Why Most Success Advice is Bulls*t

Nowadays, the web is awash with proverbial sages on the stage — people selling you their so-called playbook to riches.

Whether it’s a digital vagabond, a tech entrepreneur, or a property magnate, they’ll each try to sell you on something that sounds like a recipe out of a Gordon Ramsay cookbook.

Follow these precise steps and you too will succeed, just as I did.

But most advice of this nature falls victim to two pitfalls, the narrative fallacy, and asymmetry of circumstances (if they're not falling victim to flat-out lies).

The Narrative Fallacy

We tend to look back on outcomes and put preceding events into a logical cause-and-effect order because this helps us to make sense of the world.

For example, an entrepreneur looking back on their success might point to these specific steps.

I built a landing page to test my idea. I ran some ads. I got some sign-ups. I used this to raise capital. I hired a team. We built the app. We promoted it with Facebook ads. We got rich.

But this simplistic take foregoes so many other factors that were no doubt at play. What’s often overlooked are factors such as timing, luck, persistence, learning from failure, market forces, management team, and so on.

People who fall victim to the narrative fallacy see the path to success as a straight line, as opposed to the squiggly one that it really is.

Asymmetry of Circumstances

As Richard Feynman once wrote, true symmetry means that if you bought General Motors stock three months ago, the stock will behave in the same way if you bought it now.

This is unlikely to be true given all of the extenuating circumstances of the internal and external environment in which GM shares are traded — performance, competition, foreign exchange movements, politics, and so on.

By the same token, what appeared to work for one person’s unique circumstances at a unique point in time, won’t necessarily work for your unique circumstances today. There are simply far too many factors at play that determine your outcomes.

This is why Jean-Luc Picard’s quip in Star Trek that “it is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose” rings true.

Social Factors

Of particular note when it comes to the asymmetry of circumstances are social factors.

I recently had the pleasure of listening to American economist Glenn Loury share his views on race and inequality on Bari Weiss’ podcast, Honestly.

He shared his views on human capital theory which posits that human beings can increase their productive capacity through greater education and skills training. Loury believes that this theory is incomplete and that there are numerous social factors that determine both productive capacity and why racial inequality persists.

These factors include but aren’t limited to fetal conditioning, upbringing, peer group influences, mindset, socioeconomic status, values and norms, social resources, and family structure.

These same factors are at play when considering the success or lack thereof of all people, regardless of race.

As such, when we compare how, say an entrepreneur, thinks they got successful with how they really got successful, two very different pictures emerge.

So what do we do with this information?

Firstly, take success advice with a grain of salt — especially if it comes with obnoxious images of private jets and 100-foot yachts, probably rented.

Second, do what you can to take note of and address factors below the surface — whether that be from the perspective of social policy, from the perspective of your own goals, or from the perspective of a parent looking to give your children the very best shot at a successful and prosperous life.