Jimmy Tatro's rise to fame might as well be a modern classic. A fraternity man with a penchant for making videos, Tatro's work started getting noticed after he capitalized on the “Sh*t ____ Say” franchise by making his own version, a YouTube phenomenon.
Legend has it that once YouTube stars hit their 15 minutes of fame, interest in them wanes as soon as a new viral hit can be found. Yet Tatro's fame didn't go anywhere – instead, he became a star among a majority college-aged, male audience. Even more impressive was that he was already known for making videos, not a small feat at his school the nearly 40,000 person University of Arizona. What makes Tatro special? And how does science help us understand him?
The belief that natural ability is a prerequisite to success has been turned on its head in the past decade. It started with David Allen's book Getting Things Done, in which he described a system of productivity that relied on performance as opposed to memory. Allen, through his own experience as a consultant, came to understand that the vast majority of employees spend more time trying to remember tasks than actually working on them. Allen proposed recording the tasks, which freed up the workers' minds and allowed them to focus on work. The book gained traction quickly, and eventually created a following that became known as the 'life hacker movement.' The movement was especially popular with the IT set; in fact, the name came from programming term used to describe various ways programmers organize their data.
One computer scientist in particular decided to put a new spin on the idea by making life hacking accessible for students. Cal Newport, then an MIT postdoc, had studied Computer Science at Dartmouth, where he struggled to keep his social life and grades at an equal high his first year. Frustrated with conventional strategies, Newport set out to debunk common myths, like the idea that there is a correlation between the amount of time spent studying for a test and the grade one eventually receives on it. Through interviewing Phi Beta Kappa recipients and top performers at colleges all over the nation, Newport came to realize that doing well had little to do with intelligence, and everything to do with the systems promoted by David Allen years earlier. Newport backed up many of his realizations with research; he used Professor Linda Caldwell's research from Penn State to explain why a supposedly average student was able to get into the University of Virginia with the prestigious Jefferson Scholarship. However, it wasn't until Newport stated that following your passion was a bad idea and that focusing on a single activity had more value than scattering your attention across your many 'passions' would be more beneficial in the long run that the critics came in swarms.
“My life right now is not easy,” Newport said on his blog in July 2009. “But … it’s not overwhelming. Like the well-trained marathoner … I’ve built up the required muscle mass to keep moving at a good pace.” Newport worked on improving his focus for five years prior to writing that entry. “I systematically increased the amount of time I would force myself to work continuously without a break,” he went on. “These thoughts all lead to a simple conclusion ... consider your own capacity for hard focus. Most important accomplishments boil down to this single, often overlooked ability.”
Consider how all this ties into Tatro's situation. A quick look at his YouTube channel followed by a Google search reveal that Tatro's rise to fame wasn't an accident. The success of his most famous video, “Shit Frat Guys Say,” didn't floor Tatro for a minute. “My freshman year ... I started composing all of the quotes for the video,” he told University of Central Florida's The Knight. “I had a feeling it would get pretty big just based off of how funny I knew that video would be, so I thought it would be a great opportunity to get my YouTube [sic] channel started.” Tatro's first channel, started in May 2010. He moved to his current channel, LifeAccordingToJimmy, in November 2011. At the time of writing, that's two years and two months of posting that got Tatro to where he is today. The “Shit Frat Guys Say” video was released in January 2012, after a year of quote hunting and, presumably, a few days of filming. Success in about two years doesn't sound like a difficult path, yet the story goes back even further. “I’ve pretty much been making videos my entire life,” Tatro went on. “They probably started when I was around 9 or 10... but I didn’t actually learn to start making quality videos until high school. I took a TV Production class and taught myself how to use Final Cut Pro.”
According to his current YouTube channel, Tatro is 20 years old at the time of writing. He's been focused on making videos for 11 years. Newport took notices of Jimmy Tatro's in other creative areas, and offered his own insight on creative fraternity brothers. “Performers like [Tatro]... are happy to spend their afternoons … dedicating hour after hour to painstakingly improving their technique, all the while remaining ambivalent toward praise.” Tatro even managed to focus on his technique during the regimented school day, giving him extra time each week to become good. People like Tatro are “content to let what they produce speak for itself — even if it takes a long time, and a lot of hard work, for their output to find a voice,” Newport added. But what made YouTube viewers hear Tatro's voice above everyone else's?
“Students are influenced … by those leaders whose views appeared representative of the student body than by those whose opinions were thought to be unrepresentative,” The Scientific American MIND reported in its latest issue. Tatro seemed to have reached the same conclusion as he went forward with “Shit Frat Guys Say.” “I had a feeling everyone would be able to relate to 'that guy',” Tatro told The College Town Life. “I love entertaining and making people laugh and saw this as an opportunity to do so to a wide audience.” Making a caricature of exaggerated Greek life stereotypes, Tatro paired with the satiric site Total Frat Move (TFM) to make his debut. A quick look at the TFM site gives one a solid idea of what the audience likes and doesn't like; good entries are given a thumbs up and a “nice move” while bland entries fall down in rank. Understanding what TFM viewers wanted could give Tatro a huge leg up when making his video; The Scientific American MIND seemed to agree: “A charismatic leader is an entrepreneur of identity. This person clarifies what we believe rather than telling people what they believe.”
Tatro didn't need to reinvent the frat boy stereotype or defend himself; instead, he could capitalize on his video-making skills, make the most of a stereotype, and give YouTube viewers exactly what they wanted to see. Eleven years of hard focus, one year of quote collection, and a movie deal later, Tatro seems to have his humor, and his audience, figured out.