I’m an avid believer in learning from other people’s experiences. With over 7.5 billion people living in the world and a multiple of that having lived here in the past, it’s pretty safe to say that basically every challenge we face has been faced by countless others before us. So why not get off our pedestal of being special and unique and look up the answer already?
The problem lies in the gap between people’s experience and the advice we receive at the end. I’ve been reading a daily dose of Medium for a while, including topics that I imagine interest many aspiring entrepreneurs: How to build a successful company? How to be more productive? Even if you’re not aiming for the stratosphere, everyone seems to wonder at one point or another: actually, how Does one become a billionaire?
There’s an endless stream of articles, interviews and talks to answer that question, but only a very small fraction of these should be considered anything more than entertainment. As someone who has tried many of the productivity/self-improvement/money-making tips, let me share with you the three most common afflictions I’ve encountered in self-improvement content:
1. Based on sense rather than experience
You will find that the majority of articles on “how to be like Elon Musk” are not written by Elon Musk. Now replace Elon Musk with billionaire, Olympic athlete, etc. Most authors are people who are interested in the topic, researched it, and like to write. At best they are currently trying to achieve that goal, at worst they thought it would interest readers so they compiled information from other articles into an easier-to-digest format.
Typically, what they say makes sense, but that doesn’t make it true. I could make up a very reasonable-sounding argument about how vitamin X makes you smarter because it increases the amount of oxygen each red blood cell can carry. If things were that simple, we wouldn’t need drug testing: we could just tell based on the molecule’s composition how it will affect humans. As you probably know though, ingesting a new compound that has not been tested is generally a very very bad idea. That’s because everything in our body interacts with each other and we don’t even know the half of what we don’t know. That vitamin X might give you cancer because it turns out cells get damaged by an oversupply of oxygen. The point is, we can’t predict what will happen.
The same goes for productivity: it might sound good to get up early in the morning so you get more things done, but maybe it just means you’ll plop on the couch at 3pm instead of after dinner.
Just because it makes sense, doesn’t mean it’s true
2. Based on wishful thinking rather than experience
Just today I read an article that argued successful founder/CEO’s of the upcoming decades will need a lot of empathy, something Steve Jobs, Travis Kalanick, and Jef Bezos sorely lacked. Upcoming companies would need to set themselves apart from their competitors and predecessors by treating people like people and being a company that customers trust and like. I can get behind that intention, but not because it will make me successful. I just don’t want to treat customers and employees like commodities for the greater good of Making Money. However, without having built multi-billion dollar businesses like the aforementioned and done it with more empathy, the advice that this is what future entrepreneurs need sounds like nothing but wishful thinking.
Just because we want it to be true, doesn’t make it so. I could extol the benefits of giving employees a liberal amount of paid vacation or having dinner with your family every day. There are very good arguments to be made and articles to be cited. But in my heart of hearts, I know that I formed my belief and then looked for evidence to support it, rather than the other way around. I like doing X, I want people to do X, so I’ll look for reasons why they should do X and the most effective reasons are usually to tell them that “it’s so you will get what you want”.
I’ve read articles about how sleeping late is actually more productive for certain people, how procrastination makes people more creative, how being a generalist is essential in this day and age. Some or all of this might be true. But what is definitely true is that as a procrastinating, generalist night-owl, I would very much like it to be true.
So maybe getting up at 5 AM and working for 18 hours a day is not required to build a successful company. Or maybe it is. I would like to prove the contrary, but until I have, should you take my word for it?
Just because you want it to be true, doesn’t make it so
3. Do as they do, not as they say
To circumvent issues 1 and 2, we can turn to direct interviews and talks given by people we admire in one aspect or another. When you listen to enough of them, you notice a lot of advice is given about what is good to do, rather than what they actually did. Even when interviewers ask them how they achieved XYZ, they might answer that question and quickly add: “But actually, it would’ve been better if I did YZX instead”. While their opinion is highly valuable and it is understandable and even expected that people learn from their past and would improve upon it, realize that there is no way of knowing whether it would’ve been actually better to do YZX.
Many people who have achieved something admirable, will tell you ways how you could do it better. This might be better, or it might not. If the field of psychology has taught us anything, it’s that people know themselves very very poorly. How reliable are people in assessing how they got to be where they are? Each of us creates a story around the actions and events in our lives to make sense of ourselves, of others, and of what happened. The fabled quote says that “we don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we are”. Remember that we are part of this “world”: we also don’t see ourselves how we actually are, but through the tinted glasses of who we are.
This doesn’t mean you should just ignore what everybody says and assume you’re right about everything. Reading about what others think and believe gives you directions to explore and ideas to consider. They inspire you and help you realize a big mistake you’re making.
In my experience, advice was more helpful the more action I took and more experience I had myself. When you haven’t done anything yet, you haven’t experienced what you need to overcome. Once you’ve experienced some of the challenges, you’ll have better, more specific questions to ask and get better, more specific answers. Don’t worry about how to read term sheets when you don’t know yet what product you want to build, don’t try to figure out about the best energy gel for running long distances when you haven’t run 5K yet, don’t fret about how to manage multiple apartments when you haven’t made an offer yet for your first one.
There are enough challenges you’re facing right now that stop you from achieving your goals. Focus on those. What are you faced with RIGHT NOW that you can take some advice on?