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What Joe Biden and MrBeast can teach us about outlasting the competition…

Last Updated:

June 26, 2024

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Welcome to Edition #58 of Did You Know? (DYK), the weekly newsletter by Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules, where we deconstruct the untold story of how someone (or something) became successful—and what you can do to follow in their footsteps.

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Did You Know? Every career has a ten-year clock.

(1) A story from the past

Did you know? It takes 10 years to get meaningful traction in your career. Just ask U.S. President Joe Biden and YouTuber MrBeast.

No matter your political affiliation, you’ve probably looked at Joe Biden and wondered: With over 330 million people in the U.S., how did he of all people become President?

There are many ways to tell this story—and I don’t have the space to write a PhD thesis here.

But, here’s one hypothesis: He outlasted everybody else.

Consider this: Joe Biden was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972 at the age of 27. He’s now 81. Except for two career breaks, that’s 54 years in the public eye.

Given that the average Representative serves ~9 years and the average Senator serves 11 years, Biden has been in politics for ~5x longer than the next person.

Sure, there are plenty of politicians who’ve served for even longer but never become President (and plenty who’ve had less experience who did become President), but still: In sticking around, Biden built himself the hidden advantage of having 5x more time than most to find supporters, build allies, and make a name for himself.

(Biden’s ability to grow his influence over time isn’t just something I dreamt up, by the way; it’s actually an unspoken rule in the Senate that the longer you’ve served, the more likely you are to serve on your preferred committees. The Appropriations Committee, for example, is the committee that shapes the federal budget, so naturally Senators fight to join this one. And yes—many of the current members of the Appropriations Committee were first elected to the Senate at least a decade ago—in the 1990s and early 2000s.)

While we might think that American politics is fickle, the reality is that it pays to stick around for a while—if you can.

The 10-year rule isn’t just for politics, though. It’s just as relevant for the creator economy (and, I’d argue, any career path).

Consider Jimmy Donaldson, the 26-year-old YouTuber known as “MrBeast”, who just reported making $700M a year, the most of any YouTube creator.

If you’re asking yourself, “Who??”, MrBeast makes videos like “$456,000 Squid Game In Real Life!” (622M views) and “Last To Leave Circle Wins $500,000” (448M views). On average, every video receives 126M views, which translates to lucrative advertising revenue and merchandise sales.

Though he’s not a politician (and is 56 years younger than Biden), MrBeast has one big thing in common with Biden: He stuck around.

Consider this: MrBeast started creating YouTube videos in 2012. He wanted to go viral, so he started “obsessively studying YouTube” to learn the algorithm and a formula for success.

Most people would have given up after the first video, let alone the first year. But in 2017 (halfway to 10 years) he made his first viral video—of him counting to 100,000. The video attracted 54 million views in one week.

But here’s the thing about the 10-year rule: MrBeast may have created his first viral video 5 years in, but it took him another 5+ years to see an inflection point in his monthly views. He averaged around 250M monthly views from 2018 to 2022—not shabby by any measure—but it wasn’t until 2023 that he went from creating viral videos to seeing viral growth.

Courtesy of chartr on r/dataisbeautiful

Of course, like politics, there are plenty of people who’ve created content for longer and not been nearly as successful. There are also plenty of people who’ve been in the game for less time and reached their inflection point sooner.

But look at the top 10 most-subscribed YouTube channels in the table below (where MrBeast ranks #2). Then look at the “Year Launched” column. I crunched the numbers in the yellow column: the average channel was started in 2011, or 13 years ago!

The average of the top 10 most-subscribed YouTube channels was started 13 years ago. Data as of December 5, 2023 per Exploding Topics, which cited from Social Blade.

Now, look at the top 10 YouTube channels by total views.

Even the newest channel—Vlad and Niki—has been in the YouTube game for 6 years and uploaded an average of 103 videos per year.

Not only do we see some pretty long-standing channels (on average, the top 10 channels have been around for 15 years), but let’s also divide the “Uploaded Videos” column by “Years Since Launch” to create the yellow “Average Uploads/Year” column.

My jaw dropped: Even the newest channel—Vlad and Niki, which has been in the YouTube game for 6 years—has uploaded an average of 103 videos per year. That’s basically a new video every 4 days! 6 of the 10 top channels upload new videos multiple times per day.

What does this all mean? Sure, you could have a video go viral overnight, but to be more than just a one-hit wonder, you need to invest the time to become a master of your craft.

Time leads to more videos. More videos lead to more learning. More learning leads to better videos and better systems for creating (even) better videos. (Even) better videos and systems lead to a more satisfied audience and a more efficient you. A more satisfied audience and a more efficient you means more growth. More growth means more success.

Now, replace “videos” with “speeches” and we’re back to the world of politics. Replace “speeches” with “research” and we’re now in the world of academia. Replace “research” with “legal briefs” and we’re now in the world of law.

(Oh! Even though MrBeast has only ever published 803 videos, which means he isn’t even on the list for the most number of uploads, he’s still publishing an average of 67 videos per year—or about 1 new video every 5 days. How many things are you doing at least once per week?)

What does this mean for you? If you’re trying to make it to the top of your field, remember Joe Biden and MrBeast—who picked a lane and outlasted others in that lane.

MrBeast and Joe Biden (L to R). Images via Variety and abc7NY.

(2) A strategy for your future

Did you know? Commit to something!

I call the Biden / MrBeast example the “Ten Year Rule,” but there’s a related concept that you may be familiar with from the world of military strategy: a “war of attrition”—a battle where the winner wins because the loser is worn out and gives up. (Search for the term and you’ll see that World War I is the most famous example.)

In a world where “job hopping” is rampant and the grass always seems greener on the other side, I’d argue that an increasing number of fields are wars of attrition. The winners win because they’re the few left.

And for good reason… unfortunately. It’s hard to get a foothold!

When it comes to YouTube, 96.5% of YouTube creators make less than $12,140 per year yet 86% of Americans want to be influencers. So, you need patience, yes, but patience is a privilege—and not everyone is in a stage of life financially or personally to sink 10 years into something that can hardly pay the bills.

(Sounds familiar? No wonder people say that “Congress is crawling with rich kids”—because political internships aren’t well paid.)

Moreover, in the end, everything is a bet. You’re betting on yourself, yes, but you’re also betting on a trend.

Imagine if MrBeast had invested his time in creating videos on, say, Vine (a TikTok-like short-form video app back in 2013 that’s now defunct). He may have built a following, but he could have also lost that following when Vine went under. MrBeast wouldn’t be the hit he is today if YouTube weren’t the hit that it is today.

This is true even for politics—hop on the right policy and you could propel your career; hop on the wrong policy and you could tank your career.

In other words, you need to make sure that you’re not so early (as perhaps Vine was to the short-form video market given the later success of TikTok, Instagram Reels, and YouTube Shorts) and not so late (that the arena is already too crowded as perhaps the market for Apple product review videos may be—at least according to a YouTuber friend of mine).

You also need to be wary of what economists call “opportunity cost”—which is a fancy way of saying that time is money, so every minute you’re spending doing a certain thing is a minute you’re not spending on doing something else.

So, what can you do aside from rolling the dice, picking a random thing, doing it for 10 years, and hoping for the best?

It’s time for a mindset shift—and, specifically, in 3 ways:

(1)

Don’t ask yourself, “Is this a cool idea?”

Instead, ask yourself, “Is this the best use of my time?”

Too often, too many people are captivated by shiny objects, whether it’s this startup idea or that grad school program. The reality is, we only have so many waking hours in the day—and only so many 10-year stretches in our careers. It’s important to explore early and often, especially when you’re early in your career or unhappy with your life direction. But, once you have a sense for at least what you don’t want, it’s time to make some decisions.

In the end, life is both too long and too short. Life is too long to be miserable every day, as Denis Villeneuve, the Director of Dune, taught us. At the same time, life is also too short to not spend your decades on what’s worthy of your time.

(2)

Don’t ask yourself, “Will I succeed?”

Instead, ask yourself, “What do I have to believe for this to be a success?”

The first question is a bet with only two options: “yes” or “no” —and nobody knows the answer. The second is a more nuanced question—one that transforms a blind bet into a thoughtful analysis.

Presumably, MrBeast had to believe that YouTube was a platform worth investing in, that he was early to creating something unique, and that viral videos can be engineered and aren’t just a matter of luck. And presumably, Joe Biden had to believe that he’d be interested in and good at the game of politics, that his political positions would win people over, and that he had a future in the Democratic Party.

What do you need to believe for your startup to work out?

What do you need to believe for your graduate degree to pay off in the end?

Only you know the answer. What’s most important is that you’re honest with yourself.

(3)

Don’t ask yourself, “Do I have what it takes to be among the best?”

Instead, ask yourself, “Do I have the persistence to be among the best?”

I find that using the language of “what it takes” confines me to what I have today: Do I have the skills? The network? The background? And while it’s true that what you have can influence how easy it is to get started, it’s not the only thing that matters.

In the end, persistence can matter just as much. Don’t have the skills or network or background? You can build it with time. The question is, are you prepared to invest the time… and can you stay in the arena for long enough to win the war of attrition?

I know it because I’ve experienced it: I wrote this story on the “Ten Year Rule” because I think about it every single day for my own career. It’s been 3 years since the launch of my book, The Unspoken Rules, and it’s been just weeks since the launch of my How to Say It flashcards.

I’m grateful for the relatively successful launch of both. But, now what? On days when I find myself wondering if I should worry if I’ve peaked or if I should do something else, I try to remind myself: I’m just getting started—and yes: the best is yet to come.

Invest in yourself!

Gorick

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