Self-Help from the Successful?

Megan McArdle reacts to Steve Jobs’s “never settle” advice:

The problem is, the people who give these sorts of speeches are the outliers: the folks who have made a name for themselves in some very challenging, competitive, and high-status field. No one ever brings in the regional sales manager for a medical supplies firm to say, “Yeah, I didn’t get to be CEO. But I wake up happy most mornings, my kids are great, and my golf game gets better every year.”

That’s most people. But what does Steve Jobs have to tell them? I doubt he can imagine what that’s like, much less empathize, or come up with solid advice on finding a great hobby. So he tells them how to be Steve Jobs. Which sounds great, and is of very limited practical value, even to Stanford grads.

My question is: should unsuccessful people just be extremely wary about taking advice from successful people? And what does that say about the self-help industry?


  • LMC

    Hi, Wally. Catching up on my Commentarius blog reading. Why would unsuccessful people be extremely wary about taking advice from successful people? And how will you determine who is unsuccessful and who is successful?

  • wallaceforman

    Hi Lieschen, thanks for the comment.

    I have another post up that outlines my general suspicion of advice.

    In addition to what I say there, I have two reasons that I am suspicious of advice from successful people. First, the people receiving the advice may not be sufficiently like the advice-giver. “Never settle” may be great advice for a talented person like Steve Jobs, but it is probably not good advice for more average people like me. Second, there is a lot hindsight bias. A lottery winner might tell a graduating class, “never stop dreaming,” but clearly that is not good advice, at least to the extent that it means “buy lots of lottery tickets.”

    Regarding success – I don’t want to attempt to nail out a strict definition on the fly, as I imagine I won’t do a very good job. Nonetheless, I suspect that most people are able to judge somebody’s relative successfulness, and that there is a large amount of overlap between people’s informed rankings. “You know it when you see it,” which is not to say that it can’t be defined, more or less accurately.

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