This is a guest post from Ramit Sethi, the New York Times best-selling author of I Will Teach You to Be Rich. Fortune magazine recently called him the "new finance guru on the block." He writes for more than one million readers each month on business, careers, negotiation, and psychology.
There's a reason this 10-years-to-overnight-success pattern shows up over and over. And it's not just about working hard over a long period of time.
I know from personal experience. In 2004, I started a personal-finance blog while I was a college student. Today, that "hobby" is a multimillion-dollar business. For the first three years, we made no money (literally). In 2014, 10 years later, we had our first $5 million week.
I've also studied the backstories of hundreds of successful entrepreneurs before they became known to the world.
Here's the deeper strategy used by successful people to level up that almost no one talks about.
The underappreciated power of sequence
We all have these big goals to attain a rich and meaningful life.
The challenge is that we start our careers with few resources. We have little to no money saved up. We don't know a lot about how the business world really works. We don't have a large professional network.
So the question is, how do we close this gap over time? What's the best strategy?
Conventional experts tell you, "To go big, you need to start big." They tell you a thousand and one things you "need" to do all at once, like SEO, picking the right résumé font, building a business Facebook page, starting a podcast, and on and on.
Forget about all of that.
The strategy that works over and over for successful people is the Domino Strategy.
The Domino Strategy is simple.
First, start so small that you can easily knock over the first domino. For example, the first step in starting a business is brainstorming the business idea. The first step to anything should be deceptively simple.
Second, put the dominoes in just the right sequence so that each small step makes the next, bigger step possible. The second step in starting a business is to find one paying customer to test if the idea has potential. Doing this can be as simple as sending an email. Once you have the first customer, next plan how to get five, etc. If you start small and level up in the right order, you'll never think to yourself, "I don't have time or money to do this."
The real key here is sequence. Creating a plan to get 10,000 customers is great, but your initial step should be to get one customer, not 10,000. Similarly, creating a podcast might be the right thing to do. But if you try to do it at the wrong time, then it's basically the same thing as taking the wrong step. The dominoes won't fall, and you'll fail to reach your goal. Most people miss this.
Gary Keller, the founder of one of the largest real estate franchises in the world, Keller Williams, drives this point home in his book, The One Thing:
"When you see someone who has a lot of knowledge, they learned it over time.
When you see someone who has a lot of skills, they developed them over time.
When you see someone who has done a lot, they accomplished it over time.
When you see someone who has a lot of money, they earned it over time."
How the Domino Strategy helped Elon Musk become Elon Musk
The Domino Strategy shows how a tiny amount of energy can be converted into something 1,000 times or even a billion times larger.
With just 13 dominoes, this YouTuber created a two billion times amplification in energy. The first domino is just 5mm high. The largest domino weighs 100 pounds and is more than a meter tall. With 16 more dominoes, there would be enough force to knock over the Empire State Building.
The power of dominoes explains how a 15-year-old could leave South Africa with no money and no connections and end up becoming the Elon Musk we know today.
Most people have only heard of Musk in the past few years. To many, he seems like an overnight success. This is hilarious--we look at others and compare our day one with their day 500. I do it; you do it; we all do it.
When you learn his story, though, you see how Musk has been focused on the same vision since he was a teenager, and he's been consciously leveling up for decades.
Throughout his teenage years, he read two books per day, according to his brother, Kimbal Musk. More than a decade before he started Tesla, Musk was studying physics at the University of Pennsylvania and then battery technology at Stanford, both key fields for learning how to build an electric car.
He shows his early obsession with electric cars in a recent interview. He tells the story of what was on his mind during a first date when he was in college more than 20 years ago.
Musk is not alone in using the Domino Strategy. Many of the world's top entrepreneurs are masters of it. Here are a few examples:
Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator, the largest accelerator in the world:
"Empirically, the way to do really big things seems to be to start with deceptively small things.... Want to make the universal website? Start by building a site for Harvard undergrads to stalk one another." --Source
Verne Harnish, co-founder of Entrepreneurs' Organization, the largest association of top entrepreneurs in the world:
"Your job is to find that front domino, that number one thing that if you could accomplish, [that] will knock over the other 98 and get more done than the other 98 combined." --Source
David Sacks sold his previous company, Yammer, to Microsoft for $1.2 billion:
"Good strategy = Find an edge, win small victory or foothold, assimilate new resources, level up, repeat.
Bad strategy = Attack everything at once. Don't prioritize. Bleed strength ... " --Source
Why we miss the power of dominoes
If the Domino Strategy is so powerful, why don't more people use it?
Over the past 12 years, I've studied the psychology of what stops people from becoming world-class performers.
One of the biggest obstacles is invisible scripts. These are the assumptions so deeply embedded in our psyches that we don't even realize they guide our behavior.
What's the biggest invisible script?
All or nothing, the idea that you need to go all-in or you should just not do anything at all. Here are a few examples:
Let's unpack this a little bit more. If you believe the "all or nothing" invisible script, you probably respond in one of two ways.
Either you go looking for a magic bullet--like a fad diet or a get-rich-quick scheme--that will knock over the final domino, but skip the preceding, critical dominoes; or you just throw a lot of spaghetti on the wall and hope something sticks.
Just like a lottery ticket, the magic bullet and spaghetti-on-the-wall strategies indulge our need for fantasy and immediate gratification. You think to yourself, "If just one of these hits, I've made it."
But, just like a lottery ticket, they don't actually make sense for accomplishing big goals. They are forms of escape.
Escape is for entertainment, not success.
Escaping the treadmill of disappointment
What makes the magic bullet and spaghetti-on-the-wall strategies so ineffective? You keep on losing momentum and having to start over.
I call this the treadmill of disappointment.
Here's what happens:
First, you work really hard for a long time, but you're not seeing the progress you expected owing to overnight-success stories. You're not sure if things will work out if you keep going forward.
So, you assume that what you're doing is not working, and you start over. But once you start over, you have to start from close to scratch.
What you didn't factor in is that dominoes are exponential. Just as you were about to see real progress, you gave up.
To escape the treadmill of disappointment, you need to start using the Domino Strategy and have the patience to stick with it in the beginning.
All you have to do to get started with the Domino Strategy is take Gary Keller's advice and ask yourself one key question over and over:
What's the One Thing I can do such that by doing it, everything else will be easier or unnecessary?
Knock down that first domino and you're well on your way to impacting thousands of people and living a rich life. Half the journey is beginning it.