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Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Success Fallacy

One of the most annoying kind of self-help books is the kind where the author has sought out "successful" people and asks them what made them successful.

Often, the advice is harmless enough, because the "successful people" relate back stories that show how their success was related to hard work, persistence, integrity, creativity, willingness to take on new responsibilities, etc. etc.  There are problems with that -- if you know any truly successful people (and I consider all elected politicians to be successful people), you know that many of them got there as a result of nepotism, connections, conniving and backstabbing -- or at least benefited from those techniques along the way.  Certainly not all of them -- there are many great and successful entrepreneurs who did not need to do any of that, since they had the right product at the right time. But even in that case, there is often a pretty sizeable "luck" element along with everything else.  As I said though, it's harmless, because there's nothing wrong with telling people to work hard, treat people right, etc. etc., and certainly sometimes that does lead to a measure of success.

But in some cases, they also say they just found and followed their passion, and now look -- they're successful.  That's what I want to focus on here, because that may well be harmful.

I haven't read one word of Sir Ken Robinson's book "The Element -- How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything" (Amazon reviews here) but based on the reviews, it looks like it fits the latter mold -- a bunch of successful creative people, spouting anecdotes about how they became successful by doing what they liked to do.  As many of the reviewers note, the problem with this is that there are tons of creative, artistic people who simply can't make much of a living (much less contribute significantly to supporting a family) doing what they love to do.  The market is just not right for it, at least not quite yet.  The market for creative people is essentially that there are a relatively small number of people who manage to do one or two things that are quite impressive, and that these things come to the attention of the right people at the right time, and the people are from then on deemed "creative geniuses."  These people then can sell whatever they produce next, no matter how mediocre it is in fact.  And then there are a lot of other creative people who for whatever reason never come to the attention of the right people at the right time.

So there's a huge selection bias that goes with finding successful creative people and trying to learn life lessons from them, and using THAT to encourage others to (e.g.) drop out of school and dance.  Or play baseball or basketball.  Any major league baseball or NBA basketball player will be happy to tell you about all the work that he put in as a kid to become that good.  But that sure doesn't mean that every kid could do it.  Just look around a playground -- any number of the kids there would probably love to play basketball for a living, and many of them are pretty darn good.   But hoping to follow that dream just because it's what you like to do isn't going to put food on the table, except for the lucky (and usually extremely talented) few.

In a TED Talk a few years back -- the most popular TED talk ever, by the way -- Robinson gave a bit of a preview of his book (which came out in 2009), and explained that the problem with education today is that the whole thing is geared into churning out people who will be university professors, who, he implied, are generally useless.  But that's simply not true.  Yes, the people with the best grades often do go on to become professors, and that's because their high grades reflect the fact that their passion happens to be some particular body of knowledge, or maybe just learning generally.  They enjoy school so they do well in it.  The next tier are the more impressive ones -- the ones who don't particularly enjoy school (at least not with the same passion as the professors-to-be), but do well at it nonetheless.  These are the people that employers will want to hire -- people who are willing to do work that they don't always enjoy doing.

The people who don't like school and as a result don't study and don't do well very rarely make good employees -- unless, at some point in their life, they learn the lessons that the people in the second tier have already learned -- that sometimes, to get ahead, you need to do things you don't enjoy doing.  Yes, some of these people are in the best position to risk everything (since they have so little to lose) to pursue a creative career (or even an entrepreneurial career), but given how many of them there are -- and how many of those end up in unsatisfying lives -- it's simply unreasonable to point to the successes, and suggest this (neglect of school) as a legitimate way to approach life.  Interestingly, people in general understand this when they think of pro basketball -- i.e. that pro basketball is a very longshot option for most kids and therefore shouldn't be one's only plan -- but some of them (e.g. Robinson) seem to think a different rule might apply to dancers.

You can read this and simply decide that you're never going to be anyone's employee.  Good for you.  That's a decision shared by a lot of great artists and entrepreneurs, and a lot of successful people generally.  But it's also shared by a lot of losers.

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