From CEOs to Opera Singers – How to Harness the "Superstar Effect"

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.

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 700 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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203 Replies to “From CEOs to Opera Singers – How to Harness the "Superstar Effect"”

  1. This is an incredible post which defines its own success by the same principle is written upon.

    One open thought I wanted to address here is that, following success models is always the best way to short-cut any major goal. It’s no new idea that the more mentoring I can get the best decisions I’m going to make along any process in the road to success.

    The downside of this though, is that it’s easier to forget to work on that which you don’t know that you don’t know… In other words, we get addicted to what works and thus, we don’t get all the insights we might need to solidify ideas.

    The thing is, repeated failure doing what works, can be very, very frustating whereas – at least in my eyes – failures without the perfect map in front of you, do not feel as failure, but rather as leaning and valuable insight. Just being and doing things differently, because you have that vision, you on your own, at night, in bed, when you were cooking… doesn’t matter, not when you were reading this blog post and thus you reflected on it so you manufactured this the idea in your mind that creating your superstar way…

    The examples portrayed here (while excellent and inspiring) only tell me that these people weren’t thinking about the science behind the “superstar” effect day and night. In fact, they might have not even been aware of it and it probably caught them by surprise.

    It is not the thinking but the wanting of the thing which makes the difference.

    You may play safe, do what works, or you could have that idea that looks like really difficult (in your mind) and go for it, and that will make the difference nobody expected.

    In the end, I think, it’s all about having the balls.

  2. This was excellent! Cal, you’re a wonderful nerd and I mean that as a big compliment! As someone mentioned, I too thought of Malcom Gladwell after reading this post and that isn’t a bad thing. Thanks to you and thank you Tim!

  3. I’m glad you brought up Steve Martin, this guy pushed through based on effort alone. thats all it is. If you try to do too much you’ll never get anything done. put effort and energy into your particular focus and it blooms a superstar, Nice post!

  4. @Greta good point, but we also can’t forget that opera (and much of classical music) is about top-tier vocal production and musical expression first. You can no more tell an opera singer to stop focusing on beauty of tone and dramatic expression than you can tell an olympic gymnast to stop focusing on grace and agility. Any star quality and charisma has to be imposed ON TOP of that, not instead of. It’s not that there isn’t a market for classically-inspired-but-not-the-real-deal acts, like Josh Groban or Charlotte Church- actually there is a big market for that stuff, if that is your point. But most of us have a lot of artistic integrity that keeps us striving towards musical perfection, commercial success or no.

    As for the marketing thing, it reminds me of a quote from the book “The King and I” by Breslin, Pavarotti’s manager. “People in my business would always say, ‘I want the Pavarotti treatment.’ And I would say, ‘I wish I could give you the Pavarotti treatment, but you can’t get it, because you’re not Pavarotti.'” 🙂

  5. @Cal tell your editor not to be upset! It’s not the kind of stuff one would know if one were not a trained musician. It’s another language. That would be like expecting my VA in the Philippines to call and arrange my auditions in Germany. He has a lot of skills but being expected to speak German is definitely not in his job description!

    As for the clips of the high C’s- they are amazing, but they are not all equally amazing!! Which is your favorite? 🙂 I think I like Juan Diego’s by a nose… thrilling.

  6. Great to see a guest post by Cal here. Speaking of Malcolm Gladwell, Cal has an interesting post about “admissions outliers”: http://bit.ly/dCBUBn

    BTW looks like there’s a typo: “If reaping this advantage, however, requires becoming class valedictorian or honing a brilliant singing voice — both staggeringly difficult feats — IT’S doesn’t seem all that applicable.”

  7. An example that a top university education is no panacea: Howard Stern once had an actor guest (whose name escapes me) who was a Harvard graduate, and who said, “When starting out as an actor–so as to keep my days open for auditions–I earned rent money as a night janitor. That’s right, I was a Harvard grad who was a janitor. Fellow Harvard grad friends pursuing creative careers like me wanted temp jobs that would allow them to also pursue their creative careers. And more than one complained to me, `I can’t believe it. I go to these temp agencies, and they won’t take me on because I can’t type. And I tell them, “But I’m a Harvard graduate!” But they still reject me.'” And Stern’s guest said, “I told them, `But what good are you to a temp agency if you can’t type?!” He added, “One thing about being a Harvard graduate is that it allows people to say to you, “You graduated from Harvard? How come you’re not doing better in life?”

  8. Tim,

    You may be interested in this recent book review about Allen Ginsburg, which highlights a major follow-on benefit of the superstar effect – that once you are an established superstar people become very interested in supporting your additional efforts, even when they have very little connection with your established area of talent/expertise. By the end of his life Ginsburg earned more from photography than from is writing and speaking appearances combined.

    An interesting side note is that the beat writers also worked with one another to establish and reinforce perceptions of their own talent and credibility by making one another into characters in their works. Andy Warhol’s factory (and Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” had a similar effect for its members.

    Here’s the link to the book review: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/aug/19/beats-pictures-legend/?pagination=false

  9. A relevant example to the superstar effect might be Paul Potts. He won the TV show Britain’s Got talent singing opera. My impression was that he’s an average to below average opera singer but sings 1-2 songs exceptionally well. He also had the emotional story of being a store manager with no confidence in life but the dream of becoming a famous opera singer. He became a superstar overnight and has more Youtube views than any video with Pavarotti. I guess you could say he bypassed the traditional opera route and went directly to the mainstream audience.

  10. Hey Tim,

    On this post, and the post on Study Hacks “Getting Started is Overrated,” it seems a bit contradictory to your philosophy in 4HWW. Both of these posts are very insightful but have me a bit confused.

    I’m eager to start my own adventure in lifestyle design, and I’m brainstorming and waiting on an idea. After reading some Chris Guillebeau, I had an idea for an eBook and finally convinced myself this idea was worthwhile (over previous ideas). I used your “worst-case scenario” analysis as inspiration, but now I’m questioning whether rushing into the process is a good idea.

    What are your thoughts on the difference between this post and your ideas in 4HWW?

    Gracias por todo – me encanta tu trabajo.

    1. Hi Jared,

      I think getting started without a plan is bad idea, but I do believe in testing as soon as you have spec’d out your product features/benefits and the basic sales approach. Ultimately, I don’t always agree with everything in guest posts, and I tend to be of the “ready, fire, aim” camp. Test your idea in the real world before plowing money into it. This is how the best start-ups I’ve seen work.

      Hope that helps,

      Tim

  11. Top notch article — it hit all the high notes with class.

    Beautiful insights and it cuts deep to the heart of finding our best arena and being the best in our world (whatever scope that might mean.)

    It’s like a combo of Blue Ocean Strategy + LinchPin … and it takes me back to early work by Edward de Bono on success … and that a big part of your success is deliberately choosing a field where your skills can shine a little brighter.

    Some of the best coders I know, started out as musicians, but found a better corner to compete in.

  12. Amazing and inspiring post!

    Right up my alley at the moment!

    I am contemplating starting a new small business in a niche market and this article helped me think through a few things.

    I’ve got to focus on my niche and not get sidetracked with all the pretty, shiny other things I could be doing that are related to it.

    Thanks!

  13. I was a professional opera singer for many years.

    I appreciate that you are talking about opera! But you make an error when you say, “In other words, both Florez and Pavarotti are exceptional tenors, but Pavarotti was slightly better — the best among an elite class.”

    Pavarotti’s success has more to do with his PR team than his voice. Any professional opera singer who has business savvy will tell you that those who succeed are usually not those with the best voices, but those with the best marketing know-how.

    When people bought a Pav. album over the Florez, it had more to do with name recognition than talent, which came from effective branding.

    It is the same reason why someone selects a Snickers bar instead of a no-name peanut candy concoction.

    This is not to say that Pavarotti was not immensely talented.

    That said, most opera singers sadly miss the mark with their marketing, and talented voices are lost to stupidity every day.

    The reason for this is training: The majority of opera singers have both a Bachelors and Masters degree in opera singing, yet neither degree provides business or marketing training. I am speaking of the best music schools in the world.

    If opera is to survive, the singers are going to have to get more business savvy. Like Pavarotti.

  14. Tim, it’s awesome that your site works correctly in Chrome now.

    And, obviously, good guest post selection.

    Roelof

  15. This is one of the most inspiring articles I’ve read here (and I read most of them)! Making money and living on your own terms all boils down to making optimal use of a market niche, or so it seems.

    I have been planning for some time to re-design my life as soon as I think of a good product or service to sell… but this proves difficult (to put it mildly). Of course, finding a niche by nature is the one thing you’ll have to do yourself – if there was a systematic way to find a niche they’d all be filled up in no time (that is how I imagine it, at least).

    Thinking of ideas I can do, but determining whether an idea is sensible is a problem. There are so many web sites with tools and tips for finding a market niche that it’s easy to become lost.

    I believe in pre-testing a product, but the problem arises before that. Do you guys have any tips on how to confidently determine which products/services are even worth pretesting?

    Thanks for the great post 🙂

  16. Worship the niche. The common market commodity based businesses are soul sucking killers. I went from a salesforce of 300+ nationwide in a commodity market based company to a salesforce of 22 nationwide in a small niche market. The niche is a beautiful thing. When awards are given at the end of the year I like my chances against 21 instead of 300+. The harder it is to find and define the product the fewer competitors you will have and the more you can charge for your services. If you study the 1929 depression the specialists made it through the down market. The niche markets actually grew. The common market – common man suffered the greatest hardships.

  17. I love this article. It is big on the power of focus. You have to focus on something to be extraordinary. If you try to do a lot then you will be mediocre in all of those things. What do you need to focus on to become a superstar?

    Josh Bulloc

    Kansas City, MO

  18. Tim,

    Loving your vibe! I’ve read the book, living the dream and running my muse Retro Frames. Cheers buddy!

    Ed

  19. Tim:

    THANK YOU.

    Your book (and ‘The Game’ oddly enough) taught me that it is possible to do and become anything I wanted.

    I have failed a series of businesses (without losing a nickel), learned an array of marketing/programming/NLP/pickup skills, and have just launched a business I personally am very excited about.

    Your paradigm shifting ideas have given me the freedom and the money to do whatever I want. I have surrounded myself with interesting people pursuing the same goals as I, and am meeting people such as Ryan Kaltman (and yourself soon! 😉 ).

    I’ve been visualizing reaching this point for a year-and-a-half now, and at 23 years old, you showed me how to rock and roll and change my paradigms to understand what we’re really all working towards. So….

    THANKS TIM.

    Jack Ramos

  20. Don’t wanna be a spelling hobo, but “Pavoratti died in 2007” <== Pavarotti is misspelled here. 🙂

    Wonderful post, and as an opera and tenor fanatic I do not mind the references to tenors and opera at all! 🙂

  21. Love this kind of post/thinking, understanding the way we perceive value is an awesome thing. fans of this post will love predictably irrational by dan ariely, heaps of great info about understanding how we perceive value and make decisions

  22. To Cal:

    Haha, that’s funny (but not unexpected) you don’t use the Superstar Effect to leverage your career. To be honest, I am more interested in your book now than before, simply because I prefer research generated content rather than experience-based advice (although I think both have an important role in teaching).

    I think it would be interesting to hear how you used the Superstar Effect to hack a publishing contract. What key elements did you focus on or how did you present yourself (or your material) that enabled you to get published when so many other writers are rejected? Hopefully this is what you meant by “ideas”.

    Thanks for the excellent post!

    – Swedy

  23. Great article! The great irony though is that all of these, very different, “diverse,” superstars goto elite Ivy league-type schools and come out a bit more homogenized than they would be if they had gone their separate ways.

    A great entrepreneur once wrote “We’re raising sheep in our educational system, not independent thinkers and doers.” Have you ever wondered why so many successful entrepreneurs were not so good in school? I wrote a post about this a few years ago in case you’re interested: …

  24. Hey Tim,

    I posted the below on twitter but I wasn’t sure if you’d see it.

    “@tferriss Hey Tim, I revised the flowchart on PG 144 of the 4HWW E&U. Here’s the link http://bit.ly/c1sqkR Tell me what you think! Cheers!”

    So I revised the flowchart on page 144 of the Expanded and Updated edition because Automation wasn’t apart of it.

    Cheers,

    Alex

  25. The same phenomenon of the super star effect can be just as easily seen in google rankings.

    Being top of google brings in exponentially more customers than being at number 2.

    – Jonny

  26. Yet another Time Ferriss (and guest, thanks Cal) idea that I’ve always kind-of known but have never really articulated even to myself. I’ve often showcased my success in my property investment hobby as a kind of “sweetener” in the Corporate Finance world where I work. A way to show that I’m entrepeneurial… but I’ve never thought of seeking out such niches with the end in mind. Thanks guys!

  27. This is very cool. Study Hacks is an amazing site.

    I would love to see you do something with Robert Greene in the future? i think he’s working on a new book as well.

  28. Amy Martin wrote: Pavarotti’s success has more to do with his PR team than his voice. Any professional opera singer who has business savvy will tell you that those who succeed are usually not those with the best voices, but those with the best marketing know-how.

    This is an extremely important point. Along these lines, I once read a quote saying the Rolling Stones didn’t become the best by being the best musicians, they became the best by being the best at promotion.

    Sure, you do need the talent, but, as written above, the difference between the best and second-best usually comes down to marketing and promotion.

  29. Curses! I wish I had this info a year ago at the beginning of my junior year. Oh, well. Ivy league education isn’t necessary

  30. Amazing guest post. I am so inspired to become a rock star now. Sometimes it’s so hard to keep a strong focus, it requires so much effort and concentration – but I guess that is what makes it so special.

  31. Hi Tim,

    FREE seo tip!

    You will improve your blog bounce rate if the names in the comments do not link out within the same window (set those links to open in a new window).

    It is also less annoying, and better for business 🙂

    ~

    Amy Martin

  32. Slogan is the one. Without a slogan or goal, you have no focus. The rest of what you say falls into the category of a managable goal but the key is of course to always have the goal in mind.

    I have my one line goal above my monitor, and every 15 or so minutes I ask myself if my work is getting me nearer to my goal.

    What I like about what you have written is flipping this somewhat to create the ‘superstar effect’ – what goal will get me noticed and stikes a cord with my customers. Get that right, and like you say, your a superstar.

  33. I got into Stanford not too long ago, despite (a) not working very hard in high school (I think I was 5th in my class, and my SATs were pretty decent), and (b) being from way out in the boonies rather than a rich suburb school. The writer is completely correct that the admissions folks are looking for something in particular, but I would never have called it a Superstar Effect.

    What I found to be universally the case among my classmates at school was that they were the most *interesting* people I’ve ever met, all gathered in one place — I was really amazed at how accomplished and fascinating they were. Stanford Admissions has an uncanny ability to distill uniqueness of character, a sort of sparkly, funny, quirky originality, out of paper representations. Still, I was the only girl (at least in my freshman dorm) that had built a hovercraft from plywood, inner tubes, and old Corvair parts, which may have gotten me into a good school, but which has never gotten me a hot date.

    Now I find that I’m a Superstar by definition of this post?? Listen, I’m not going to call BS on the internet when FOR ONCE it works out in my favor instead of confirming my smelly nerd existence, but the vast majority of Stanford alums go on to fairly ordinary lives, despite the suggestion of the admissions officer. I myself have a child, in daycare, just like a normal person. (Yes, I was able to roofie a husband)

    To be a little more serious, I do think there is a subtle paradox at work here. Are you genuinely interested in things, or are you interested in *investing* in being interesting? If you are looking to change your personal paradigms so that you can be and act more fascinating, thus triggering the superstar effect, I think there is a good chance you’ll either fail, or be perceived as a phony. If you have, instead, realized that tv is a waste of time, and you’ve already sold it, canceled your iphone data subscription, stopped bothering with daily showers and hair gel products, and started getting together regularly with a friend to pursue an obscure real life meatspace interest, then you probably are already interesting and don’t really need the advice to begin with.

    I’m not sure why hygiene figures so prominently in my comment, on re-reading; maybe that’s just me. Mental energy spent on clothes, hair, and makeup is a waste of my time since I don’t have the requisite field expertise anyway.

  34. Personally, I just enjoy the company more of people who are not extremely anything. I can see how an extreme accomplishment would give you advantages in getting into a tough school, but I would rather hang out with the fourth best than the first best. I think it is more important to have great relationships with other people and be well balanced than to set a record.

  35. Tim,

    You look right at home in that mawashi….not something I thought I’d ever say to someone. haha

    This was a unique post. I don’t agree with everything you said, but it got me thinking about a new post for my site…. I’m actually happy to hear your different ideas. Expanding your gaze to include others’ points of view is a great way to grow.

    Whats new or exciting in your world these days?

  36. Tim

    This is a bit of topic BUT in response to your comment – “Hi there,”

    I’m very familiar with your work.

    I find you to be fascinating, brilliant, effectively inspiring and full of charm.

    A few month ago I hared you said (at the video from the conference in Amsterdam) that you believe in karma. This came as a surprise to me. As with many of the things you say, write or do, it provoked my thinking.

    I’ve noticed you used the word karma in this comment as well as in your FB page.

    My questions for you are: what does the word karma mean to you? When you wrote, “Karma is real?” How is it real? What did you mean by that?

    I have made my study! It is your point of view I’m extremely interested in hearing.

    I rarely ever comment and when I do you never respond. Please consider making an exception.

    Get well soon

    Shunit

    1. Hi Shunit,

      By “karma,” i just mean a general reciprocation in the world. In other words, what you put out will come back to you, often many fold. If you put out harm, it can come back to you 10x. Ditto for good things.

      That’s it!

      Tim

  37. Correction…This should read:

    My questions for you are: what does the word karma mean to you? and when you said, “Karma is real” How is it real? and What did you mean by that?

  38. I just returned from an offline vacation in the Boundary Waters of northern Minesotta (yes, I know, my book came out last week and my reaction was to retreat from modern communication; as mentioned, I’m a terrible marketer).

    I wanted to drop a quick note to emphasize that I love these most recent comments. I look forward to responding in more detail soon, but in the meantime, I’m excited to check out your surprising suggestions of the superstar effect in action (Ginsburg! Potts?), and appreciate the subtlety of the tension between jumping into a project too soon and waiting too long.

    As for peoples’ concerns on the value of an Ivy League education, I think that’s somewhat missing the point. Whether Michael needed to go to Stanford or not is less important, for the purposes of this article, than the notion that he got in — a difficult feat — by being a star.

  39. Good theory but wouldn’t Michael’s lack of high grades in high school eventually catch up with him in college? He still has to pass at Stanford.

  40. Even if your end-goal itself is one with a clear competitive structure…

    …getting into Stanford…

    …becoming a successful author…

    …making it on Wall Street…

    …becoming an actor…

    …or successful blogger…

    You can still leverage this effect to GET YOU TO that next “summit” level.

    1. Identify a niche that has two characteristics: a) is uncontested and b) has some relevance to either your target audience or your “summit” level.

    Plus,

    1A. The niche doesn’t need to be particularly impressive sounding. For instance, if someone else told you I was the only high school student in America to invent a flame-retardent Twinkie, that’s still interesting and ignites that Superstar Effect. If this happened to be a chemistry discussion, then that would be even more impressive. Which brings us to…

    1AA. Make sure the niche and activity you’re dominating is of relevance to your eventual “summit” audience. For instance, if Michael had dominated the “Most consecutive J.Crew sweaters purchased in a year” niche, and been the only high school student in America to purchase 317 J. Crew sweaters, Stanford probably wouldn’t care. (Unless of course he devised a genius cash generation system to allow such constant purchases…)

    So maybe the road to get there:

    > Where do I eventually want to be?

    > What traits are admired at that level?

    > How can I demonstrate those traits NOW in an area where very few people are focussing on?

    > What are three such areas? Can I name very many people that are doing similar things in these areas? If not… then…

    > Pick one, sloganize it, bet $1000 on it, then never veer from it until you nail it.

    Be great to do some case studies on folks who adopt this and then follow it through.

    David

  41. Tim,

    Great post and a lot of insightful information. This is one of those things that was known but never really understood. Now I understand.

    One small argument is the idea that getting started is not an important step. When I started my company, no one else would have bet $1000 dollars on the idea but yet I pressed forward. I think that there are some people who would willingly drop $1000 dollars on an idea that is destined for failure, yet there may be others who are less risky and would never gamble $1000 on almost anything. This second group may have great ideas but never actually get started and take the risk of moving forward with their ideas.

  42. @ Jaya

    Hey, are you the musician that was American Idol a couple years back? and I seem to recall being from the Seattle-Tacoma area?

  43. @Brian – Awesome insight: take on high profile projects that others steer clear of because of their fear of failure. That is incredibly actionable whereas in the past I “accidentally” took projects I didn’t even realize others would be afraid of. I’d just like to add to it that you should consider where projects might edge up on the average person’s comfort zone where it doesn’t edge up on your own. For instance, being comfortable with tech but working inside a firm where everyone seems afraid of it. Juxtapose your position with others to maximize these benefits.

    @Cameron – Nope, although I’ve been asked before [if I’m the Sanjaya on American Idol] and I’ve never bothered turning his fans away. His name is Sanjaya and comes from the narrator of the “Bagavad Gita”. Jaya [my name] is a bit older and is tied in with the birth and life of Ganesh. Also, I produce electronica and dance anthems whereas I hear he is just a singer (and, from what I’ve heard, not a very good one… but never heard him myself so going with rumor on that one).

  44. What a refreshing article! As an entrepreneur in a rather crowded field, I often struggle with how best to position myself and my business, erroneously thinking that emulating the leaders in my industry is the path to serving more people. This post was an eye opener as it reiterates the idea that we should not be afraid of the road less traveled, as that is often the most efficient path to success. Thank you!

    Rose

  45. Thanks Tim, another interesting article – along your general stream of thought, even though it’s a guest post. Inspiring too. 🙂

  46. I have finally realized that there is nothing unique or special or rare or precious about people. It really is all about luck.

    I have studied and talked to “successful” people and I have yet to find the magical key. I just think that some people get lucky and some do not. I myself do not have the energy or desire to be successful from my own efforts.

    If I woke up and was famous and rich, it would be cool. But putting in physical labor and mental effort is a major drawback. I do too much work just going to work and dealing with friends and family. I just do not see the reward at the end of the day. The bigger you become, the more you have to lose.

    At this point, I try to encourage people who I think will be successful in the future. My goal is to be in a successful person’s entourage. The residual benefits from hanging around important people usually outweigh the stress and angst of trying to be famous yourself.

    Why not settle? More is not always better.

  47. Good theory but wouldn’t Michael’s lack of high grades in high school eventually catch up with him in college? He still has to pass at Stanford.

    His grades were fine, they just weren’t the perfect straight-A’s that most Stanford Applicants put in a lot of extra work to get. He’s having no trouble academically at Stanford.

    You can still leverage this effect to GET YOU TO that next “summit” level.

    I love your terminology of “summit levels,” I think that’s a great way of thinking about the issue.

    Related to your other note, in my new book where I talk about the superstar corollary, I also give a list of addendums to the rule, and one of them is that the accomplishment most still give off some marker of ability. That is, buying the most J. Crew sweaters, as you mentioned, doesn’t trigger the effect, as it gives off no marker of ability.

  48. @Cal Newport

    Cool, man, I’ll pick up your book for sure. Thanks for this post, by the way. Outstanding insight.

  49. Dear Tim Ferris,

    My name is Miguel Diaz, I live in Gilroy, California; the garlic capital of the world. I am a proud owner of your book, “The Four Hour Workweek” and I can’t tell you how much of a privilage it is for me to have you read my letter. The reason I am writing you today is because of a strong knack I have to start my own business. I come forward to you today as a student; a student of great potential and one who has a bold request to make with hope that you accept with alacrity.

    I am 26 years old and I have been working at Citibank as a teller but my passion is business and I have been patient and frugal to save enough funds to put me in a good school so I may pursue my goals. I believe I carry good intentions in life and I am willing to take risks, sacrafices and maintain a high level of persistance to achieve my untimate dream. With your help Mr. Ferris, I have full faith in myself that I can accomplish these goals but not without extreme dedication with acts of piety.

    So far, I have not been able to save much for my education at San Jose State University, my school of choice to gain knowledge in business. So, my reason for this letter still stands and I ask you today to make an investment. I ask you without embarrassment to donate the amount it takes for myself to attend my college of choice for atleast 1 semester. I know I might be asking for too much but in my situation, you are my only hope and I can’t turn back. Just to get rid of any suspicions that this is a scam, please don’t write a check to my name. Instead, write it to San Jose State University in California on behalf of Miguel Diaz on completion of 1 full quarter.

    Mr. Ferris, if you decide that you would infact be willing to invest in my future. I will personally sign any contract to pay back any or all of the amount you donate to me. I can’t thank you enough for your valuable time.

    Please contact me if you have any questions regarding this letter.

    Thank you in advance!

  50. This post connected so many dots for me…

    I have heard so many times that be remarkable, specialized in what you do. I got ideas from this post as to how to achieve that.

    In marketing, we keep saying also to specialize. Capture the share one segment/niche at a time. I got ideas on how to identify and pursue niches from this post.

    I read Gladwell’s Outliers. And he has amazing stories of people that became special and successful. I suppose each of them identified their specialty and pursued it with all the passion, energy, enthusiasm and will power.

    Tim, your blog post inspired me. I feel so blessed that I got chance to read it.

    I loved Peggy Henefor’s comments too. A couple things from there stood out to me. Be willing to think different, be different. And then have the confidence to follow through.

    Thank you so much for the post Tim.

  51. how true. Grades are nothing but a filter but to be exceptional in one thing will make you stand out. However, in a work environment, one needs to be able to be seen as at least being able to do what their hired for and my 2 cents is the ‘superstar effect’ works exceptionally well in getting ‘entries’ into good schools or recruitment drives for say fresh graduates where there is really no track record or history to measure future success.

  52. Great insight.

    Just started reading The 4-Hour Workweek and my life has already begun to change.

    Keep it up!

    David

  53. Tim – great choice for using this article as a guest post. Cal did a great job and fits very well w/ the site.

    Thanks!

    Joe

  54. In 6 weeks I will leave for a month of travel in India and Nepal. I have set up web based accounts to edit my website and schedule from any computer on the road (no laptop). I have a global loaner phone coming (text messages only). I have a DVD being released next month. Orders may come in while I’m away.We’re set up to handle it. I am leaving my business to run itself for a month (15 part time employees). Today I went for morning walk. When I got to the corner I looked down and picked up an old tennis ball. I bounced it off the ground for my entire walk. When I got back to my home/office I contacted a famous author/MD and asked him to review my DVD and offer feedback. Then I asked if I could use the feedback.Thank you, Tim, you are an inspiration.

  55. Tim,

    Great post. Would you say that this effect has occurred for you and book and blog? You are the most successful lifestyle design guru out there that I know. If this is true, did you plan on your success that way, or was it a side effect?

    Thanks!

    Jamie

  56. This article is so on point!

    It just shows that if you spend some time thinking about what your natural talents are, and what you enjoy doing, all you need to do is display that in a new light, and BINGO! You can do what you love and be a superstar.. corallarily speaking:)

  57. Tim/ Cal,

    What kind of range are we talking when you say ” the best or number one ” I can do something crazy challenging or be in much better shape then the people who know me. This would make me stand out and be the best among those people, but do I have to be better or more diced then everyone in the world?. ( example )

    I realize some niches that are quite large, but maybe unknown to the general public would make me number 1 in there eyes cause they don’t know anyone else in that area of expertise.

    Not meaning to make this really confusing. Just curious.

    – Trevor

  58. This reminds me of a franchise I saw advertised in Entrepreneur Magazine this year. Sportclips. As they put it, “We defined the men’s and boy’s sports haircut category.”

    Another great example of defining your own category and then becoming the best at it, is Douglas Hofstadter’s “Goedel, Escher, Bach” — a Pullitzer prize-winning book now seen as a seminal work in “Cognitive Science”. Well, Cognitive Science didn’t exist in 1979. And there was no “category” for “person who ties together visual art, mathematics, and music”.

  59. My friend Jon Coombs also exploited this to get onto the David Letterman show. He started looking through the Guinness Book of World Records for records that he thought he could break. There are so many of these that some of them are bound to be beatable.

    He ended up beating several, for example “Most T-Shirts Worn at a Single Time” (150, I think). But the one that got him onto Letterman was “Most Rubber Bands Wrapped Around One’s Head in Under a Minute” (80, I think).

  60. Tim great post…

    I had a question for you. On your way of climbing towards success did you feel at times where things just didn’t work out for you and than suddenly you made a break through after mad persistence and hustle. I am sure you have read the Alchemist. Can you relate your life to the character in the Alchemist?

    Brian Tracy once said that when you are trying to achieve a goal it is like trying to break a rock after hours of hard work and than finally breaking it.

    Also, do you ever experience inner conflict?

    Do you mind if I get some of your thoughts on this since you are very inspiring.

    Have an amazing weekend!

    Thanks,

    Nabil

  61. “Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.” What cheesy motivational speaker wrote that? Oh, just some halfwit named Goethe.

  62. Dear Tim

    Great article and have a question:

    What if an individual just want to be good at what they do, while not wishing to be a superstar. How can an individual find success without following that path when there is a tendency of only those with ‘a name’ to themselves having doors opened for them?

  63. Nice piece. That’s comforting to know, “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.”

    I’ve done a lot of things in my life — zoo-keeping and building houses to name a few — but as my current life, value, happiness, is not contingent on what I do, but who I am. Sparked by a huge transformation in my life in March of 2006. Since I’ve realized… well, a lot of things. Most of all that life is living and any experience here is just gravy.

    As a soon to be self-published non-fiction author, sinking a lot more than 1K in my current project, making connections with people from all over the world, it’s already been worth it. Always will be, it’s who I am. In helping others succeed there really is no “failing” at the project, especially since it’s already transformed me.

  64. Great article! The linked text regarding Steve Martin “I’ve written in-depth about his method”, unfortunately leads to a dead page with a “website moved” notice on it. I’d love to read Tim’s writing about Steve Martin’s methods. I did several searches and can’t find it. Would you please fix the link? Thank you!

  65. There are some great tips here for preparing a groom’s speech. It’s an important speech that’s often overlooked because of the best man’s speech.

  66. I’m a big fan of your guest posts because it takes a topic you are interested in and gives the expert perspective. I truly learn something new with every post. For my and the readers sake, please keep this up!

  67. Hi Tim, thank you so much for this post!! Just found it now – I guess it must be the very best time for me to get this reminder 🙂

  68. This post really struck something with me and it’s something I’ve spent a decent amount of time thinking about. I work in marketing and in my day job, I work to develop marketing plans for physicians and services at a hospital. On the side, I manage social media for several local businesses (which I have quickly become passionate about). It’s amazing to me that in my day job, while I am doing a fine job, I’m not seen as a superstar but work with a group of people who are. Why? Because the leadership has the background and experience doing the work that I’m doing. I believe that the best way to be seen as a superstar is to provide a service or experience that our boss/client/superior couldn’t sit down and do for themselves. Because my coworkers are in those types of positions, they stand out more than I do and their work and results seem significantly more impressive. I’ve seen how easily you can be left in the dust, even though you’re doing your job, when you’re doing something that isn’t novel to others. However, on the flip side– I’m the superstar in my side business. It’s been fun and interesting (and a bit frustrating) to see the difference between my two roles and I’m getting ready to take the plunge and make my side business my full-time job. Thanks for the thought provoking article.

  69. Focusing on one area or topic to become the superstar is harder than it sounds. Reading your article I realize that I need to stop trying to be an expert on creativity, the spirituality of science, and business.

    The hard part is choosing which I would like to be the “superstar” in. Great article with great examples!… I love Steve Martin and his book “Born Standing Up”.

  70. Very interesting article Tim. Like many of your writings, this gave me a whole new perspective to think about. Thank you for this very informative post.