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Shipping Trumps Serendipity


The Annoyed Rhodes Scholar

To research my first book, I interviewed several Rhodes Scholars. During this process, I noticed they tended to be touchy about their press coverage.

When you win a Rhodes, not surprisingly, reporters will seek you out and write articles about you. Most of these articles follow the same shock and awe template of listing the student’s accomplishments, one after another, in an attempt to overwhelm the reader.

It was this article format that annoyed winners.

To understand why, you must first understand that most Rhodes Scholars follow a similar path: they invest a large amount of energy in doing a small number of things (usually two) extremely well (for someone their age).

Over time, as they get better and better at their core points of focus, related opportunities and accomplishments start to come along for free (see my third book for more on this phenomenon, sometimes called The Matthew Effect). It’s these freebies that ultimately extend their CV’s to a head-spinning length.

Consider, for example, the following lines from a profile of 2015 Rhodes Scholar Noam Angrist:

While at M.I.T., he did economic research for the World Bank, The White House, and on the Affordable Care Act…As a Fulbright Scholar in Botswana, Noam founded an NGO for HIV education designed to discourage intergenerational sex (“sugar daddy awareness”). Its success led him to raise the money to extend the program to 340 schools, and he now plans to launch it in four other southern African countries.

This list can appear inexplicable at first read, but a closer examination makes it clear that all of these accomplishments flow from a single deep focus: mastering the intersection between economics and program evaluation (a field being innovated at MIT, where Noam is a student).

The internships at the World Bank and White House, as well as the Fulbright Scholarship (which led to the HIV prevention program) are all side effects of Noam proving unambiguously that he was really good at this one type of academic research.

The reason Rhode Scholars get upset by volume-centric, over-hyped, shock and awe press coverage is that it obscures what they’re really proud about: doing professional quality work in a field that they respect and want respect from.

The Serendipity Hype

This experience with Rhodes Scholars came to mind recently as I pondered an idea that has become increasingly popular in the Age of Social Media: exposing yourself to many different people and opportunities is the key to serendipitously stumbling into professional breakthroughs.

I’ve long been fascinated with this concept, but the more time I spend around people actually doing things of consequence, the more I recognize its hollowness.

Here’s the reality for almost every professional pursuit: shipping things that are unambiguously valuable generates significantly more interesting and high-return opportunities than exposing yourself to lots of different people and ideas.

You probably don’t, in other words, need to invest dozens of hour a week into cultivating your social media community, or thousands of dollars a year attending feel good conferences, to stumble into the Next Big Thing in your career.

A significantly more effective path is to instead ship things that catch peoples’ attention.

Our Rhodes Scholar example from above didn’t start by trawling for interesting intern opportunities, he instead became a star economics student at MIT, and then let interesting opportunities subsequently fall into his lap.

The same pattern holds for many different fields: value attracts value.

People don’t always like hearing this advice because seeking serendipity is satisfyingly contrarian (most people don’t do it, so you can feel special if you do), while at the same time saving you from the difficulty of having to compete (and fail) in clearly defined arenas.

But a decade spent researching and writing about elite accomplishment (while attempting to pursue it myself in my academic career) has taught me that: (1) there aren’t any hacks that will save you from the necessity of stepping into a ring and winning over other people who desperately want to do the same; and (2) this first step is really, really hard.

This isn’t a lesson that I perfectly embody, but is instead one that I have to keep reminding myself to pursue. If you want a breakthrough, forget serendipity and focusing on shipping.

39 thoughts on “Shipping Trumps Serendipity”

    • It sounds like the advice applies regardless of what field you are in: ship things that are unambiguously valuable. So – engineer something unambiguously valuable. Advance the state of your art. To borrow the title of one of Cal’s books – demonstrate that you are “so good they can’t ignore you”.

    • How to apply this to other technical major students?

      Students should get involved in research/scholarship as soon as possible. Do solid work, publish results with some added wisdom that is not too flashy, but is convincing. That’s the best, most humble, and surest way to take the first steps into the scientific ring and to win people (even your competition) over. Being seen at a small conference and hobnobbing with elites may feel good, but when people see your work and know that it is a valuable contribution to the field, however small, you’ve ‘shipped’ something and the impression you’ve made will be long lasting.

      • For the average undergraduate student, however, I should add that their ‘product’ might be generating a small amount of data, which secures a letter of recommendation from their advisor. Most undergraduates rarely start research early enough, and therefore have enough time, to publish anything on their own. They should find a lab, professor, summer internship, where valued products (publications) are ‘shipped’ and find out how to get involved.

  1. I’ve just started a new job, and I’ve noticed that it’s a group where this shipping concept is highly valued. One guy can consistently build the best reports (we’re all analysts), and has the best knowledge of the software and very high knowledge of the data warehouse. Everyone one knows to go to him, and our boss frequently refers to his skills. Our boss is similar, and both this top employee and the boss present at conferences and such because of their diligent efforts to master building useful reports out of this software. There isn’t much room for serendipity when we can all see each other’s output and we can pretty regularly find out if our work is useful to the company.

    And I have to say, coming from where I worked before, where there seemed to be no path to mastery and working hard yielded little reward, it’s nice to be at a place where mastery matters and deep work counts.

  2. I think you are referring to ‘serendipity and expectations from it taken too far’ rather than serendipity itself. The word serendipity (I think) suggests benefits as a side effect, not as a target. If you try to become serendipitous for the sake of its benefits, it is worthless. But there is no point in ignoring chance encounters just because one (somehow) believes that there is no such thing as serendipity. Confusing serendipity as a replacement for efforts is of course a bad judgment.

  3. How does this fit with your idea of seeking randomness? You wrote several articles on seeking randomness and networking over the years, so how does this fit with that concept?

    • I’ve been cooling some on the idea of seeking randomness as a useful tier one activity (with some exceptions, such as a student just starting out and trying to find interests). Better, in most cases, to redirect that energy toward shipping, then see what comes across your path.

      • What about studying/reading about related fields, other applications or new techniques in order to think of (somewhat serendipitous) new routes to crack your deep problems or improve your existing work/shipped products ?

        • I think that should be reserved for a scheduled free time – an hour a day reading news/blog etc, then getting back to your main goal – what you can ship.
          At times, you might be able to combine what you learn from randomness to shipping. I think the danger with ‘randomness’ is the risk of being pulled apart in many directions, rather than establishing a deep work ethic to contribute something useful in a single field.

        • This is an interesting case. To narrow my focus just to academia, for example, I increasingly believe that the best way to find interesting new topics is to publish really good stuff in your current topic. If you do this, good people will increasingly find you, you’ll be invited to interesting things, and, eventually, interesting new directions fall into your lap. It’s as if shipping good stuff will end up exposing you to randomness and therefore free you of the less productive route of exposing yourself to such information. Perhaps a little too nuanced…

  4. I always love your emails (and am a huge fan of SGTCIY), but this post comes at a very timely juncture for me (pretty much burning out, but can’t take a break now, because I’m working on a deadline for yet another paper from my PhD).

    Really appreciate the insights and the consistent reminder to focus on continuing to produce high quality output, rather than looking for — or accepting — more opportunities to present that work and spread the word (which is my natural tendency, so such opportunities do fall in my lap — but take up energy nonetheless).

    I just received such an opportunity that would cause high visibility, but would be hugely time-consuming and take me further away from my work. And deep down I know that the right answer is, sorry but no. Thanks for the reminder.

  5. Reminds me of the old saw: “success is where preparation meets opportunity”, where one prepares by becoming really good at something. But one should also then work to form the connections the will lead to serendipitous opportunities.

  6. In this day and age where to volume of information is large and time is of the essence.I cannot agree more that people look for value or as stated in the article value attracts value why bother to waste time on something that does not add value to yourself.The skill is to promote the value of your information as clearly as possible.

  7. There seem to be some fields, such as screenwriting, where serendipity does matter. There are many people with good ideas that could make good films, but do not get the chance because people in the industry give opportunities to people they know and networking is emphasized for anyone hoping to join the field.
    Also, do rare and valuable skills exist more in some fields than others? For example, emphasizes analyzing whether skills are increasingly in-demand and transferable and specifically points out computer-programming and machine learning as two skills that are both. They even list networking as such a skill.
    Does the potential for rare and valuable skills being higher in some fields interfere with your idea that you should relentlessly pursue something that interests you even if it is not in one of those fields? Is it easier to gain autonomy, competence, and relatedness in these high potential fields?

    • I spent time with a screenwriter when researching SO GOOD. I agree that serendipity plays a role in such careers in the sense that you cannot plot out in advance where your breaks will happen. That being said, the best screenwriters don’t go around courting serendipity by spending their time networking, exposing themselves to interesting ideas, etc.

      They instead write their ass off. Solicit brutal feedback. Integrate the feedback. Then repeat.

  8. Based on my experience with top students at two of Canada’s leading universities (15 years and counting of identifying high fliers), my working hypothesis is that the very best combine mastery developed through sustained engagement with an open minded exploration of diversity (or variation and change). Their guiding lights would be people like Herbert Simon (for those academically inclined), Elon Musk (for Iron Man fans), and John Mighton (for mathematicians, teachers, playwrights, social entrepreneurs). Their reading list would include books like Alex Pentland’s Social Physics and Blog’s like Cal’s – personally, I’d be thrilled to hear Pentland and Newport debate the merits of networking (which I’m sure would reveal common ground and diverse perspectives).

  9. Hi Cal,

    In my opinion, the best example of focusing on shipping is the sprinter Usain Bolt. In the documentary about the legendary sprinter, you get to see the “secret” behind Bolt’s world records.

    The real genius behind Bolt’s extraordinary performances (3 world records) is his coach.

    Usain Bolt follows his coaches plan religiously and subjects himself to the most excruciating workouts. To the point where he is nearly fainting. His coach watches him carefully during the workout and makes small corrections. After the workout, Bolt goes back to his house to relax and play video games with friends (for hours on end).

    Summarizing, Usain Bolt knows how to work insanely hard when it counts and take it easy when it is time to relax. He trusts his coaches plan and never questions them or tries to seek shourtcouts nor advice from other coaches.

    After a decade of hard work, Bolt’s coach has managed to transform a fast and promising tennager into the fastest man ever.

  10. Thanks for the post! I know that I could possibly infer the meaning of “shipping” from your post and the comments below, but could anyone please explain clearly what it means? The only exposure to that term I know of is from fandom circles where it means rooting for the romance of certain characters… pretty sure that’s not what’s being used here, haha.

    • Katie,

      I think it’s from Seth Godin’s work, where he emphasizes shipping in the sense of releasing a product (like software) instead of endlessly tweaking all the tiny flaws to make it perfect.

      • Godin derived this use of the term “ship” from the classic Steve Jobs line, “Real Artists Ship”, a mantra for the original Mac creators.

  11. I don’t disagree with this advice, but I’d argue that there are two ways to read your example… It might be that certain environments (MIT, YCombinator, Oxford PPE, etc.) do the hard work of setting you up for serendipity by gathering diverse brilliant peers together, so the key leverage point is getting access to those environments.

    Or you could say that having this access increases the gains to hard work and frees you to focus on shipping rather than networking.

    A related question might be: Serendipity definitely isn’t sufficient for success, but it is necessary?

    • Its been a while but I still wanted to post a reply to your comment.
      I am no expert in this but my years in controlling taught me a bit about accounting and I dont think that everyone knows every rule and that there isnt always room for improvement. For example in the field of taxes we often need an expert because its so diverse so I think you can exel there. Or you can make the processes more efficient. We are currently trying to introduce workflow systems. or you can build a guide for the accounting rules for the company. All things were you learn more about the company and be recognized. But these are just my two cents.

  12. I love reading these posts, and I have a couple of your books, but it’s sometimes difficult for me to apply these concepts to careers like accounting. Cal, how would you advise a CPA to be “So Good” – there is not a lot of room for creativity or pushing the boundaries of the field (tax evasion?). Or this idea of deep work? Any thoughts for someone with a boring-ish, somewhat repetitive job that is rules-based?

  13. I think you need to put some energy to both, however, as you point out here, I think you need to focus on shipping. Building the process to continually improve and ship good work opens up a ton of avenues.

    But, if you do commit to using a little bit of time for new ideas, you can gain a few insights that you can bring to your work. Not as much as people dedicate to “networking” when they want to collect business cards and solicit leads, but planning (this is key) to have a small amount of time to put the feelers out.

  14. I’m a Rhodes Scholar (2014), and I find this a bit simplistic. I disagree with a few things in this article:

    “most Rhodes Scholars follow a similar path: they invest a large amount of energy in doing a small number of things (usually two) extremely well (for someone their age)” ~ this just isn’t true for a lot of kids here who have done more than two things. It’s definitely not true for me; I dabbled in a bunch of different fields.

    “The reason Rhode Scholars get upset by volume-centric, over-hyped, shock and awe press coverage is that it obscures what they’re really proud about: doing professional quality work in a field that they respect and want respect from” ~ I think it’s actually because they get annoyed that people are writing things about them that are simplistic or false. Like, say, this article…

    “shipping things that are unambiguously valuable generates significantly more interesting and high-return opportunities than exposing yourself to lots of different people and ideas” ~ a major point of the scholarship is to expose people to lots of different people and ideas. Many of my most valuable research ideas have come from speaking to people in unrelated fields.

    I do agree that at the end of the day, you have to ship something, and I think you’re right that many of the Rhodes kids I’ve met are unusually good at actually finishing projects. (I would clearly be an exception to this, since I’m writing comments on your blog instead.) But I might be a little more careful making somewhat simplistic generalizations.

  15. Not much to add other than that, as another Rhodes Scholar in Emma’s year, I think there are a equal number of scholars that fit into the “single deep focus” and “jack-of-all-trades” buckets and the scholarship’s selection criteria is biased towards the latter. I personally have spanned the spectrum of interests from energy & mining engineering to healthcare software development. Most importantly, I’d like to call out Emma’s modesty and say that she’s a great example of a scholar who is exceptional at completing projects – she produces a new highly interesting and culturally relevant statistical study almost every week on her blog (not sure how that’s possible with everything else going on here at Oxford) and has a long history of producing press-worthy stats tools and research.


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