Monday, July 13, 2020

Advice from the Middle: The Fallacy of Listening to Successful People

P.T. Phronk
A post by P.T. Phronk,
of Forest City Pulp fame
There are two types of people you hear advice from:

  • People who have been very successful—they'll tell you what to do.
  • People who have failed spectacularly—they'll tell you what to avoid.

You hear less from those of us who are succeeding at some times, failing at other times, and coming out somewhere in the middle most of the time.

Take book marketing as an example. If an author strikes it big, they’ll sometimes share what they think helped, including their marketing efforts. It’s very generous of them, as long as they’re not charging too much for books or courses, and often there is some good advice in there. But it may not be good advice for everyone, both because there is a big element of luck to success, and because what works for an author who has already had some success and wants more success may not work for an author who has had no success and just wants to reach some, someday.

On the other side, you hear about the big failures, often following the big successes. If someone is caught reaching the New York Times bestseller list by buying 10,000 copies of their own book, taking out a full-page ad prominently featuring the n-word, and acting creepy at conferences*, well, you’ll probably hear about that. Maybe not from the authors themselves, but you'll hear about what not to do. That, too, is not much use for those of us in the middle, mostly because we were already pretty sure those things are bad ideas—only success and power can rot the brain enough for certain bad decisions.

Listening to these people is actually a kind of logical error. Survivorship bias is often explained with the idea of analyzing where airplanes coming back from a war were shot:

It's tempting to look at the places with the most damage, and add more armour to those areas. But these are the planes that survived and came back, so they're giving you some biased advice. It would actually make more sense to beef up the areas without damage, because that's where there were shots to planes that got destroyed and never made it back.

I feel like a lot of authors put their efforts into beefing up the areas recommended by the most successful survivors, ignoring the areas where the countless silent failures and middling successes have run into trouble. As a practical example, a successful author may be building a nice home office from which they can launch a multimedia marketing campaign, while the regular authors around them have weak points in their basic sentence structure and vocabulary, and as a result are getting shot down by editors left and right. Pew pew! Should've put armour on your starboard grammar hole, now you're diving into an ocean of rejection letters, dumbass.

Author David McRaney has said that the "advice business is a monopoly run by survivors." I'd just add that in business, you sometimes get advice by the most spectacular train wrecks too, but that is just as biased.

Fortunately, there's a solution to this biased thinking that leads to bad advice. We need to hear diverse voices representing the full spectrum of experience and success. Even non-exceptional people can speak up with "here's what I'm doing, and here are the results so far." We can all choose diversity in who we follow on social media, and be bold enough to share our experiences even if we're not exceptional. I guess that's sort of what I'm doing on this blog. Hi!

* Actually, maybe this one is more of an effect of success, and the near inevitability of successful authors (mostly male) acting creepy kinda makes me want to stay in the middle for a while.

1 comment:

Ann Bennett said...

Good guidance to think about. I have always resented highly successful people pontificating about how to do things. The one that grated the most for me was "Lean In"; in that it not always the best thing to do.

Sometimes you just got to live life. Listening to others is part of it. But every time I read a meme on how wearing a mask can cause brain damage; I think about how dogged the person posting it is and how ridiculous their advice is.

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