Why are Indian people so good at spelling bees?

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There is a question that I believe is taking on increasing urgency.

At IWT, we have access to a lot of SEO data, search terms, social trends, paid analytics, all kinds of stuff. We like to keep our finger on the pulse of what's hot.

The question that's been echoing across the globe lately: Why are Indian people so damn good at spelling bees? Why has the Scripps National Spelling Bee been basically completely dominated by Indian people for the last thirty years?

Spelling bee winner

Today, I — Ramit Sethi, Indian person — will give you the answer. (Full disclosure: I didn't make it to that level, but I was #9 in Northern California.)

In all seriousness, this week I want to talk about the secret habits of top performers. I've been thinking about it a lot, and spelling bee champs are a great example that's close to my heart.

So let's try to answer the question of why I'm so good at spelling. 

First, here's the politically correct answer. That would be something like, "I was just fortunate to be blessed with this skill...I don't really know...the truth is I'm not good at a lot of other things, so I guess it's just lucky that I found this one thing. Hahaha."

That's what most people say when you ask them why they're good at anything. Especially accomplished people.

What if you pushed for the truth? 

Here it is: When I came home in 6th grade, I would grab a snack and then my mom would open up a spelling book. Literally a book with words. And she would quiz me for two hours.

You want to raise a spelling bee champ? Every night: 2 hours of spelling practice. And 3 hours a night on weekends. Can you imagine a parent who wants to spend that kind of time? My mom did. 

And on top of this, in Indian culture, you glamorize spelling bee champions just like other cultures might glamorize athletes or entrepreneurs. Did you know that Indian parents will say, "Well she made it to Nationals and she got such-and-such scholarship." 

(Every Indian kid right now is saying "I hate that!", but it's a cultural practice that causes you to peg excellence in at a high level. I'm not saying you have to follow it, but I love seeing the invisible habits and mindsets that create top performers.)

What excellence really looks like

This week, I want to demystify excellence. Specifically the hidden habits and mindsets behind it. There are specific behaviors that top performers do that others don't.

You don't hear people talk about this. Most talk about excellence focuses on productivity hacks, but those are just the tip of the excellence iceberg. And as anyone who's tried a random hack or productivity app knows, hacks and apps alone don't make you a top performer. 

What's missing are the secret habits. Whether you're a top performer in spelling, at parenting, at fitness, or in any domain — you never hear people willing to admit what they actually do to achieve their results. 

My dream is that you could visit someone's house — a top performer's house — and SEE many of the behaviors that are totally secret. Secret to you, to the public, and often secret even to them. They do it without even realizing how unusual and powerful it is. But they exist. There are powerful behavioral differences between top performers and everybody else.

(I already gave you one of them. For spelling bee champs, they do that and more. The people you see on ESPN who make it to the highest levels...they practice for hours a day. I'm collecting more examples in other domains. I'll share those with you tomorrow.)

Why aren't people honest about what it takes to be a top performer?

Why do you rarely hear people say, "Yeah, I spent two hours a day reading words out of a book."

Two reasons why…

1. People would hate you if you told the truth

If you actually admit what you did, suddenly your results seem less glamorous. Even worse, the truth removes the mysticism, the "genetic gift," the easy out. The truth forces others to acknowledge that "hey, I don't spend two hours a day working with my son or daughter reading...or I don't spend an hour and a half training...or I like to talk about copywriting but I don't actually write?"

No, they probably don't. 

And you get out what you put in. That's a hard, uncomfortable truth, and most people would hate you if you gave it to them.

2. People don't know their own habits

I'll give you an example. I had a friend who was super-ripped. He used to say, "All you need to do is work out three times a week." That's it.

I ran into him at the gym on a Saturday. I asked him what he was doing there. He said, "Oh, nothing. I'm just, you know, doing a light workout."

"Don't you only work out Mon, Wed, Fri?" I asked.

"Oh yeah," he said. "Cardio. It's my off date."

WTH? This guy didn't admit that he does cardio on his off day. Why? He didn't consider cardio a workout. To him, it's just...cardio. This guy's going around preaching to everyone "just work out 3x a week" and he doesn't even follow his own advice. He didn't even realize everything that was going into his success.

The secret habits of top performers

Your turn: What is a habit or behavior that you've noticed of top performers? Something that's not obvious, but is a key driver in their success.

Could be: 

  • How they think about what they eat
  • How they do phone calls
  • Where they set boundaries
  • Who they spend time with
  • How they wake up early in the morning

I'll share some examples in tomorrow's email, but first I want to hear what secret habits you've uncovered.

Reply to this email. I read every response.


P.S. Bonus question: If you could be a top performer in any area of your life, which would you pick and why?

P.P.S. Excited to share with you some of my media appearances this month:

"How to be smart with your money" from Stanford Magazine

"3 tips for anyone who's thinking about rage-quitting their job" from Business Insider

"14 ways you might be sabotaging your own career growth" from GoBankingRates

"How to buy happiness (responsibly)" from Seattle Times

Stanford Magazine

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