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Showing up is not enough

This post was republished on LifeHacker. You can read it here.

There’s a Woody Allen quote that goes: “ninety percent of success is just showing up.” Despite the title of this blog post my experience learning about and talking to successful people leads me to agree with him. But it does raise the question: what about the other 10%?

I think that the other 10% of success largely depends on what you’re showing up for.

Think of it this way: millions of people will get up tomorrow morning and show up for work. Millions will do this every day for the rest of their lives. Wake up, get in the car, sit in traffic, arrive at the office, work, leave the office, arrive at home, sleep. Repeat.

It would be an insult to these people to say that they’re not showing up. They do. So why aren’t they Woody Allen?

I’ll ask again: what are they showing up for?

Recently I was talking with someone close to me. She was expressing her frustration with her job. She works long 10-hour days, is compensated poorly and isn’t recognized for the work she does. She said to me, “No matter how hard I work no one seems to care. But you seem to have this je ne sais quoi that makes you successful. It makes people pay attention.”

I am not successful. Any small modicum of success I’ve achieved in the last couple of years of my life is completely insignificant compared to the mountains of human achievement both heralded and unheralded that go on in this world every day. I know I’m not special.

But then why isn’t she getting recognized? Why doesn’t she feel successful? She’s certainly putting in the hours.

To answer that question, let’s look at what she’s putting her hours into.

At her particular job, she’s working within a system. The system caps her success. No matter if she puts in the bare minimum amount of effort to keep her job, or goes above and beyond the call of duty every day, she’ll probably end up with similar results. She’s within a hierarchy. There’s no way to jump light-years ahead even if she’s good at what she does. There are just too many people above her who have every incentive to keep her down. So showing up every day and putting in the hours only results in limited success. There are no grand slams.

Now I’m certainly not advocating always working outside of a system. People have to do what they have to do to get by. Systems are a necessary part of life, and sometimes are set up to reward hard work. But this is certainly not always the case.

If you recognize that you’re working within a system where your success is artificially limited it’s a good idea to use your extra time in other places. Look for places to spend time where your success is potentially unlimited.

For example, take writing a blog. Writing on a blog is, as my friend Sebastian Marshall likes to say, a high upside low downside activity. Your blog success is not capped by a hierarchy, by a system, by your boss. If you write interesting things people will read them.

The scary part about it is that it’s very easy to feel like you’re wasting your time. This is because if you’re pursuing opportunities where your success is uncapped, you’re going to have to start from scratch. There’s no system, so you have to build one. Your 1000th blog post may be read by a million people, but your first one will only be read by your mom (if you’re lucky).

On the flip side, if my friend writes on her company blog she is absolutely guaranteed to get a couple of thousand readers to see what she writes. But it’s also unlikely that she’ll get more than that couple of thousand readers. And even if she does, those couple of thousand readers will remember her company, and not her. Her manager will get credit from the executives for doing a good job, instead of her.

Blogging every day for a guaranteed thousand readers may help her gain skill. It’s certainly valuable to some extent. But even if she spends hour after hour perfecting every post, it won’t do very much for her because the system she’s in is not set up to reward it.

Showing up is crucially important. But if you’re doing that without results it’s not time to throw up your hands and say “I’m not cut out for this.”

If you’re working hard and not being recognized it’s a good idea to look at what you’re working hard on.

If you’re looking for something to pursue when you get home for the day, it’s best to spend time on something that doesn’t limit your ability to achieve.

If 90% of success in life is showing up, the other 10% depends on what you’re showing up for.

Show up for things where your potential for achievement is commensurate with your willingness to put in effort. The rest seems to take care of itself.


9 Jun 2012, 11:19pm | 14 comments

  • mom

    amazing post.

  • Sadie Cook
  • Simon K

    Great post.I think I want to make an addendum to what you’re saying though, and tie back to Woody Allen. I have tended to think success has a lot to do with showing up simply where it’s not always expected of you – where it’s not in a system. Do good shit in your spare time. Give that extra favour. Offer your help even if nobody asked. In your words, that often has limited downside – big upside. Many of us waste hours of time that could be pitched into something helpful, w/o drawbacks. And that extra exposure, to people and to experience, may not give you things back very often but the few times they do there’s no limit to how much an old favour can repay itself, or an old spare-time project can come in handy. So in that sense Woody Allen already saw your point coming: show up not just every work morning but in every other case as well, and there can be no big system to hold you back.

  • Dan Shipper

    @Simon good point!

  • Timothy Gaweco
  • Timothy Gaweco

    Fantastic post Dan, your point about working on something where your achievement isn’t constrained definitely resonated with me. It seems that perhaps the 90/10% distribution is more like 50/50.

  • Stlan

    It should be “Je ne sais QUOI” instead of “Je ne sais CROIS”.

  • Dan Shipper

    @Stlan changed! the embarrassing part is I actually took French in high school….@Timothy Really glad you liked the post! You make an interesting point. I think figuring out the exact distribution is pretty tough.

  • Colter Lovette

    Great post Mr. Shipper,To add a note, even as the encouraging posts, articles, speeches and other form of public insight fill up the social atmosphere with words of enlightenment and direction; I find that most of the time what stops people from changing that so minimal 10% (and yes, although arguable, I believe the distribution to be around the 90/10 rate) is fear. I spend a lot of my time studying insightful people and following the activities going on in the entrepreneur world and most of the people that are highly successful made one move on a simple tuesday morning that scared the crap out of them. Freedom or success comes from the extremely scary but small step off the typical path and onto a blind ambition thats lit up by the glowing flicker of want and hopefully, passion.It’s a funny thing that sometimes the equation to happiness and success is hindered oh-so-commonly by that last 10%. It takes a lot of courage and is why I love the entrepreneur community.

  • Mikettownsend

    Dan, part of her frustration, and why a blog is so powerful, may be a derivative of the luck platform wherein the X axis is how good you are at what you do and the Y axis is how many people know about it.The remianing area is your resulting luck ratio, makes sense right? I didn’t make this up.She may be very good at what she does, but rather than the system capping her down, she merely has no effective strategy for leveraging her great work, ie exposing it to leverage future gains.Use quora, blogging, meetups, coffees with colleagues, twitter with a purpose, etc. to add value to her work world community.,

  • janninalo

    Such book reviews online willhelp me with the problem of reading))

  • PurpleCar

    Jumping on to an older post…So, how does one work on that Y axis of luck? Good at what you do: check. Luck? no check. What can one do, in theory, to increase one’s luck?

  • http://www.chrisdifonzo.com Chris DiFonzo

    Dan – Great post. I knew your name sounded familiar. Randomly, weeks before we met in person, I referenced your post (as republished on lifehacker) here: http://www.chrisdifonzo.com/2012/10/19/showing-up-and-being-on-time/

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