Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

Dangerous Ideas: Action is Overrated

March 7th, 2008 · 19 comments

The Simple Six Letter Word That Determines SuccessRock Star

A few weeks back, Brian Clark, of Copyblogger fame, posted an intriguing article on Zen Habits. It was titled: Punk Rock Your Life: The Simple Six Letter Word That Determines Success.

The essay got some attention; eventually earning 1090 digs and 92 comments. I can see why. Like any timeless advice fable, it presents a simple message built around a compelling, illustrative story. Clark describes a Sex Pistols concert held in 1976 in Manchester, England. In attendance at this concert where a surprisingly large number of then unknown musicians who, inspired by the innovation on display, went on to become famous. Clark draws a clear conclusion:

So, what’s the six-letter word that determines success in life? Action.

Is that correct? The answer, I believe, is more complicated…

Beyond Action

Ask yourself the following: Do you anyone who tried to become a professional musician? Most people do. Did they succeed? Most such aspirants do not. (It’s a brutal business.)

Now ask yourself this: Did they work hard? Most likely, you answered “yes.” So why did the failed musicians you know not succeed when the inspired Sex Pistols fans did? There are several possible answers. Luck could play a role. Also talent. Maybe different levels of hard work. But none of these factors, alone, seems to provide the full story. On a closer examination of the hundreds of success stories I’ve witnessed or told, I’m starting to arrive at a new truth: Action cannot generate success unless it’s focused on an incredibly productive path.

Let me explain…

Punk, Not America Idol

Allow me a modest proposal. The reason those Sex Pistol fans became successful punk musicians is because they discovered a productive path on which to apply action. Here was a new type of music with the potential of making a big splash in that social context. By virtue of their age, where they lived, their political views, and their social circles, these musicians were uniquely qualified to be an early promoter of this genre that had explosive potential. All that was missing was taking the action to get there. Those that did made it big.

Consider, on the other hand, if I was to watch an episode of American Idol and get inspired and proclaim: “This is great! I want to do this!” Who cares. No amount of action is going to make me into a pop music star. Ditto if I wanted to become a great cage fighter or literary novelist. These paths would not be productive for my particular situtation.

Steve Martin Knew It

On reflection, this approach of identifying a productive direction for your action is embedded in our recent discussion of the Steve Martin Method. When he says “be so good they can’t ignore you,” you could substitute “relevant,” “new,” “necessary,” or “original” for “good.” Indeed, this is exactly what Martin did. He didn’t become good at the style of comedy currently in vogue. Instead, he invented a new style so compelling that it could not be ignored. Because he was a young, smart, well-educated comedy writer during a time of great social change, he was in a prefect situation to make this happen.

Applying to Your Life

I’m still working out some of these ideas, and can’t, at this point, distill this brainstorm into concrete advice, or even provide strong definitions of key concepts like “productive path.” I do think, however, that something important is brewing here. I will be revisiting the concept soon.

In the mean time, let me know what you think. How does this match or clash with your own experience? How does one best take advantage of this reality of big achievement? I’m interested to dive deeper.

19 thoughts on “Dangerous Ideas: Action is Overrated

  1. I think you are on to something that I have been thinking about lately.

    But… As I sat here attempting to put it into words, nothing was coming out right. I’ll give it another try…

    If I go for a run in heavy boots and bulky clothing, I am being active, but I am probably destroying my knees and ankles. Unless I take care of myself I will never become a Olympic runner. Activity ? Logical Productivity

    I believe a successful person asks, “What can I do that will make people need me?”

    This is where luck comes in. Sometimes the right person is in the right place at the right time. But most people will not have chance’s favor. Therefore, they must decide for themselves how they will become needed.

    Are we on the same page here? Or am I off?

  2. Tina Russell says:

    I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

    Tina Russell

  3. Jeff Collier says:

    First off, I think you might have a good thread here, finding the productive path to act on.

    But I have to complain about the anecdotal statistics. Who counted the “then unknown” musicians? Who’s counting them now for American Idol or even for __Fill in your Favorite Pop Star Here__? Is there _really_ a statistically significant difference to be found? I doubt someone could present real results.

    And two alternate ideas: maybe it’s inspiration: you didn’t go to a Sex Pistols show and not be moved to do something.

    A riff on your idea is that the Sex Pistols were ground breaking. They made the market that other (early adopters) co-opted into their own success. Perhaps the followers couldn’t blaze the path, but they could find the way with the trees blazed.

  4. Ben Casnocha says:

    Focused action — the right kind of action — being a key component of success is not very dangerous, to me. I agree that action in and of itself is not enough.

  5. Study Hacks says:

    @University Scholar:

    I think you’re on to something there. Stating it in terms of “need” is an interesting direction. This is how, for example, non-fiction book publishers think. They say: “show me a book that people need to buy, and we’ll publish it.”

    @Tina:

    Glad to meet you. I’ll keep an eye on your blog as well — as a productivity addict, I can’t resist.

    @Jeff:

    Yes, this is all anecdotal. The science on these big questions of success is still really muddled. Not that the science itself is bad, more that the reality of nature on these issues is complicated and riddled with exceptions.

    Staying within the realm of anecdotal speculation: inspiration alone probably doesn’t cut it. I think your final point is more accurate. The Sex Pistols opened up promising new ground for the followers to apply their action.

  6. Study Hacks says:

    @Ben:

    We’ve certainly talked about this before. To many people, however, I think the concepts is novel. The whole “Art of the Start” ethos that seeps over from the young entrepreneur world into the emerging productivity world — “start today!” — has a powerful hold. I’m interested in the idea of turning this on its head. Effort is overrated. Most people are fine at putting in effort. Identification of the right path is the whole game. I’m starting to think that a lot of people stumble onto a productive path, and, because of this, put a lot of emphasis on their effort (not knowing where else to give credit for their success). But the interesting question is if this stumbling can be replaced with something more systematic…

  7. Jake says:

    Very interesting point.

    Being self employed, it is painfully clear that action is not all it takes. Choosing the right actions, and putting effort into the right process is essential. Otherwise you might as well just be reading blogs all day at work. oops. busted ;)

  8. Study Hacks says:

    @Jake:

    It’s okay if it’s my blog…

  9. Derrick Kwa says:

    Good post, and couldn’t agree more.

    Reminds me of Seth Godin’s book, The Dip.

  10. Study Hacks says:

    @Derrick:

    I wrote a post about The Dip over the summer (should show up in a search). Really interesting book. Though it frustrates me in that it didn’t seem to offer enough meat in terms of identifying whether or not your were in a dip or a dead in.

  11. Vic says:

    One definition of “luck” is when preparedness meets opportunity. The actions of an individual, if they result in the right kind of preparedness, make it possible for them to take advantage of their particular circumstances. The trick, then, is to be able to identify the actions that result in the appropriate preparedness. These musicians may not have known that the Sex Pistols were on the forefront of a new musical paradigm when they stepped into the concert hall to listen, but their current level of preparedness let them take appropriate action as the paradigm unfolded. This is why strategic quitting is a key point of The Dip. The important skill to learn is how to identify appropriate action for the current environment, and quit those actions that become inappropriate as the environment changes.

  12. Study Hacks says:

    @Vic:

    Interesting points. My issue with The Dip is that it remains unclear to me how to identify when you are in a dip or a dead-end. Furthermore, it leaves out the key idea that you sometimes need the *right* actions to move past a dip. In other words, what you do matters. It’s decoding these decisions for specific scenarios that interests me…

  13. mann gegen mann says:

    Your wrong, I will make it as a cage fighter! Sob sob :(
    Good article, though slightly dream crushing

  14. Jackie Wu says:

    I think an interesting way to look at this is with economics. It’s an idea that isn’t fully fleshed out yet but I’ll try to explain a little bit. Remember from your college Econ 101 class, about the output maximizing rule? Your professor said something like, in order for a firm to maximize output, they have to set marginal utility of all goods per price so they are equal. Set the marginal product for good A divided by price of A to the marginal product of good B over price B. We can take this economics analogy to analyzing taking action, by substituting some terms. Basically what this says is that to maximize return (happiness, expertise, money, awesomeness, …) from our actions, we should act on whatever gives us the most utility at that time. But because of the principle of diminishing marginal productivity, putting more hours into that same action will give less and less return, until a point where doing something else will give more return per cost.
    So with your Sex Pistols example, the band could either spend time playing the same-old music every other band was playing (low marginal return per cost, in terms of becoming a band that would stand out), or spend time inventing a new sound (high marginal return per cost). They should keep spending time inventing a new sound until doing something else would provide greater benefit (sleeping, eating in the short-term; changing their type of music if they still want to be #1 on the billboards in the long term, as examples.)

    Anyway, that’s my quick economics idea in response to your post.

  15. Alexis says:

    I have to agree and disagree with you on this one. Action breeds success, inaction does not breed success. Its that simple. Everyone who Failed and succeeded took action, but Everyone who DIDN’T take action failed. I do agree with you on what Steve Martin said. Diligence, strong, directed work towards a goal will make you better and will make you hard to NOT be ignored, just like all the greats in anything.

    I also agree on what you said about the sex pistols and how thousands of small favorable things combined together to create and auspicious result. The social context, where they were born, current trends, etc. Just like Bill gates got lucky with thousands of these little things that had a huge effect. (going to small private school that had computers at the time, being exposed to hundreds of hours of programming, having parents who were well off enough to support his then expensive endeavor)

    In the end action is the key, you have to go out there and do something in order for strong change to take place. You can think for ages and not take action, because as Tim ferris says “the time is never write”. Back then when bill gates and sex pistols made their decision they weren’t thinking about whether everything was favorable they kind of just made the decisions they saw fit at the time.

    In the end everything you’ve ever done or has happened to you has brought you to where you are now, and that is whats so strong about action, it can profoundly change the present-future and can have compounding effects. Just like George Leonard wrote in his book Mastery Constant effort and undergoing consistent repetitive motions in order to get the hang of things and truly learn things to the bone so to speak is what can make one truly incredible and passionate about something. In conclusion, In order for one to become extremely succesfull in something they must be willing to Fall in love with the journey, not the success, this what separates the greatest from the rest.

  16. Shane says:

    I think it’s great how you’re saying that simply putting in effort isn’t enough – that you need to also make sure that your efforts are producing results.

    If you’re trying to build muscle, lifting weights for years and years won’t help at all if you aren’t eating enough. You need to know this and adjust, and not just keep hoping the scale will all of a sudden jump up 40 pounds. Failing to realize that and blowing years and years of hard work certainly isn’t a wise path.

    … but make that small shift – eating enough quality calories to grow – and those years and years of hard work can all of a sudden accumulate into something impressive.

    I’m hoping the same is true with music – that finding a way to do is smartly and finding an unsaturated niche to appeal to can nearly guarantee success (at least on some level).

    We’ll see :)

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