What Matters More, Marketing or Mastery?

Last week’s guest article on hacking the system generated a frenzy of discussion. One reader commented that this was the best guest post he had ever read. Another said it was terrible and that it detracted from the entire work of this website.

I normally leave follow-up to the comments section, but this ideological rift was just too fascinating to pass up. Mostly because I think it’s ridiculous.

The split centers on two ways of approaching success. One is the marketing approach—this is the sex-scandal, shortcut the system method Maneesh wrote about. The other is about mastery, ten thousand hours and being so good they can’t ignore you. Who’s right?

Marketing and Mastery BOTH Matter

What’s ridiculous about this is that the entire debate is premised on a false dichotomy. Of course marketing matters. Life isn’t fair, and the rewards and opportunities don’t always go to the most deserving.

Similarly, mastery also matters—lasting success isn’t premised on cheap tricks alone and there’s no free lunch.

Choosing a side here is dangerous. If you ignore one half of the problem, it will be very hard to come up with an efficient solution.

Fitting into Neither Dogma

Taking on the MIT Challenge has been interesting because it doesn’t cleanly fit into either ideology. As a result narrow-thinking people from both aisles have given all sorts of bizarre criticisms, which I think reflects more on how ridiculous those dogmas are than anything I’m actually doing.

Many people from the marketing philosophy don’t understand the point of learning anything academic. In their view, the only point of an education is the benefits of a diploma, nothing you learn in school is particularly important.

People from the mastery perspective don’t understand the point of trying to learn something more quickly. I’ve gotten tons of emails telling me that the challenge cannot work, even in principle, because mastery takes years.

The truth is likely somewhere in between. Learning a computer science degree may generate a lot of waste in having concepts that I’ll never use, practically. But theoretical knowledge also allows you to understand the world better so building narrower, practical skills become easier.

Similarly, learning a degree in one year instead of four will probably have some drawbacks. But my guess is that they will be minor compared to saving 75% of the time and 99% of the financial cost.

Does Your Bias Reflect Something Deeper?

I’m not bringing this up just to make a bland observation. I feel strongly that your bias—whether you view success as marketing or mastery, is also a factor for how you view the world itself.

In this sense, the reasonable viewpoint—that both matter to a certain degree, is less widely held because of the cherished beliefs people hold about how life operates.

People who reject marketing want to view the world in terms of fairness. That people always get what they deserve and that if you want success, you need to earn it. They might be aware that life is capricious and full of injustices, but operating under that assumption is distasteful.

These are the people who complain that Maneesh didn’t deserve to DJ because he didn’t spend years practicing or that I don’t deserve to talk about learning MIT’s curriculum since I never went through the arduous application process.

Fundamentally, this attitude is toxic. Whether you ultimately feel that, in your situation, mastery or marketing is the limiting ingredient, doesn’t matter as much as how you view the world. Moralizing excessively about what you (or others) deserve is a sure way to avoid doing the things that will actually achieve it.

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  • James H.

    Thanks for providing a more concrete example of such a fundamental problem of comprehension, Scott. So many other problems in life boil down to that kind of higher-level tribalism.

  • Adam Tyler

    So you’re saying they both matter; maybe they both take their turn dominating. Maneesh’s being a DJ wasn’t about mastery–it wasn’t about lasting success–it was more about accomplishing something interesting. It seems to me that mastery is more important for things like computer science or for things you plan on making a career of.

  • Amelia

    A really interesting post here Scott. I mostly come from the mastery court, but I also realise that, especially as an entrepreneur, opportunities won’t come to me just by being a master- I also have to market myself, make connections with people in my field, and essentially make it happen. People won’t know you’re capable of all the wonderful talents you have, if you keep them hidden in a box at the bottom of your closet. I believe you have to balance in the middle between mastery and marketing for long-term success.

  • Don Chiddy

    It also depends on what you are working towards. Djing definitely requires knowing people. In addition though, you could say Maneesh had mastery indirectly from all his years of listening to music and clubbing. That being said you need a bit of both elements to be successful otherwise you become a fraud or an unknown.

  • Michael Medric

    Scott, I absolutely agree with you that both mastery and marketing are essential to success….in my opinion, when and how these are used is equally critical.

    For me personally, I would not consider marketing anything unless I was confident I could deliver the said product. I would rather use the energy that would go into marketing to build a better product (or skill) and let the chips fall where they may. I completely agree that this approach depends on a higher degree of fairness, but that simply becomes a risk factor that one must accept. This approach doesn’t mean that marketing is absent, but it is secondary.

    Before engaging in any en devour, I think it is wise to think about what it is you want to achieve. Knowing that will allow you to determine when and how to utilize mastery and marketing in a way that is appropriate for you.

    Nice article!

  • Tassia

    My bias is toward mastery, if only because marketing (eventually) turns into hard work just to stay in place, while the hard work of mastery actually propels you forward. Also I’m not much of a public person, so perhaps that enters into it as well.

    I think the wise person mixes the two. Years ago, I read about two popular composers from the 1930s, Irving Berlin and one other (telling in itself that I don’t remember his name). They both had had the same number of hit songs, but Irving Berlin is the one who became the household name because he was a master at PR. The other one just wanted to write his songs.

    The mix, then (imo), depends on how you want to live your life: in the spotlight or in your studio (or the equivalent), though the truth is that it’s not a binary decision, but rather a point somewhere on the spectrum that flows between the two extreme endpoints.

    I am enjoying seeing you work through the MIT courses, and I cheer on anyone who might want to take on the same challenge. Talk about hard work! Yet, how splendid to know all that at the end of a year.

    We are all better off for having more choices, ones that let us soak up a wide swath of culture and knowledge in a four year degree program (though I majored in History, I was required to take some science courses as well, and those classes in botany and geology and astronomy have enhanced my life ever since). At the same time, now with iTunes U and the other online resources, I can choose to learn more.

    I say celebrate choice, with perhaps a moment of pity for those who choose to live in a stark binary world.

  • Bornagainscholar

    Marketing does matter but having to tell a lie to try and make a point is, I believe crossing the boundaries, my boundaries anyway. Your friend did not become a “famous DJ” in 90 days. I know people all over the world in the club/DJ scene, who have been there a long time and follow the scene very closely. And I have spent considerable amount of wasted time to see just how famous this guy became. Not one single person I have asked (out of probably 100 or more) in many places including Berlin has ever heard of this guy. Being able to throw your own parties and then getting a few invitations to DJ at clubs or parties does not make you famous. I understand his point, you don’t have to follow the same track as the rest of the heard trying to get a job. But that does not make you famous or well respected.

    Your guest post does bring up one very helpful and useful piece of advice especially for people entering the job market or getting ready to. The chance of getting a job from submitting your resume to a company through the traditional means is most likely not going to land you many jobs any more. Most of the jobs these days in both small companies and large corporations are filled with people that have a link to the position. That means you need to make yourself noticeable or know someone that can help you get through. So taking “DJ’s” advice into a different context can be very helpful.

    But lets try to remember integrity and values when we are telling our experience or trying to sell our blog, website, or personal resume. I would have respected his piece a lot more if he didn’t lie. Really being invited to DJ any club after only working at it a month or two is impressive and I applaud his creative thinking skills. But I have to say he lost respect from me. I know that doesn’t mean much to him or anyone else on this blog. But if I feel that way hopefully there are many more out there and we can together encourage others to be more dignified when trying to impress the masses.

  • Jonathan

    Almost EVERYBODY realizes that both are important. What I think most people were talking about in the previous post was that Maneesh wasn’t nearly as successful as he claims. Hosting your own parties doesn’t mean you are a DJ in a professional or skill sense.

    I also disagree that this is an issue of Marketing vs Mastery. You have a tendency to break down ideas into boxes. A person who works hard and gets a degree doesn’t just rely on skill. He goes to interviews and uses his degree to get a job (Marketing). The skill is used to keep the job/get promotions.

    What I believe the takeaway point of Maneesh’s ideas was the power of creativity. He realized that DJ’s need a reputation to become successful. Hosting your own parties to build a reputation is a good idea in my opinion. Your holistic learning strategy (which i LOVE!) is also a creative approach to such a traditional skill. I don’t blame people for calling you out because it’s far more probable that it is just another gimmick instead of something that actually works as claimed.

    This post is already to long so I won’t talk about how to incorporate the Sex Scandal technique into scott young form of goal setting and skeletal planning, but i will do so on request.

  • Alice

    I’m exploring this balance (mastery vs. marketing) at the moment, too. I come from the music business so I’m used to people who are ignoring marketing completely and only focus on the mastery. This never works, of course.

  • Arjan

    You’re very right about the false dichotomy, Scott. Unfortunately we humans have a very strong tendency to polarize opinions. Probably this is somehow hardwired in our brains, I don’t know. What I do know is that it’s very hard for us to realize that (seemingly) opposites don’t necessarily have to rule each other out.
    In my opinion it’s better to acknowledge what is required in a given situation than to cling to dogmatic ideas about what’s right and wrong. Having said that, there is nothing wrong with discussing the rights and wrongs of a way of acting, on the contrary. But it shouldn’t hinder a clear view on life.

  • Jonathan

    Scott, respectfully, I think you missed the reason Maneesh’s article wasn’t well received. I work in media. I certainly understand and appreciate the importance of marketing. I believe, as I think many of your readers do, that marketing is, like mastery, in part a moral act. Clever and ingenious marketing should support something of worth. Otherwise, it’s hollow. Maneesh’s article is about cunningly marketing things of dubious value (Kim Kardashian’s persona, his own skills as a DJ). And it has within it a certain kind of entitlement that is a real turnoff to me. In your current post, you bring in criticism of your MIT Challenge, as if you and Maneesh are on equal footing, sharing in lashings from reactionaries. I don’t see it that way: you’re working your ass off trying to learn something extremely difficult in a short period of time (a worthy pursuit, worthy of marketing), Maneesh is busy lamenting with his friends the difficulty in finding “good” employees (arrogant) while advocating to your readers a Kim Kardashian inspired career-plan (not a worthy pursuit, not worth marketing). While I understand the instinct to defend a friend and guest columnist, the question must be posed: who is creating the false dichotomy? Remember, “Toxic” is also Britney Spears’ song. – Jonathan

  • Jon

    Stated concisely, _for better results it’s not only who you know or what you know, but who knows what you know_.

  • Phil

    I’m going to recommend a book, that I think is relevent to this discussion

    Playing to Win


    Its all about becoming a champion video game player, the author won a bunch of Street Fighter tournament

    part of what he talks about in the book is understanding the real rules of the game, alot of people people invent rules to video games (and life) that don’t really exist, and this limits the strategies that they will try

    I think this post is spot on, the marketing aspect is a strategy space that there is no rule against exploring, unless you create an artifical rule against it, (and if you do, you’ll be at a disadvantage to all those not playing by those artificial rules)

  • Alex

    What I liked about Maneesh’s post was that he wasn’t afraid to test his assumptions. If I wanted to try something new and was unsure if I wanted to contribute the time needed to become a master, then I’d try the sex scandal approach to test the waters. It would save me a lot of time and proposed wasted energy.

    Then once I would have gotten a taste of what success feels likes – even if it’s temporary or small – then it would give me an indication if whether the goal was worth it or not.

    A few people did become turned off by the “way” Maneesh wrote his post and by mentioning someone like Kardashian. But he really could have used any type of example if he wanted. The point is that he stressed the importance of using an intense amount of overwhelming force in order to reach a new goal. This way one can build the momentum needed to start on the journey of mastery – if that’s the long-term goal – or simply quit and do something else.

  • Jonathan

    Wow you blocked my post… it’s funny from someone who criticism is the highest form of praise lol

  • Shreen

    Phil – bingo!

    People don’t like the ‘unfair’ reality that pure mastery alone isn’t always enough. Most of us were probably told, brainwashed even, to believe that doing well at school, college and university will invariably lead to success. Later realising the complex reality of life, we may become angry that we were fooled to believe in artificial rules.

    Alternatively we might be defiant and hold onto these non-existant rules. Anyone who deviates is ‘cheating’!! (Zenhabits blog has a good post up now about avoiding this mindset by home schooling).

    A commentor asking whether you would trust a surgeon who got his job after a few months of intense marketing misses the point. In careers where the responsibility levels are enormous and safety-critical, marketing plays much less of a part than pure skill, hence the high level of qualifications and training you need under your belt before you can do the job.

    I used to be a mechanical engineer – I have a strong degree and an award from a UK engineering institution, yet it was all that PLUS my ability to market myself that got me work. Marketing alone without the skills to back it up just wouldn’t work.

    In creative jobs where making mistakes and learning as you go along isn’t going to kill anyone, marketing can play a bigger role.

    The way I look at it is that marketing your skills effectively IS mastery. A small part of it anyway.

    Oh and, DJ’ing is harder than it looks! Good fun though. 🙂

  • Kim

    Wow, this post could not have come at a better time.

    It’s funny because my friends were having a political debate along the same lines.

    One of them referenced to Plato’s “The Republic.” According to Plato, he believed that people should be ruled by the most intellectual or the “philosopher kings” (mastery) yet they’re not always the most powerful. Then there are people who are the most influential (marketing), but they’re not always the most brilliant people. Then my friend made a point that somewhere along the way, both groups need to work with each other.

    As I was listening to their debate, I was thinking “why can’t we have both work together?” Why does there need to be a split between the two?

  • IC

    I agree with both sides of the story posted here. One should have a strong skill set, but in a competitive environment, one’s ability to market those skills is also important.
    While, I don’t find reality T.V. stars all that interesting, I can’t complain about their success, as long as they keep it, they are showing some sort of skill. Even if that skill is marketing.
    It is a little disturbing to me that my countless years of science education haven’t got me wealthy, and that if I had instead focused my time on writing a bestselling novel, I might be a millionaire right now. But I intend to market my skills to create the success I need. And I think that is the take away point.

  • Scott Young


    Comments go into the moderation queue if the site doesn’t recognize your email/username. I don’t delete comments, even those that are critical to me unless it is simply profanity. (To demonstrate that, just go over to the article on Why Atheism). If a comment doesn’t go up immediately it’s because of that (or that it was mistakenly flagged as spam).

    I’m aware that Maneesh’s choice of examples and tone polarized people–but that’s just rhetoric. I wanted to focus on this article on the trend I see of many people actively dismissing the importance of marketing and working the system.


  • Armen Shirvanian

    Hi Scott.

    Just as always, your site is one of very few sites that put out content I can connect with and get value from. I just went through a bunch of sites to see recent posts, and it’s mostly a bunch of repeated material, and then you don’t, so that is nifty. This stems from the fact that many people would talk about doing something like your MIT experiment, but a miniscule group of individuals will actually do it.

    I can’t remember one time that I came here and said to myself “stupid content” after reading an article. That is rare.

  • Lincia

    People generally think along the either/or lines. It was refreshing, Scott, to read how you’re not one of those people 🙂

  • Arjan

    After giving it all a further thought, ‘The Five Excellences’ of the Barefoot Doctor popped up in mind. These are: 1) Meditation Skills, 2) Medicine Skills, 3) Martial Art Skills, 4) Compositional Skills and 5) Presentation Skills.
    Excellence 4 and 5 are about mastery and marketing, respectively.
    More about these Five excellences can be read here:

    Another thing, the post of Maneesh itself points out how much your marketing/presentation matters. Deliberately or not – the post of Maneesh was rather provocative, given the way a lot of people reacted. That works excellent in some cases, it’s said that even bad publicity is good publicity. But you may not always want to provoke negative reactions. That’s why it’s very important you carefully choose the way you market/present whatever you want to market/present.

  • Josh

    The expert trap for marketers settles this debate. Experts think their knowledge is inherently valuable. That people SHOULD recognize their greatness and hand over their money accordingly. What people actually want to know is how you can help them.

    In this sense we get a new formula

    mastery +marketing = service and success

  • bill mann

    I came to this site through Maneesh’s post, so can only comment on that post and this post, so please forgive me if my perspective is narrow.

    What struck me when I read the responses to Maneesh’s guest post was how gray and dreary so many of them seemed. It was like people were pissed that someone could have fun and success in life without spending years as a drone first.

    To me, the key point in the post was that Maneesh is living and experiencing the things he wants in life now, instead of slaving away for years to achieve mastery before trying to do anything fun.

    I’m 53 and spent almost half a century doing all the conventional stuff that was expected of me: raising a family, achieving mastery in my field, etc. And my life sucked.

    It’s only in the last few years that I stopped worrying so much about all that crap and started to focus on what makes me happy instead of what was expected of me. Now I live in Ecuador, work a few hours a week on projects that I choose (and are only marginally related to all that mastery I worked so hard for) and enjoy myself every day.

    Mastery at the expense of happiness is pointless.

  • Bart

    I just love the lucidity of your writing. It’s just so damn clear, to the point, condensed and analytical without losing playfulness or falling into boredom.

    The fact that I have to read your articles only once to understand and recall your arguments make them a piece of mastery by themselves. There are so little writers/bloggers who are able to accomplish this.

    Congrats Scott.

    Keep it going.