, I can see where my enthusiasm – coupled with a high level of energy – has often resulted in a fragmented or haphazardly diffused focus. I have always admired Steve Martin for his intelligence and perspective and I think Calvin’s use of that example really fit well for me.

    Simultaneously, the piece created a sense of ‘internal encouragement’ around pursuing some of the ideas I have had on the back burner for a long time.

    While I think Jason Ford’s comment has real value in proposing a different perspective on success – kind of the flip side – there is no lack of personal examples of failure from which to learn. I have a whole portfolio of my own over the last 40 years.

    And yet Jason brings a valid point to the table, I believe, in these ways

    1) I learn a great deal from observing and understanding other people’s (company’s) mistakes. This is a much more intelligent use of time and energy than at earlier points in my life where I “had to make the mistake myself” and in fact, had to DO everything myself.

    In college I had an upper division seminar class doing Harvard case studies of ‘real world corporate’ marketing mistakes. It was called, “Mis-marketing.”
    It was a challenging class where we had to take different sides of the issue – without knowing the outcome and develop a marketing plan with the original real world data and then compare and evaluatethe actual real world outcome with ours (the students’ proposed plans). All were critiqued by both our student peers and the professors (we had two in this class).

    My point: studying other mistakes can be a great learning model.

    My thought about using Tim’s examples of success is to mentally do an overlay and apply Tim’s or Juan Diego Florez or Michael Sullivan’s successes as a comparison tool template against my current ideas or past failures and re-evaluate.

    So in response to Jordan, I think observation, evaluation and comparison are the essence of the scientific model. Tim throws in both some common sense and some un-common sense into the mix to spice up the recipe and operate the game on the cutting edge – outside the norm. My take on this is that while success is natural, it is not “normal”.

    2) I have another approach to Jordan’s suggestion…

    I am exited by intelligence and successes both intellectually and emotionally. Hearing about success and feeling it vicariously tends to rev up the hero archetype inside. It activates the ‘if he can do it, I can do it’ aspect of my personality – more with a sense of admiration and modeling than competition.

    So concluding:

    What interesting and stimulating discussion and I’m off to create my own piece of super “star” dom in a micro-niche.

    I’ll be back.

    Great blog Tim.

    Michael

    Like

  53. From the beginning of this article, I got the impression that Michael Silverman was slacker. He was not. He had a passion for something, he did it well and was able to communicate this passion to the folks at Stanford. He’ll probably do great there. He wasn’t looking for a way to “hack life.” Where I grew up, the real meaning of “hack ” is someone who half-asses everything. For all you who are looking to be life-hackers, you may want to start with trying to figure out where your passion lies.

    Like

  54. @JasonFord:
    +1

    Failure doesn’t sell. Recipe for success does. As long as the confirmation bias is not understood by the masses, “dream” sellers will have the upper hand.
    Tim is a dream seller (no offense Tim shall you be reading) and a great one at that!
    The thing that differentiates him from the other ones though is that he introduces us to tools, resources and gadgets that are really useful (I use a lot of them on a daily basis with great pleasure).
    That’s why I keep reading him. He makes me discover new things.

    I can’t wait for his new book because I know that he will have some great insights on dieting, nutrition. Stuff will be useful to me.

    I just don’t read the stuff I think is loaded with confirmation bias like today’s post and keep taking advantage of the good (in my opinion) stuff (I love when Tim talks about language learning for example!!!).

    Overall I’m glad Tim is here!

    Like

  55. I saw first hand a superstar at work. It was at a pharmacy/ cosmetic store. You wouldn’t think much could happen there. But this one woman who after dealing with her raising her kids (4 or them) probably had bound up energy to get out and do what she really wanted to do, which was develop a NY style cosmetic boutique. It wasn’t overnight but she turned an everyday pharmacy into an incredible cosmetic center. Everything was changed. She got rid of anyone in her path (including me), had the store completely rebuilt and finally left this place with an outstanding reputation within that cosmetic world to start another one in NY.

    Me, I wasn’t a superstar and although pound for pound I made a nice return on investment for the owner, I was replaceable, just like your article said.

    Thanks for this article, Tim, it gives me some very good ideas.

    Like

  56. @Tim Well, you are known for asking good questions for a reason. :) I can’t rephrase it because I can’t understand what the author meant, but my theory is that it was a misunderstanding on the author’s part, in which case I’d delete it. I did a little glancing around the internets to see if there was something about an alternate version of the aria or something I didn’t know about, and I think I get where the confusion came from. The Wikipedia article linked says “Many lesser tenors do not quite hit the notes (hitting B natural instead), especially as they come in rapid-fire succession and require considerable vocal dexterity.” This means that they sing the notes flat, ie out of tune on the too-low side of the pitch. (A lot of bad Queen of the Nights do this too, in Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute.) I’m guessing the author typo’d “C” for “B” natural, and misunderstood the sentence in Wikipedia- which was meant to say that the tenors couldn’t hit the high notes correctly- as meaning that the tenors made a conscious choice to sing a different note. Which would not be true, because a B natural would sound just horrible at that point in the music. :)

    But if your guest-blogger does want to say something to emphasize the difficulty of the high C’s, he could point out instead that this crowd-pleasing opera is not performed as often as it would be otherwise because it can be hard for opera companies to find a tenor who can pull it off. Of course that is anecdotal; there is no way to get statistics for that. ;)

    If you are making corrections, one other thing: the ARIA is known as the “Mount Everest of Opera,” not the opera. The opera itself is a light little comedy about a girl raised by an army regiment, who discovers she is of noble blood and has to learn to act like a lady instead of a dirty, swearing soldier. And I don’t think anyone considers it Donizetti’s masterpiece- that title usually goes to Lucia di Lammermoor.

    Sorry for nit-picking- I love opera so much, I start talking about it and I don’t want to stop!

    Like

  57. Sweet post.

    The Superstar Effect got me fired two weeks ago. Petty jealousy from a higher-up.

    Word spread fast and within 3 days I had three job offers from employers who couldn’t believe what had happened. All three better than the position I was dumped from.

    Am taking a holiday at the moment and will start the new job August 9.

    Want to become a superstar? Do something that you are not paid to do, that noone would expect you to do, and that noone has asked you to do. :)

    Like

  58. I used to work with a mega-bestselling author who’s very successful as a seminar guru and continues to leverage off a breakthrough success he had over 30 years ago – and quite a few accomplishments since. He’s probably told those stories from the platform and in writing hundreds, maybe even thousands of times. He get’s crazy, big fees for his programs.

    What I notice he has going for him is what I call “Star Power.” I was talking with a prospective client and he said, “Denise, I’m just not the guy to get out there and promote myself in a big way. I’m more the analytical/supporter kind of guy. I replied, “Get over yourself. The most successful people are the ones that learn the balancing act between the personality traits where you’re naturally good and the ones where you need to do a little extra work to get there – but you CAN get there. If you don’t promote yourself and get a little star power working in your favor – people will walk right past you to align with someone who does.

    Marketing isn’t about you. It’s about your customers.

    Denise Michaels Excellent Adventure

    Like

  59. oh man this is going to be so fun to test i was actually working on the same thing but with the amount of clarity u have put into this post and its structure its going to make it that more flexible to play around with

    oh marketing thou art cunning :P

    Like

  60. After spending all yesterday traveling home from Europe, I was excited to see the number of comments that had piled up during my day fruitfully spent wedged into seat 37J.

    I’m going to do my best to dive in and react and respond where interesting…

    Like

  61. I think only Tim as the ability to respond directly under specific comments, so I’ll just quote the relevant bits below before responding…

    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

    This partially why I thought Tim’s blog was a perfect target for an article on this topic — he personifies it!

    I’ve read Calvin’s book How to Become a Straight A student and continue to have success in school due to his advice.

    Thanks! I meet fans of the red book in all sorts of unlikely places. (In Zurich the other day, for example, a reader found me to buy me some coffee…an always appreciated gesture.)

    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.

    I highly recommend his book. In the meantime, watch his interview with Charlie Rose for more insight on these issues:

    http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/8831

    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.

    My views on this are controversial: I think what you do is much less important than how (well) you do it. For example:

    http://calnewport.com/blog/2009/11/24/are-passions-serendipitously-discovered-or-painstakingly-constructed/

    my ferriss-inspired blog: College Lifestyle Design…

    We should know each other, it sounds like our blogs tackle some similar issues.

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  62. More comment responses…

    “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).”

    Exactly! When competing in a field with a well-defined competitive structure, your ROI is likely going to be terrible.

    Maybe you can help answer a question that I had a really hard time answering when researching my book: how much does a professional opera singer, like Florez, make in a year? The best estimates I could get covered a wide range (none of which were all that lucrative).

    “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!!!!”

    Perfect example.

    “I’ve been reading your blog for a while and love the principles that I have learned.”

    Thanks Jonathan. I have a feeling that Study Hacks and Tim’s blog share quite a few readers in common.

    “This can not only accelerate but even magnify the “superstar” effect. In other words, build a story behind it. Something people can follow and become intrigued.”

    I was nibbling around the edges of this concept with with the idea of sloganizing, but as you point out, I think there’s a richer story to be told here about magnifying.

    In my new book, I actually I have this long section called “The Art of Becoming Good,” where I walk through various “magnifiers” of this type.

    “What is the author referring to when he says “To avoid embarrassment, most performers resort to the far easier natural C”? All 9 high C’s are C naturals. I have the score right in front of me to double-check. Perhaps the author meant taking the C down an octave

    For the uninitiated, here’s a YouTube clip (not by me) splicing together 8 different tenors singing the same 9-high-C’s section of the aria, so you can hear the difference between Florez and Pavarotti.”

    I’m going to send this to my copy editor (the same story appears in my book), and she’s going to be upset! This is exactly the type of small detail she loves to catch. Thanks for sharing! Also, those clips are amazing.

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  63. “To some extent, the Superstar Corollay sounds a little bit like the Blue Ocean Strategy applied to personal life. What do you think?”

    I know the book but haven’t read it. There’s also a new book out on a similar subject (something about rethinking competition), but I haven’t read that either. I get the feeling, however, that they’re all circling the same low-level principle.

    “The answer, because it isn’t a science. You and I (and Tim for that matter) will fail many times before we gain traction, but Tim and his guest’s don’t write about their failures. All of the results shown by Tim and his guest’s have a success bias since that is what we want to read about.”

    This is definitely true. It’s hard to avoid survivor bias in the advice genre because experimental trials are difficult. I can’t speak for Tim, but the way I try to mitigate the effect is by immersing myself in the world of my research subjects, getting to know both the successes and failures well before trying to extract principles. Also, when it comes to student advice, like the college admissions strategies in my new book, many of them went through informal testing; e.g., students who tried them on my recommendation than came back and reported success.

    “I don’t know if you read the comments on your guest post (some authors do), but I think a lot of readers would be interested in how you used the Superstar Effect to promote your book (other than the obvious credentials – very impressive btw). It would be fun to see the real-life applications of your own advice :)”

    If you have any ideas, I’m happy to hear them! Promotion is not my strong point. My approach, which is naive, is to write books that change people’s lives, then let the rest work itself out. My publisher would prefer that I also spend time doing fancy twitter auto-post facebook fan stuff. But I tend to end up turning my attention back to the writing.

    “Where I grew up, the real meaning of “hack ” is someone who half-asses everything”

    The rise of the life hacker movement has been transforming this meaning toward the rejection of assumptions and critical analysis of the best way to achieve a result. Michael is definitely no slacker. But he’s also definitely not a blind follower of conventional thinking — which is what was key for his story.

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  64. Darn, was out of town and came in late on this one. Don’t know if you’re still reading these, but…

    As usual, very interesting post. I’ve been trying to apply this to various areas of my life for quite some time (including college admissions a while ago!). It’s very true that, while it’s difficult to be the very best at something many people are good at, it’s often not as difficult–and is much more fun–to be different.

    My question, though, is have you ever found a product or idea to be just TOO different? What would you do if this were the case?

    I work for my husband’s company, and they have a product that fills an interesting niche. They are, I would say, the best in a very small field, and have done pretty well. They have “sloganized” well, and have begun to make a name for themselves, but are finding it hard to get the kind of advertising and marketing opportunities usually open to new products because of the nature of their product. It’s going to be hard to describe without telling you the product, so it’s…
    BoneTown, the world’s first Action Adventure P*rno Video Game.

    It’s fun, it’s hilarious, and it’s far more comedy than “adult” content, though it has that too. But since it’s too “adult” for the mainstream and too “mainstream” for the adult world, it’s been hard to get even something as obvious as Google AdWords going. They will only advertise us on places we don’t really want to advertise, since it’s really a mainstream audience we’re going for. The game is doing really well among those who have found it so far, but we would love to be able to get it out there to a larger audience and not just wait for them to come to us.

    So my question is, what would you do about a product that is new and different enough that it’s difficult to put it out there? Hopefully not abandon all hope? :)

    And happy birthday, by the way!!

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  65. @Amanda. I, too, am a bit confused by the opera analogy since, having studied voice for years and NOT succeeded ;) , I feel that most opera singers are battling in the one niche of gorgeous soundmaking and dramatic expression. The “ringing” of Pavarotti’s C’s are what all singers aspire to. What about that undefinable star quality? And don’t forget the agent/marketing/handling factor (right?). Not in the opera bizz so I don’t know…

    Though I love the point here of the post that success goes beyond being lucky enough to be born with freakish talent or crazy enough to work yourself to the bone.

    There is some pressure, though, that success requires being the BEST. Hopefully there are 6.8 billion niches to cover the world’s population.

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  66. Important Clarification: A few commenters seem to be coming away with the impression that Michael was somehow a slacker. This is definitively not true! He worked his ass off in high school. The key point of this article is that he applied the Superstar Corollary by dedicating his hard work somewhere smart and likely to return big rewards, and not just in the same old pursuits as every other grind seeking a Stanford acceptance.

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  67. Thank you for a brilliant post Cal (and by extension, Tim). It reminded me of some of the themes that Malcolm Gladwell touches upon in Outliers, but what was poignant for me, was that we can reasonably engineer our success in fulfilling the superstar corollary. As I am about to embark upon my own muse project, it has justified the reason why I should be focusing solely on this particular project and not get distracted by anything else, which, currently is a problem of mine.

    One question though; there is a danger for some who may assume that harnessing the superstar corollary may be a case of ‘putting all of one’s eggs in one basket’. If that person follows your advice and does not achieve the level of success they envisage, then they maybe bitterly disappointed with the outcome and with they’d never tried. What advice would either of you give on that?

    Best wishes,

    Jordan

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  68. Noticing a few comments, Cal and I want to emphasize that Michael was not a slacker. Not at all.

    He was an incredibly hard worker. The key point is that he dedicated his work somewhere smart — an unusual niche that would return big rewards — instead of the same old places most high school kids target: class rank and activity list size.

    Hope that makes sense!

    Tim

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  69. Kia ora

    Jason’s point is a good one – but I guess the important point is to still give it a go. You may not become the ‘superstar’ first time – but there’s only one way to find out if you will.
    And if you’re going to fail then fail fast and fail often. Clearly this isn’t the ultimate aim so its pleasing to note that the upside to this is your successes will also grow proportionately.
    Thanks to Tim resources like this site, his book etc give us (the readers) the spark to set our ideas on fire, stay one step ahead of the pack – and hopefully avoid a few of the unnecessary failures.

    ka kite ano

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  70. Tim, This is such an excellent article post! I’ve been a fan for a while and have read your book 4 times and just stepped away from a life of complete crazieness. I was like the atty. in your book pulling all-nighters to make the masses happy. After a tear filled conversation with my dad about how I couldn’t take it anymore I stunned all of my friends by walking away from a thriving insurance agency at the top of my game and am embraced the 4HWW (March 31st, 2010). Working on my muses and having a great time.

    I’m about to rock the superstar effect. I get it. The understanding between being the best and being the “best” is as much energy as it is skill in an area that you thrive and shine brighter than anyone and everyone recognizing it.

    Tim my man! Keep on doing what you do. Thanks for being you and lighting the path. I hear you, see you and am on my way. Can’t wait for what comes next.

    Looking forward to your next post. Be well.

    Like

    • Gerald, thanks so much for the comment… and congratulations on making what must have been a hard decision. The good news: I suspect, just like Hans in the book, that you’ll find a newfound lightness of being, and plethora of options, that will reinvigorate and excite you.

      Can’t wait to see what you do!

      All the best,

      Tim

      Like

  71. I thought I would share my “Superstar Hack”. At my 9-to-5, the best way to achieve that level is to tackle new projects that scare others (via their fear of failure). But I have to pick and choose. #1 – It has to be a high profile project, meaning the very top level management have an interest in the project. #2 – It also has to be a project that sounds like an extremely profitable or promising addition to the company. And finally, #3 – it has to be one that seemingly has chance at failure. But I’ve found that if #1 and #2 are present, then it’s highly unlikely for #3 to happen. It makes for a challenging work environment which I thoroughly enjoy!

    Congrats on getting so many of us to help you donate on your last post! $90,000 to help young minds grow rocks! Education seems to always get cut first when the economy goes sour, when in most cases it should be one of the last. My sister-in-law’s class benefited from Donors Choose in February of this year, and she couldn’t have been happier with the support that it gave her.

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  72. Straight C Students FTW!! (For The Win)

    Why compete in a crowded space when you can create your own, or enter into a less crowded space.

    Great Guest Post!

    Like

  73. Hi Tim, great article as usual. I’m not sure what the best way of reaching you is, hopefully it’s ok to post this message here.

    I’m looking to get [removed], off the ground – any advice?

    Even just a confirmation of its usefulness would be huge. I find it incredibly useful, just not sure if it’s a marketable/profitable application.

    Thanks!

    Like

  74. Tim

    It’s great timing to be receiving this email. I am currently experiencing the Superstar Effect. A local not for profit has asked me to design a database for them. The director emailed me to ask if I can do this as paprt of my volunteering services with them.

    I ve only built one once and that was through part of a job upgrading program I finished in June. Not an expert but someone thinks I can do this. Interesting how other people’s perception of someone raises them to superstar status.

    I am going to take the gig and see where it leads. Hopefully to full time employement.
    Thanks

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  75. I’ve always had this idea in the back of my head, but never clarified it. I’ve applied it a few times, w/o realizing and I’ve seen it applied. Now it all makes sense. Creme du awesomeness!

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  76. Great post Tim!

    I saw this “superstar effect” concept at work when I was in the Air Force. Frequently, requirements would come down to nominate somebody in the squadron to compete at a higher command level for an award such as Outstanding Air Force Member of the Year. In true military fashion, the award nomination template would often be quite similar to past awards, similar format, types of bullets etc. Sometimes section chiefs within the squadron would not submit anybody because they didn’t think they had a competitive candidate and they had a million other things to do as well. Now the squadron commander still wanted to nominate somebody to compete so if we had a person who was deserving and won past awards it was much easier to take the bullets from their last nomination write-up, refocus it a little to fit the current award template and then submit that person. So individuals that did great work would wind up winning multiple types of awards for many times the same accomplishments. Don’t get me wrong, we only would nominate a person that deserved it and if somebody else deserved it we would write up a nomination form from scratch, but once a person had one winning award package and we didn’t get any other submissions it was a no brainer to submit a proven past winner. Come time to meet promotion boards that candidate had 3-4 awards under their belt and were in a much better position against their peers.

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  77. Thank you both for a great article. I am a former Ivy League admissions officer. 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.

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