Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

The Myth of the Big Break

January 25th, 2009 · 35 comments

Action ParalysisWorking

J.D. Roth of the popular Get Rich Slowly blog recalls a conversation he had with a friend who had just started his own web site. As J.D. recalls, after the friend posted an introductory article he asked: “Can you point people to the site?”

“Not yet,” J. D. replied. “You don’t have any content.”

Instead of writing, the friend tweaked the layout and introduced advertisements. Several weeks passed.

“Nobody’s coming to my site,” the friend complained. “Not a single person has clicked on an ad.”

“That’s because there’s nothing there…you need to focus on content,” J.D. replied.

The friend posted a new article, then let the site lay fallow for another month. Finally, he wrote J.D. again, this time pleading: “Can’t you please point people to my site?”

“Maybe in a couple months,” J.D. replied. “Maybe once you have some content.”

Empty Inspiration

Consider another example. I have a friend who is a successful entrepreneur in the movie industry. He’s a strong believer in the power of consistent action. When giving talks to student crowds he likes to sum up his entire approach to life as a two-step process: “(1) Get started; (2) Keep going.”


This friend told me that he’s often asked for help from both entrepreneur and movie producer wannabes. Not surprising, considering his views on the subject, his reaction is always the same: “Sure, go take two or three concrete steps toward your goal and then we’ll talk.”

Almost no one ever gets back to him…

The Schemers

The type of people described in the above stories are so common that I’ve given them a name: The Schemers.

The Schemers are young people who are talented and ambitious. They have some sense that they’re destined for something big and they often feel frustration that they haven’t yet earned much distinction.

What defines this group is a belief that the key to big achievement is finding the magic formula for breaking through. The blogger bothering J.D. thought the key was getting that one high-value link. The wannabes contacting my movie producer friend wanted a high-prestige job handed to them. Before I wrote a definitive article on the subject, I used to get a lot of e-mails and calls from young people who wanted to publish a book. I always told them to keep me posted. But I never heard back. I got the feeling that they didn’t like my advice: become a better writer and back-up your idea with widely recognized expertise. I think they were hoping instead for the name of the editor that would immediately buy their rough proposal.

They were all hoping for that magic formula that would make the big break happen all at once…

Beyond Schemes

The Schemers rarely earn lasting distinction. Real achievement, as it turns out, almost never comes from a big break that comes out of nowhere. There is almost always a long history of consistent action that builds, over time, to the state where they finally tip into real fame in their field. People who are constantly looking for an angle to induce a premature break — attempting to sidestep the years of consistent action — never find what they seek.

Here’s my advice: If you’re young, and talented, and ambitious, and have this feeling like you’re destined for something impressive, then take note of the lessons of J.D. and my producer friend. Once you’ve chosen the general direction you want to pursue — a choice that shouldn’t be taken lightly — just start doing things.

Start. Work. Finish. Start. Work. Finish…

It’s a simple rhythm. But it works. There is no magic formula; no one big idea or powerful contact that can grant you distinction. Compulsive networking and the sending of inspired e-mails will not get you to your ambitious goal. Real achievement is not the result of single well-chosen action, it is, instead, an epiphenomena of years of hard work.

Don’t be a schemer. Be a doer. Over time, action — not scheming — is what breeds achievement momentum.

(Photo by ishane)

35 thoughts on “The Myth of the Big Break

  1. The Klepto says:

    A good point. Although I am one who is starting at the bottom with my own works (and blog), I do have several friends who feel that they should be something great already.
    My best friend is an amazing musician, who thinks that he should be on VH1 already. The only problem is, while he writes a new song almost every week, he almost never goes and performs them for anyone. Maybe once or twice a semester he will play at a bar or festival, but mostly it’s just for an audience of his friends, and not too many of us can help him in his dream.
    I keep pushing him, but he just doesn’t seem to care.
    But anyway, a good article

  2. Brenda says:

    Hi Cal,
    Totally love your site. In this day of instant gratification, we tend to forget that good ole fashion hard work is a factor in success. Thank you for pointing this out to young people and oldsters like myself.

  3. RT Wolf says:

    I recently made the transition from being a schemer to a doer. The way I figured it out was to change again what the value of certain things are. For example, practically everywhere I turn, I’m told that ideas have value. You have a great idea? Excellent! That garuntees success. How many success stories have you heard that start with “he had an idea that would change the world”. Execution matters. Action matters. Ideas don’t.

  4. Jonas Park says:

    People who are constantly looking for an angle to induce a premature break — attempting to sidestep the years of consistent action — never find what they seek.

    Guilty.

  5. Dave says:

    The best ideas are often the most obvious ones.

  6. Kit says:

    I’d have to say that it’s not totally a myth, but it might as well be, because it’s not as common as people think that who you know is more important that what you do. Sure, knowing “someone” can get you noticed, but honestly that “someone” is going to want you to have enough substance to be able to impress those he/she introduces you to, not to burden them.

    On a side note, I’m curious how “schemer” would be pronounced.

  7. Richard says:

    Great article. May I suggest to readers who also liked this article to check out the book, Talent is Overrated? It breaks down the perceived “instant success” of famous figures and shows how they’re just the best “doers”, not unexplained phenomena.

  8. Sola says:

    Brilliant article. Well-written and much-needed. Thanks for the good advice.

  9. Suzie Bee says:

    Kit: presumably “skeemer”. As in “scheme” (plot, plan…).

    I’ve been guilty for many years of scheming and not doing anything. I think it’s because I never really wanted anything enough to make it a reality. I’m starting some doing now, on a really great Grand Project, and it’s going pretty well.

    The most important thing anyone has said to me is: You make time for things that are important to you.

  10. Maureen says:

    Great post! I have beeb a schemer for a long time and trying to change into a doer. I’ve been trying and waiting for great opps to come my way instead of working hard toward my goals.

    Just getting started is great advice!

    I read Talent is Overrated over Christmas and really enjoyed it. I first heard about the book on this blog. I am slowly changing my opinion that smarts are preset by genetics and early upbringing and that by hard work and smart strategies so call average intelligence folks can achieve their goals.

  11. Britt says:

    There’s an old saying: “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

    Or as Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

  12. Tsessebe says:

    In addition to needing to act, I think you also need to NOT aim for fame but do things you enjoy doing for their own sake.

    One of the very few psychologists I actually like is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In his book “Creativity” he spoke to a bunch of nobel prize winners and other high achievers and one distinctive thing about them is that they were never looking for success. They were just really absorbed in work they loved for its own sake, worked joyfully for years, and without looking for it, a Nobel came along.

  13. Great post!
    Especially for me, cause I am a schemer also in some ways. I also do think that it will come at once, but my eyes were opened when I read an article.
    It said: ‘Every human who is the best in something, like a topsporter, an extremely good doctor, or an incredible writer, has put 10.000 hours in it. So they became what they are, by doing it a lot. Really a lot.
    My eyes were opened, and this post just fortify it.
    Thanks!

    Stefan/DSK

  14. In the words of Brad Bollenbach: Output is God.

  15. Eric says:

    Reminds me of a quote by Mark Twain: “The secret to getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.” He was a humorist, but the quote strikes me as true…

  16. Boar says:

    Hi Cal, is there any way I can get hold of your books in e-book version? The local bookstores (Singapore)don’t have them.

  17. Study Hacks says:

    Hi Cal, is there any way I can get hold of your books in e-book version?

    Sure. Go to http://www.calnewport.com/books then follow the link to the publisher’s website. They have both the regular and ebook version available. Also, Amazon has Kindle versions…

  18. Andy says:

    It’s like your website knows everything I don’t like about myself. It’s powerful stuff to see myself (the schemer) from the point of view of a “doer”. I guess you can only spend so long spinning your wheels before you either give up or figure out that the only advice that has ever mattered is “Get started and keep going”.

  19. Jameel says:

    I spent years of life being a schemer and it cost me
    dearly. However, today I’m a doer. At 42 years I decided to return
    to college to “EARN” a degree, and in my first semester I got
    straight “A’s!” I always believed that I had it in me and when I
    made the decision to get started and keep going, I knew that I had
    to hit the ground running, determined to not only get a degree, but
    get it with excellence. Therefore, not only did get started and
    keep going, but I’m going with a winners attitude. I’ve finally
    learned that if I want the best possible outcome, I must give the
    best possible effort.

  20. N says:

    This reminds me of something from one of my favorite books (and an unexpected source of wisdom) – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. ^_^

    The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. “Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” he asked.
    “Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

  21. Matthew says:

    Very well argued. There seems to be this disconnect between taking steps to achieving something and actually committing to it.

  22. oh I love this article. It’s exactly what I’ve been thinking, but unable to say.

  23. Edwin says:

    Great article. I’ve been guilty of being a schemer too. It’s like a phase we all go through until someone comes along and helps change our perspective. That someone is this article. Thanks.

  24. Paul Jun says:

    Great points.

    Well done.

  25. tinyiko says:

    Wow this has to be by far the best advice iv gotten ever since I decided to go for my dreams!!! This article is an eye opener n yes iv been waiting for that big break n it frustrates me that its not coming and it often discourages me! Thank you

  26. Allan Ngo says:

    Cool article. This is indeed a problem with hungry young people who see so much success stories from twenty somethings in the tech industry.

    They want everything fast and would seek every shortcut to find what they are looking for.

    I believe to truly cherish something, you must be invested in it. With money, time and effort. It is only with these sacrifice will you be able to achieve and maintain success.

  27. Dale Hagger says:

    I subscribe to the 10,000 hour rule regarding what you need to put in to your chosen field.I’m often distracted by the need to help a couple of talented musician friends who do little to build there own infrastructure,I have finally realised they are merely lifelong schemers.

  28. Dan Spoor says:

    Very well said. It also shows the importance of passion. If you don’t have passion, you’ll quit the moment you realize there is no big break. If you have a lot of passion and love for what you’re doing, you’ll stick it out and be able to follow J.D.’s advice.

  29. Adele says:

    I love this article. I began writing a blog in January, and since then I’ve wondered if I’m doing enough to “market” myself…. Instead I’ve been focusing on content, and vuala, the readers have found me and the base is growing! Thanks for reminding me to stick with inspired action, while trusting the rest will fall into place (rather than my lap).

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