The Crowd is Stupid (You Don’t Need Genius to Beat Them)


“They say that for every open audition for a role, there are 500 applicants. But that isn’t too important, so long as you remember 490 of those applicants are idiots.”

This was an example given to me by Cal Newport (although the origin is lost). The numbers aren’t real, but I think the message is accurate. When we compare ourselves against the average, we forget an important fact:

Most people don’t try.

Yes, there are exceptions (and I’ll get to them), but for many areas of life it isn’t too difficult to rise above the average. This was my startling discovery several years ago that led me to write for this blog.

If you are focused and committed, you’ve already placed yourself above the majority in most pursuits. If you are focused, committed and have any strategy at all, you are probably in the top 10-20%.

What’s the Chance of Earning Your Black-Belt in Karate?

To me, questions like these are stupid to ask. Because the probability of success is tied tightly to the amount of commitment and motivation you have prior to making the attempt.

Arguments like, “97% of people who attend karate class fail to receive their black-belt,” as a justification for why you are likely to fail don’t make sense. Of the 97% of failures, how many weren’t really committed to investing the time to finish? How many people sign up for a month and drop out?

This might be obvious for a skill like karate, but how often do you here the statement that, “80% of new businesses fail”?

The same logic applies. Knowing an 80% failure rate is meaningless if it includes all the people who didn’t have the same level of commitment as you. Additionally, a person could go through more than one “failed” business before building a successful enterprise.

Benchmark Yourself by Level of Commitment

Using crowd statistics as your benchmark for success is lousy because it ignores your internal level of commitment. I believe that, in most cases, putting a minimal level of effort tends to put you above that average in terms of commitment. For some people, they will be way above the average.

A better way to estimate your odds of success are by comparing yourself against a group with a similar commitment level. This is difficult to do, since this information doesn’t come trickled down through trite statistics.

However, if I were taking on a new pursuit, I would ask myself how committed I am to pursuing it. How long would I be willing to sweat it out before giving up?

Then all I need to do is get a reasonable estimate of the rate of success for people at that level of commitment.

A simple example might be starting a new online business. Assuming your burn rate is low and you can work on it part-time, then the business could feasibly operate for as long as you have patience. In this case, just ask yourself how much patience you have.

If you’d be willing to sweat it out for 2 months, you would probably find the failure rate is pretty high. But if you changed that to 5 years, the odds of eventually figuring it out and earning a full-time income are more in your favor.

*Any* Strategy is Better Than the Typical Strategy

Because the typical strategy is usually no strategy at all. If you have gone to the effort of creating an action plan and you have at least a minimum level of patience to stick with it, you’re already doing far better than most.

I hate that the bar is set so low. But I hate even more that people discount themselves for future success because they don’t realize how low the bar actually sits.

Most of the tactics I advocate (30DTs, weekly/daily goals, holistic learning) aren’t necessarily the best strategies. But they are strategies, and if they motivate you to get started, then they will probably help you do more than most people.

Don’t spend all your time looking for the “best” idea, when almost any idea you can commit to will be a lot better than average.

The Crowd is Us

It isn’t that the crowd is actually stupid, lazy or mediocre. Of course, because the crowd is us.

It’s just that, most of our energy goes in mindlessly maintaining the status quo. Deliberateness in creating a plan and commitment is a rare quality that most people exert infrequently, and even the best of us can only exert sporadically. But when you do, the crowd is fairly easy to beat.

  • John

    Yes, there are exceptions (and I’ll get to them).

    I couldn’t find them in the article. Are you going to them later?

  • Josh Sager

    So true! I can totally relate to your black belt analogy. I’ve been studying martial arts for 34 years and can’t even begin to tell you how many people have come and gone. The worst part is that nowadays the McDojos are set up in such a way that you really just need to keep going for a few years in order to earn your belt; they are more interested in student retention (in other words, a paycheck) than actually teaching the art.

    I think the question is exactly what you said when you wrote “How long would I be willing to sweat it out before giving up?” Surely, you either have to love what you are doing or realize that it’s essential to your way of life in one way or another.

  • Easy Steps to Success

    Statistics about failure and success rates in achieving desired goals are helpful precisely because they suggest not only the lack of commitment that most people have to that goal but, more importantly, they hint at the reasons for that lack of commitment.

    For example, let’s look at the universal goal of better diet and fitness. Most people would like to lose at least 10 pounds of fat but only if …

    1. it doesn’t take a whole lot of effort, time, or money; and
    2. they can still enjoy their favorite foods any time.

    So the question you should ask yourself is not: “Do you want to lose 10 pounds?” Instead, form the question by addressing the underlying reasons why most people fail at that goal: “Do you want to lose 10 pounds if it means a lot of effort, time, or money, and if it means you have to significantly and permanently change your eating habits?” Most people would answer “no” to that — which is why most people fail at losing those pesky 10 pounds. Me included. 🙂

  • Brett –


    I love this post, man. So many people forget that if they’re committed and passionate about doing something, their chances of success exponentially increase, compared to the average. Why? Average is mediocre. Average is inconsistent. Average is lazy.

  • prasanna

    Really good point, Scott!

    My revelation from own experience: “Statistical results has Nothing repeat..NOTHING to do with an individual”

    90% of persons with cancer don’t show full remission has nothing to do with an individual putting in efforts to fight cancer and beat it!

  • prasanna

    Also see this video (funny & makes sense) which exactly states in a ‘Nail-in-the-head’ approach on the necessity for putting down or exerting your idea as soon as possible instead of just being in ‘idea-hatching’ state:

  • Atle Iversen

    Nice article !

    2 relevant quotes I like:

    “Many a false step was made by standing still”
    – Fortune cookie

    “I can’t give you a surefire formula for success, but I can give you a formula for failure: try to please everybody all the time”
    – Herbert Bayard Swope, American editor and journalist (first recipient of the Pulitzer Prize)

    My summary; do SOMETHING, and make sure it is something else than everybody else (the crowd) is doing

  • Armen Shirvanian

    Hi Scott.

    Most people certainly don’t try. This would be the reason why some of us see a sea of opportunity. Not everyone sees this sea of opportunity.

    I agree and have thought the same thing about used percentages like in “80% of small businesses fail”, because the majority of those that fail had people that didn’t even really believe in their business. Very little will work without the full effort of the person behind it.

    Level of commitment is one of the main bars I use as well. It is nearly impossible to succeed at obtaining something worthwhile without a substantial level of commitment, and at the same time, it is nearly impossible to fail at something when a substantial level of commitment is poured into it and maintained.

    I like that part saying “The crowd is us.” It’s much easier to say it is “those other guys”, but there aren’t any other guys, and it is us and those we know.

  • Scott Young


    The exception, of course, is if you have less commitment than the average. As I mentioned in the article, if you put your commitment threshold at 2 months for starting a blog, you are well below the average and will probably fail.

    Also, this post ignores the possibility that we are overconfident in our commitment expectations. I recognize that, but I didn’t want to complicate the article with a topic better saved for another day.


  • Barry Wright, III

    Good points Scott; as you said, by nature of our commitment, etc. we are in the top 10-20% to begin with (for many ventures), and simply by deciding to pursue something we surpass many equally (or even more) talented individuals. Action is king!

  • JJ

    Here’s to the Crazy One’s!

    I love it all, but here’s a idea. You said:

    “If you are focused, committed and have any strategy at all, you are probably in the top 10-20%.”

    This is all well and true, and to be honest I’ve heard it before. What I’m interested in is habits. I’m in first year university, and i’m finding that its really easy to get into bad habits (like hitting the sleep button, relying on coffee too much ect.) I’ve recently read Franklin’s Autobiography and he talks about his ‘pursuit of moral perfection’. Keeping this in mind, my question is:

    What are the modern, daily habits that put you into the top 10-20% right away? What are simple things that can be done everyday (not meaning they are easy to do) that will automatically put us into the top 10-20%?

    My thoughts: Get up early, read everyday (I love your speed reading ideas and posts Scott), exercise, hard focus (Cal Newport talks a lot about that). Yours? Turn it into a future post Scott.

    Anyways, I’m new to your blog, and maybe you’ve talked already about this. (One thing I love that Newport does on Study Hacks is link previous articles to the current one. They even open in new tabs… Just a thought)


    JJ – Waterloo, ON

  • Adam

    Nice way of putting this bro.

  • Maureen

    Labeling people “idiots” make you seem like one yourself. Not too many people I know go around labeling others idiots. Have a little respect for others.

  • Boris

    Great message! More than worrying about the crowd, the key point is to improve yourself day by day!
    By the way, I think that this applies to blogging as well.
    How many bloggers are showing up just because they think is a way of getting money easily without “working”?
    All the best!

  • Richard Shelmerdine

    True, the crow has its own mindset separate from that of the individual. Nobody likes to admit to following the crowd but a lot of us do subconsciously at least.

  • Jen

    Might this not be a little illusory? I think most people see themselves as exceptions to the rule and believe that statistics don’t apply to them individually. “The crowd” doesn’t see themselves as the crowd, but as exceptional individuals.

  • Scott Young


    I’m not ignoring the fact that people tend to view themselves as being “above average”.

    My point about success rates/strategy is twofold:

    1. Very few people who pursue something have a significant commitment to it. These are the same people who are often included in so-called “success ratios”. Simply by declaring yourself to be committed indicates you’re above average in many cases (although not all).

    However, this is also true of ourselves. How often do we say we’re interested in something but don’t really make any commitment effort. I would say for every 1 pursuit we undertake seriously most people have another 4-5 they claim interest but don’t put serious effort. So the law of averages would state that, if you know one of your pursuits is a serious commitment, it is already in the top 20% for yourself, or likely top 20% of others.

    2. The weakness of my theory is that people aren’t accurate guessers of their future commitment threshold. But that’s a whole other challenge.


  • shreevidya

    I got a good insight of ‘NOT COMPARING SELF WITH OTHERS’. GREAT!