There are a lot of books out there that claim to make you successful. Let’s discuss if there is actually some merit to this. A little guide how to use self-help success books, if you will.
Most books go “Our research shows that successful people do X!” and “Successful people attribute their success to Y!” – and now I am going to explain why there is a crucial and fundamental difference between those two premises. Let’s talk about biases in books, shall we?
Imagine there was a book where successful persons get asked for the foundation of their accomplishments. Actually, there is no need to imagine such a book. Now a majority of the interviewed people claim said the main contribution to their success comes from getting up very early in the morning, way before 05:00 AM. Would it be a logical conclusion that rising early is a key factor to success?
If you said yes, then congratulations, you have just experienced survivorship bias. You think of successful guys and gals doing business before anyone else. You did not think of the millions of people that work the morning shift in the factory. People who drive the garbage truck around town or run the oven in the bakery before the first customer arrives. There are many people that get up very early without being successful (by the definition we have established above – there are many ways to be successful, though). The lesson here is that it is very hard to distinguish necessity and sufficiency. Whenever you hear a new secret to success, just consider how many people are right now exerting that secret without making it big.
And after that you should think about whether or not there might be other, more crucial factors. The other downside of asking people what they think made them successful is that they like to think that their life is the result of a series of informed and conscious decisions. This is called the Illusion of Control. Very rarely will you get the answer “I had rich parents which allowed me to go to an ivy league school, where I made all the important business contacts”. Or maybe “I was just lucky to have a fitting combination of idea, skillset, time and space”. That is just not how people like to regard themselves. Instead you will hear about hard work, getting up super early, and lots of BS.
Let’s practice: the most prominent biased book is Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, which stays on all the bestseller lists despite employing laughably and obviously flawed method. (Small aside: although it is one of the most popular books of the genre, there will not be a review on this site for the foreseeable future. In fact, I once owned the book, didn’t like the first three chapters and gave it away when I noticed that there was literally a chapter about sex magic in it.)
According to Hill, successful people are super focused and determined to reach their goals, and if you think hard enough of any amount of money, you will get that amount. If you don’t get the money, you obviously were not focused enough. That’s Confirmation Bias, by the way. Now let’s see if there are people in the world that are super determined and yet unsuccessful. I guess, but nobody knows, because nobody looks for them – Hill very literally interviewed just the survivors. Could there be other, more important factors helping the interviewed people to be successful? I guess most of them were white and male. Maybe in the 1930s these were very helpful traits to becoming a success. Did I mention the book is shite?
I hope you learned something new today about books asking the wrong people (Survivorship Bias), people assuming too much influence on their own lives (Illusion of Control) and everybody generally ignoring everything that doesn’t fit into their preconceived worldview (Confirmation Bias).
So what do real researchers do better when writing books about success? Real research often asks the same people the same questions. The difference is that lots of brain and computing power is applied to math out all those biases afterwards. That way, sometimes some actual patterns, factors and trends of success can be found under the big pile of deceptive superficialities.
When you are confronted with the life stories of the rich and famous, in a book or elsewhere, my advice is this:
analyze, don’t imitate!