I know I’m a sucker for stories with headlines like, “14 things successful people do before breakfast“, or “14 Things Every Successful Person Has In Common“, or “If You Want to Succeed, Here Are 5 Things You Need to Do Differently“, or “25 Simple Things to Give Up If You Want to Succeed“.
After all, who doesn’t want success? And if there is a nice little checklist that one can use to achieve that success, so much the better. (Especially when the list includes things like drinking a glass of water and making your bed).
The problem, however, is that such lists don’t work, and in fact may cause more harm than good.
Emre Soyer and Robin M. Hogarth, in an article at Harvard Business Review, offer several reasons why it may be best to avoid such lists (and I guess by deduction, read more things like my blog, but I digress…).
- Evidence is anecdotal. Most of the advice these lists contain is based on subjective interpretations of personal accounts, not on systematic, scientific analyses. As a result, you can’t judge its validity. In addition, anecdotal evidence often blurs the lines between cause and consequence.
- Research doesn’t always transfer to different contexts. Even if such lists do rely on evidence, such evidence is often very context-specific.
- Failures are silent. Social scientists refer to this as survivorship bias. People who didn’t survive offer “silent evidence.” These are the outcomes that we don’t get to see; their absence leads to a false sense of effectiveness of certain actions. For example, an aspiring athlete may study and emulate the habits of a successful athlete. But what if those habits are the same ones of a less successful athlete. We don’t hear about those less successful athletes, since their “failures” are “silent”, and no one wants is interested in the habits of the unsuccessful.
- Success is personal. Any given success is specific to a particular person and context, yet these advice lists often treat it as common and constant. Our careers, families, social lives, priorities, and visions may differ significantly from those who are hailed as successful by a particular expert. Given the things they had to do and give up for success, we might not wish to trade places with them.
So there you have it; there is no longer a need to search for and read these “how to be successful lists”, since they apparently don’t really help.
I wonder if this means I can go back to “holding grudges” and “blaming others”.