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The Pyramid Method: A Simple Strategy For Becoming Exceptionally Good

June 3rd, 2009 · 57 comments

The Power of GoodSickabod Sane

In early May, I received an interesting e-mail from a reader. After the standard introductions, he said:

Though I’m progressing towards my goal to become a physicist, I’m also very interested in writing a novel.

He noted that before diving into a novel he would probably have to first “write a short story or two.” He wanted my advice for how to kick off this project in time for summer.

“This sounds like a great idea for a Grand Project,” I replied. “But I would first be definite that this is an important goal in your life, because I predict you’d need at least five years of focused work before landing a book deal becomes a possibility.”

My answer reflects an observation that plays an increasingly important role in my understanding of the world: if you want to do something interesting and rewarding — be it writing a novel, becoming a professor, or growing a successful business — you have to first become exceptional. As Study Hacks readers know, I think Steve Martin put it best when he noted that the key to breaking into a competitive and desirable field is to “become so good, they can’t ignore you.”

In other words, there’s no shortcut. If you want the world to pay attention to you, you have to provide a compelling reason. It doesn’t care about your life goals.

In this post, I want to discuss a simple method with a complicated back-story. It’s a technique that can help you move efficiently down the road toward becoming exceptionally good.

The story behind this advice starts with an old friend who possessed an unlikely talent.

The Saga of Sickabod Sane

Around high school, my longtime friend, Chris, began to show a natural ability for rap music. This was somewhat unexpected considering that we lived in a sleepy, 2000 person town, not far outside Princeton, New Jersey. But this didn’t seem to deter Chris.

By the time he arrived at NYU, the novelty-song ethos that drove his high school creations began to wear away. He developed, in its place, a mature ear for crafting brain-burrowing hooks and complex beats. By the time he graduated, in 2004, his friends agreed: a professional music career lay in Chris’s future.

Let’s jump ahead to the fall of 2006.

At this point, Chris’s catalog had grown, as had the quality and inventiveness of his music. A steady stream of small-time players had emerged with promises to help Chris achieve his destined break, and the best of his songs had earned cult followings. But he hadn’t yet received any attention from the industry heavyweights.

Around this time, Chris and I had a phone conversation that would change the way we both thought about the art of becoming good.

In the month or so leading up to the call, Chris had made his first tentativePyramid stage appearances at a series of open mike nights. The last of these performances had been at the infamous Tuesday night bootcamp, held at the Pyramid Club, a popular underground rap venue in midtown Manhattan (see the picture to the right).

Anyone could sign up to perform during the bootcamp open mike. But it was a decision few made lightly. Pyramid attracted aspiring rap talent from all five of New York’s boroughs — birthplace to some of the industry’s most talented (and hardest) performers.

Not an easy audience.

In addition the open mike, the club’s emcee, an industry veteran with the stage name Mental Supreme, also hosted a semi-regular rap showcase. It cost $100 to enter, and the winner went home with $1000. It was judged by industry insiders, and was considered to be a place to spot upcoming East Coast talent. Anyone brave enough to face the demanding crowd could sign-up for the open mike. But only the best of these performers were invited to grace the showcase stage.

As I learned during our phone call, Chris’s first performance at Pyramid had been shaky. But something about the club seemed right.

“This feels like the place to be,” he said.

We soon hatched a plan. He would forget the random advice he’d been receiving from various friends and hangers-on — the suggestions to hand out demo CDs in front of radio stations or network to meet the right executives. Instead, he would turn his focus solely onto the Pyramid Club. He would return to the open mike again and again until he was able to win over that crowd. After that, he would progress to the showcase and play to win.

Our logic was simple: if he couldn’t become good enough to win over the Pyramid Club crowd, he couldn’t become good enough to attract industry attention. So why waste energy doing anything else?

I’m going Pyramid it up,” he said at the end of the call.

“Yep,” I replied. “Time to Pyramid it up.”

As the months passed, Chris got better. His early halting performances gave way to the occasional not bad performance. He worked harder on his songs, trying, week after week, to craft that one beat or lyrical turn that could impress his skeptical crowd.

Eventually, he scored his first Pyramid hit; an avalanche of improbably complex flows that he dubbed Mixtape. During his first performance of the song he received one of the highest honors you can achieve in New York’s underground rap scene: audience members touched his sneakers after a few of the more particularly tight lines.

Chris was invited to perform Mixtape at the next $1000 showcase. He earned third place. Afterwards, talking to the judges, he learned that he lost on his stage presence scores.

He returned to the studio, working late into the night, as was his habit, to craft ever-catchier hooks. Before his open mike performances, he now also took to incessant practice — going over every beat of his on-stage movements.

The rate of Pyramid hits began to increase. Soon the audience was singing along to their favorite songs.

He entered the $1000 showcase again, this time wielding an unapologetically original track called Top 8 — an homage to MySpace that somehow integrates three different rhythm changes with a Broadway-style musical chorus.

This time, he won first place.

He entered the contest three more times, winning twice more and tieing for first place on the other occasion. The club retired him from competition — no one else had a chance when he performed. He was only the second rapper to ever achieve this distinction.

More recently, he heard about another club that hosted a $1000 rap showcase. On a whim, he entered it. He won that contest, too.

At this point, Chris had finally become so good that the industry couldn’t ignore him. Natural talent hadn’t been enough. He needed the focus of the Pyramid challenge to drive him to develop his skills as far as they could possibly go.

After his string of showcase victories, he signed with a serious manager. Since then, his life has changed. He’s been flown to L.A. and Miami to record with well-known producers. He has meetings with high-level record company executives. It’s clear that the pieces of a professional career are careening into place.

The Pyramid Method

The difference between the first two years after Chris’s graduation, and the two years that followed our fateful phone call, couldn’t be starker. The key to his transformation was two-fold: (1) Chris focused his attention on improving his standing at a single venue; and (2) this venue provided clear metrics, so he could track his progress and use this to tweak his practice to be as effective as possible.

I call this general technique the Pyramid Method. I claim that it’s a powerful approach for anyone looking to transform an interest or natural talent into an expertise that cannot be ignored. Regardless of the pursuit in question, if you want to take it someplace serious, follow Chris’s example. This means:

  1. Pick a single relevant venue to join at the entry level and work to increase your standing.
  2. Make sure the venue offers clear metrics on your progress; use these metrics to guide your efforts to get better.
  3. Forget all the other bullshit advice and mini-strategies people offer for getting ahead in your pursuit. If you can’t master this one venue, then you don’t yet deserve the world’s respect.
  4. Put your head down, and get it done.

The Novelist

Let’s return to our aspiring novelist from above. What venue could he choose to apply the Pyramid Method? I suggest his college’s literary journal. The entry level for this venue is getting a piece published. The higher levels include getting a story featured on the cover and being invited to join the editorial board.

If he can’t conquer this venue then he certainly can’t expect a book deal. So instead of wasting time reading about tricks for getting an agent, or diving straight into a novel manuscript, he should consider pouring all of his writerly focus into this Pyramid.

My Pyramid

To give another example, when I wanted to improve my non-fiction chops before pitching my third book, I picked a respected online magazine as my own personal Pyramid. This publication had an approachable entry-level because it encouraged submissions. Its best staff writers, however, were professionals with good reputations. I set my goal to become a staff writer with recognized talent.

I began by trying to get any piece accepted. Two years later, I was a staff writer, and I had one of my feature articles chosen to be included in a book of the magazine’s best writing of the past decade. (Ironically, it was a piece about Chris.)

This required a huge amount of work. But my effort was focused like a laser beam. As a result, the quality of my writing made huge leaps during this time.

Conclusion

This method doesn’t provide shortcuts. Becoming exceptional requires an exceptional amount of work. Trust me, you can’t avoid this. But not all work is made equal. And the Pyramid Method focuses your attention exactly where it needs to be.

57 thoughts on “The Pyramid Method: A Simple Strategy For Becoming Exceptionally Good

  1. Ben says:

    Consider this a touch on the sneakers.

  2. VTAMethodman says:

    Great post. Kind of an 80/20 analysis of personal development. Only work on what’s going to get you the best results.

    I have a personal story that reflects and adds to your philosophy. I used to be a competitive pairs skater. I competed internationally and was ranked among the best in the world, at one point being only a few spaces shy of a world and Olympic ticket.

    However, most of my gains were only realized within a few months. Me and my partner had been training in an excellent facility but had quickly equaled or surpassed many of our fellow skaters. Therefore, we decided to move half way across the country to a rink that trained 3 Olympic caliber teams. Initially we felt completely out of place as the other teams were far better than us. But we were committed to training and each month continued to train. By the end of six month training season we were still the worst team at this particular rink. However, when we attended our first competition of the season we completely obliterated the other teams. We had actually improved by leaps and bounds but since we were gauging ourselves against the best in the world we didn’t see our own development.

    I later took this philosophy into university which is why I always took the most challenging assignments and worked with the best people even if I always looked like I was the weakest student. I kind of see it in terms of the big fish in small pond analogy. It’s better to be a small fish in a big pond as it forces you to become a big fish!

  3. Chris Yeh says:

    Great piece, Cal. I think this is a great example of what I call the iterative strategy of success.

    I know Gladwell has made a lot of hay with his 10,000 hours, but I think he misses the point.

    It’s all a question of how much you iterate, and how much you learn with each iteration.

    The trick is to adopt a strategy which allows you to crank through iterations as quickly as possible, and learn as much as possible from each cycle.

  4. Peadar Coyle says:

    I think this is an excellent article. I’ve been dealing recently with a lot of advice from well meaning friends and family, and this sort of method is a fantastic reminder – of what it actually takes to succeed. By picking one precise thing to focus on, and using the various metrics in that field, to spur on success. The iterative strategy of success, I like it Chris Yeh!

  5. Study Hacks says:

    I have a personal story that reflects and adds to your philosophy. I used to be a competitive pairs skater…

    This is an excellent example. I’d love to hear more about you applying the approach at university.

    Great piece, Cal. I think this is a great example of what I call the iterative strategy of success.

    I really like your formulation. In the end, I guess, none of this would surprise Professor Ericsson at FSU, as what we’re really talking about here are practical strategies that help guide you to deliberate practice — the only way to become good.

  6. Aurooba says:

    Love this article, very useful advice. It reminds of Einstein when he used to work on something huge, like the theory of relativity. Narrow focus to the point of obsession. And I love the quote ‘become so good, they can’t ignore you.’

    Thank you!

  7. Arman says:

    I like this. What are your opinionfor the relevant venue for growing business?

  8. Cal, I have a question. What should you do if you have two entirely separate passions? Suppose for a moment that they are totally unconnected and there is no way you could be realy good (i.e. have time to put in the necessary effort) at both. How do you decide which one to really go for?

  9. Twin XL says:

    Fantastic post! Thanks!

  10. James says:

    This sounds very familiar to a book that I read few days ago. I swear the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell had the same kind of pyramid idea.

  11. Chris P says:

    Well written post with a powerful message. The venue gave your friend instant feedback which he effectively used to improve every aspect of his peformance. Brilliant!

  12. The pyramid name made me expect something completely different. But this thing is great! I like the laserbeam metaphore, because you just focus on one big thing until you reached it!

    Reading this made me think of such a goal, and what kind of Pyramid I’ll use, but I have to think that more over.

    Thanks Cal, for another inspiring story and great post!

    Stefan

  13. Study Hacks says:

    What should you do if you have two entirely separate passions? Suppose for a moment that they are totally unconnected and there is no way you could be realy good (i.e. have time to put in the necessary effort) at both. How do you decide which one to really go for?

    It depends on the situation. What are these passions?

  14. Dan Erwin says:

    10,000 hours or not, what you did is a form of Ericsson’s deliberate practice. Focus,get feedback, focus,get feedback, and focus, get feedback, etc. The inherent potential of the process is unlimited.

  15. Study Hacks says:

    10,000 hours or not, what you did is a form of Ericsson’s deliberate practice. Focus,get feedback, focus,get feedback, and focus, get feedback, etc. The inherent potential of the process is unlimited.

    Absolutely. I choose not to use the technical jargon of Ericsson’s work in the post, but, basically, I think this method works because it’s a way to get the feedback and force the hard work of deliberate practice without having a coach.

  16. horia says:

    @VTAMethodman:

    Jazz players had a saying : “Always be the worst in a band”. Truer words have never been spoken, I think, about professional development. You’ve gotta have a well structured path to becoming good, and a high enough goal so that your skills don’t plateau too early.

  17. Alison says:

    “Cal, I have a question. What should you do if you have two entirely separate passions? Suppose for a moment that they are totally unconnected and there is no way you could be realy good (i.e. have time to put in the necessary effort) at both. How do you decide which one to really go for?”

    Do them both.. spend time on both, when you run into a wall with one, have a break with the other one and vice versa. Just like some artists will work on two paintings at once, so they come back to it with fresh eyes, so too you can do your two seperate focuses. Or try them both until one becomes more apparent. Only you know what is right for you, and you have to do it to find out. :)

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  19. Cindy Black says:

    Totally inspiring story- thanks so much! It is so refreshing to hear a success story based on what a person really needs to do in those quiet hours alone, just keeping on track and following your heart.

  20. C Moran says:

    >If he can’t conquer this venue then he certainly can’t expect a book deal.

    I don’t agree. That’s a declaration, with no real backing material.

  21. Vince Price says:

    This is very good stuff. Thank you so much. I am an aspiring rapper myself and this makes sense. I am one that does have the raw talent but needs to develop his skills. As KRS-One said, “You can be a mac, pimp, hustler or player, but make sure live you is a dope rhyme sayer.”

  22. lobo_tuerto says:

    Yeah, just look at what Merb did to Rails.

    It became so good it was pointless trying to ignore it anymore. DHH, Rails creator even ignored it to the point to never mention it’s name (to prevent more people to know about it, meh). They merged in the end.

  23. Study Hacks says:

    Thank you so much. I am an aspiring rapper myself and this makes sense. I am one that does have the raw talent but needs to develop his skills.

    Definitely find a venue that will give you honest feedback, and then start putting in the hours. The gulf between talent and career is wide. Fortunately for you, however, only those with the former have a chance of crossing it!

    Cal, I have a question. What should you do if you have two entirely separate passions? Suppose for a moment that they are totally unconnected and there is no way you could be realy good (i.e. have time to put in the necessary effort) at both. How do you decide which one to really go for?

    It’s possible to Pyramid two things at once. As the commenter above noted, you’ll probably soon discover one working better than the other. If you find it hard to keep up the concurrent focus, however, than keep in mind the broader point that “passion” is over-hyped. For the most part, the good feelings toward an activity comes not from some intrinsic connection with your personality, but as the reward for its mastery.

  24. Rodrigo says:

    This story was great. It bring a sense of reality to one’s dreams and objectives. An idealist person, per exemple, could benefit from this pragmatic point of view. But there is another question you didn’t mention:

    the situations where not being accepted or changing the paradigms are the reason for success.

    The great inventers, thinkers, novelists,the Nobel Prize’s winners, the geniuses recognized only after death, all of them did great work but they had to stablish a new level of measure that was unpredictable on the present. Sometimes, the rupture meant to ignore the other’s opinion.

    The point is: the Pyramid Method at the extreme point lead to
    a conformist action and thinking. “Exceptionally Good” maybe means mastering the established skills but then going beyond that.

  25. Christopher says:

    I don’t know that it’s necessary to pick just one venue. Not everyone wants to be a staff writer. But what I’ve done as I’ve honed my own writing skills is created a hierarchy of publishing venues I wanted to get into, with the really basic entry-level journals at the bottom, the ultra-prestigious magazines in the middle, and publishing a book with a respectable publisher at the top. This achieves the same effect as your Pyramid: goals and metrics. (It’s helpful to write this list out, rather than simply keeping it in your head.) I’m presently about halfway up my pyramid.

  26. Study Hacks says:

    But what I’ve done as I’ve honed my own writing skills is created a hierarchy of publishing venues I wanted to get into, with the really basic entry-level journals at the bottom, the ultra-prestigious magazines in the middle, and publishing a book with a respectable publisher at the top.

    You could consider each such publication target as its own Pyramid venue. As in, “if I can’t get one or two articles published in an entry-level journal than I shouldn’t be trying prestigious magazines, and if I can’t get one or two articles published in a prestigious magazine, I shouldn’t be trying to get a book sold”, etc.

  27. The gulf between talent and career is wide. I want to do something on it to make them more stunning.

  28. Kerry NZ says:

    So how is Chris doing now?

  29. This method doesn’t provide shortcuts. Becoming exceptional requires an exceptional amount of work. Trust me, you can’t avoid this. But not all work is made equal. And the Pyramid Method focuses your attention exactly where it needs to be.

    This really got to me. This whole article is very motivating. You’re right — there are no shortcuts!

  30. MBA Tutoring says:

    Please sing this message as loud as you can. Great advice. Too many people are looking for shortcuts and avoiding the hard work. We teach students from all walks of life and can see the difference in attitude among students who want understand and those that just want a short cut to finish a project. Excellent piece.

  31. How would you suggest this for something where there isn’t necessarily a competitive or feedback-based process?

    I’m an emerging performance artist and I have managed to go quite beyond what I was expecting largely on the “apply for anything even if it’s a low chance you’ll get in” model. However, unlike Chris, there isn’t an industry thing per se that I fit. I come from a burlesque background but my work is very alternative and political, which isn’t as well supported here as I would like (most of my peers are overseas).

    When I read your post I thought about being accepted to arts festivals, but then figured that you get through not by performing but by writing good proposals – which doesn’t necessarily mean anything stage-wise. Also there are still issues of privilege, subtle discrimination, etc (which as a minority performer I am privy to).

    Any ideas along those lines when you pretty much have to set up your own scene, your own metrics of quality, because there’s no space for you otherwise?

  32. Lauryn says:

    How would you apply this to entrepreneurship?

  33. Study Hacks says:
    When I read your post I thought about being accepted to arts festivals, but then figured that you get through not by performing but by writing good proposals – which doesn’t necessarily mean anything stage-wise.

    To be honest, this was my first thought when I heard you were a performance artist: go for grants. If you are able to convince a foundation to give you a fellowship, then you’re doing something attention-catching.

    How would you apply this to entrepreneurship?

    Money. How many people are you getting to pay for what you offer. A nice and simple metric for judging your business.

  34. Danny says:

    Great advise. Just like in world of warcraft, there are clear goals and metrics, which we don’t really find in life. That’s why people find it so enjoyable. Time to make my own pyramid.

  35. datt says:

    Yeah you are tight to become exceptional you need a exceptional hard work.I want to become a writer where i want to write novels this article gives me some useful tips before begin to write novels.

  36. musician says:

    What’s your advice for a performing artist (classical musician) who doesn’t have a regular venue? I can apply to the same festivals every year, but I can only do this once a year.

  37. You really make it appear really easy along with your presentation but I find this matter to be really something that I think I would never understand. It sort of feels too complicated and very huge for me. I am having a look ahead on your subsequent publish, I will try to get the dangle of it!

  38. Molly says:

    Very interesting post. At least in Chris’s example, I think this also relates to the signalling theory you describe in your post on the laundry list fallacy. By continually appearing at this club and moving up, Chris is signalling through the side channel that he is an up-and-coming artist, and that people should pay attention to him. Love this blog, by the way!

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