When I was young and trying to figure out the world, nearly every piece of popular “advice” people offered was complete bullshit. Let’s look at a few.
Advice is Useful: I used to think there was such a thing as “advice” that existed as little nuggets of valuable knowledge. If you were lucky enough to have lots of these advice nuggets you could piece them together and create and awesome plan that was likely to pay off.
As an adult, I can see that generic advice for specific individuals almost never makes sense. Every situation is unique. If I taught you everything I know it would not help you become the next Dilbert cartoonist. The environment changed since I made my run. And your mix of natural talents is unlikely to be similar to mine.
You’re probably thinking that some sorts of advice are universally applicable, such as the idea that hard work produces good results. But if I look around me, two of my richest friends work the fewest hours because they picked careers that allowed that to happen. I know rich people who have broken laws, become drug users, been dishonest, you name it. If you throw darts at a board with good and bad advice ranging from “get good grades in school” to “knock up your high school girlfriend” I can find examples of folks who made every situation work.
What do all successful people have in common? Beats me. I haven’t seen a correlation. I’ve seen lots of business plans in the past year and one of the best was from a guy that had a hard time getting through high school. The entrepreneurs with advanced degrees are pushing science forward and taking their 10% chance of commercializing products that can change the world. The high school graduate looked at the legal weed business and said, “I can do a lot of things wrong and still make money as a legal grower because the margins are so high.” Which entrepreneur do you bet on? If you think you know the answer, you don’t understand the nature of start-ups.
Be Yourself: You used to hear the “be yourself” advice a lot. Apparently there is some sort of “real” you buried beneath the layers of social training. And that personality you keep hiding is amazing. The reality of course is that there is no real you anywhere. You are just a coincidental outcome of nature plus environment. (Optionally, add God to the mix if you like.) If you were dumb enough to act “yourself” you would be a horrible friend. You’d be naked, unwashed, and rude. And you’d be masturbating in public way too much. So do us all a favor and keep your genuine self a secret, please.
Follow Your Passion: I won’t belabor this point because you’ve read my thoughts on this. Again, most of my rich and successful friends exhibit nothing that looks like passion. They had talent and energy and a desire to do whatever worked. Passion is magical thinking. Passion can’t be managed and it can’t be defined. And in my experience, passion is what you get when something works. When I was a kid, I was passionate about playing in the NBA. So were a million other kids. Passion isn’t a substitute for being tall, smart, or anything else. In fact, passion is the one thing you can remove from most success stories and get exactly the same result. In my case, Dilbert was one of several dozen business ideas I’ve tried. It worked because the timing was right, not because of my passion. I had about equal interest in everything I tried.
Willpower: I write about willpower as if it is real. But that’s a limitation of language. Science says you can manage your willpower by how much sugar you eat. And science says willpower is a limited resource during any given day.
The reality is that willpower is like the horizon. You can see it and talk about it, but in the end it is a perception and not something that exists in the physical world. My view is that we’re all particles bumping around according to some mysterious rules of physics. When your hunger is high, you eat. When it isn’t, other activities are more inviting. There is no willpower; there are just options and for a variety of rational and irrational “reasons” we choose one over the other. The end.
Have Goals: I wrote a whole book on why goals are for losers. I won’t repeat it here. The summary is that goals are perfectly harmless and sometimes helpful for simple situations, such as getting a good grade on a test. But when planning your multi-decade future, everything is an unknown, so your best bet is a system that improves your odds in some general way.
You Can Pick Winners: We used to think we could look at a business plan and use our impressive intellects to pick winners out of the pack. Now we know it can’t be done except probably by chance. There are always too many unknowns, and luck is always the biggest factor among the worthy candidates for success.
Fast Forward to 2015…
Today we have replaced a lot of the magical thinking of old with something that looks a lot more like science, at least in terms of testing ideas and seeing how they turn out, and not believing in things that can’t be seen or measured. Now you see more of this sort of talk…
Systems vs. Goals: Develop a system that improves your value in the world in a general way and make it easier for luck to find you.
Habit: You can rewire your brain by repetition and reward. So rewire your brain in ways that can improve your odds of success.
Manage Willpower: Willpower isn’t real in the old-timey sense that we can scrunch our foreheads and generate more of it when needed so long as our parents raised us right. But it does seem true, according to studies, that using your so-called willpower in one situation leaves you less self-restraint for the next, in any given day. So the modern view is that you manage willpower like a limited resource instead of a super power you can summon on command.
No One Can Pick Winners: Today, investors in the start-up world understand that no one is smart enough to consistently pick winners. You can’t think your way to success. Sure, you can weed out the totally-bad business ideas from the rest, but within the universe of plausible start-ups, no one is good at picking winners. So the scientific workaround for that is…
A-B testing: You keep trying different things in rapid succession and track how users respond.
Pivot: Start-ups start with one idea and quickly pivot to another if the first doesn’t work out. Your odds of success are still low with each idea, but every attempt betters your skillset and your odds.
I’m telling an incomplete story here, but the general idea is that a scientific mindset is slowly replacing the magical thinking about “success” that dominated my generation.
Co-founder of CalendarTree.com
Twitter Dilbert: @Dilbert_Daily
Twitter for Scott: @ScottAdamsSays