I was just watching a TED talk by Richard St. John on the 8 Rules of Success. Richard interviewed 500 TED attendees to distill down eight principles. His recommendations are depressingly trite: have passion, work hard, yada, yada, yada. You can see the talk here: http://bit.ly/6VxMaC

REVISION: October 25, 2012: I may have found the recommendations trite, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t true and rigorous. I wrote this article originally making several incorrect assumptions about Richard’s methodology. My bad. My very, very bad. I inappropriately dinged him on research methodology when I, myself, wasn’t doing my own homework vis-a-vis verifying that my points were correct.

Richard writes: Hey Stever – Just so you know, I did also interview unsuccessful people and homeless people as a control group and they DIDN’T follow any of the 8 Traits that are necessary for success. They didn’t love what they do, they didn’t work hard, etc. As for the Halo Effect, many of the most successful people couldn’t articulate why they were successful. They’d say “I don’t know.” So I’d look for examples of what they’d actually “done.” I’d ask, “How often do you take vacations?” A lot would say “I don’t take vacations.” I’d ask, “Why not?” They’d say, “I’d rather work.” I’d ask, “Why?” They’d say, “I like it” or “It’s fun.” So it wasn’t like they automatically blurted out the 8 Success Traits. I had to find them through examples. And by the way, I’m not saying everyone has to be a big success. I’m just saying is if you want to succeed at something this is how you’ll get there.
Richard St. John

What follows is the bulk of my original article. I’ve edited it to remove specific examples to Richard’s situation, since it does not apply to his work. It does, however, apply to a lot of what passes for “how to succeed” literature, so the points are still useful to keep in mind.

It’s not his fault his results are trite, however. As discussed at great length in The Halo Effect by Phil Rosenzweig, when you interview someone after-the-fact about why something was successful or a failure, you always get the same answers.

That means, sadly, that such answers are meaningless. If you ask someone who’s a known success how they got that way, they’ll say it was vision, passion, hard work, etc. If you ask their friends, the friends will say vision, passion, hard work, etc. If you ask someone who’s a failure how they got that way, you’ll also get the same stories over and over. Humans seem to have built-in explanations for such things.

Most success talks miss the point by not interviewing people who had vision, passion, and worked hard, and failed. Why? Because most success studies start by identifying successful people who have already achieved success and interview them. It may be that for every 100 people who have vision, passion, and work hard, 99 of them end up burned out, divorced, and miserable, and only one goes on to be successful. But if you select only the successful ones to interview, it’s easy to conclude that those traits correlate with success.

A simpler example: every successful person in the world drank either mother’s milk or formula as a baby. Does that mean that drinking mother’s milk or formula leads to success? Not at all. It just means that pretty much everyone drinks those things as babies.

I know some very rich finance people. Their vision? Nil. Really Nil. Like, no imagination whatsoever. Their passion? To show off and impress the neighbors. Their hard work? Signing checks. It’s tough if it’s not special 24-bond paper made for smooth writing. And then all that waiting and waiting! Years of playing golf, waiting while thousands of people work their butts off so the providers of capital can walk off with the profits (that’s what “capitalism” means–providers of capital get the rewards). In short, I know many example of people who don’t have all those nice, feel-good attributes, and are even more successful than many who do.

Since Richard St. John is giving his talks to high school students, he is in the perfect position to do a real experiment to find out what leads to success. Have half of the students he talks to do the things he recommends. Have them work hard, have vision, and so on. The other half? Have them slack off and meander through life. In twenty year’s we’ll be able to see whether or not there’s a real correlation between his recommendations and subsequent success.

Richard St. John’s TED Talk on Success. Is i…

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