Does Your Philosophy Scale?

A few days ago I finished one of Grant Cardone’s latest audiobooks “If You’re Not First, You’re Last”. The book was written in the context of the 2007 financial crisis, and focused strongly on motivation and creating a winning mindset. The book was pretty entertaining due to its evocative language (companies must “advance and conquer”, “never surrender” and “dominate the marketplace”)… and yet it irked me in some subtle way.
I noticed a line of reasoning in this book that seems quite a trend, as it was also present in Napoleon Hill’s “Think and Grow Rich”, Kiyosaki’s “Rich Dad Poor Dad”, and many other self-improvement books.

The essence of these books tends to be quite predictable: the world consists of a huge set of people, the vast majority of whom are not at the level of wealth or success that they desire. They complain that the system is rigged, that the world is out to get them, and that they simply don’t have the possibility to pull ahead.
Enter the Cardone’s, the Hill’s and the Kiyosaki’s of the world, who show the reader a path to personal success: adopt the right mindset, a certain set of financial or mindset techniques, and you will be able to outperform the rest of the “common” people.
(I sometimes think of these salesmen as the Meesix characters in one of my series: ever optimistic and confident about their abilities to improve your lie.)

And what about those “common” people you leave behind? Well as the Meesix books tell us, they aren’t really ready for that level of success anyway, because they are too scared, too timid, too immature to deserve it. It’s often said that -unlike the noble reader- they don’t want to exert themselves and upset their restful lives (and other psycho-analytical assertions that I railed against last week).
You sure caaaaan be part of the 1%, Jerry!

Sarcasm aside, I think this reasoning is foundationally sound. Most people do indeed hit a certain plateau of success in their lives or career, and if you manage to learn some extra techniques and adopt a better mindset, you might very well be able to outperform them. Fair enough.

What grates me about many of these perspectives however, is the assertions about society and the “other” that come with it:
“Ultimately, the only one who controls your fortune is you”
“Anyone can be successful/rich if only they wanted to adopt this particular success ethic”
“Anyone who complains about the unfairness of the economy or the state of the world, is simply distracting himself from taking action”
In other words, we’re assured that because they figured out a way to outperform a certain subset of the population, they say that there is no basis to the complaints of others. Anyone could do it; I did it; you’ll do it; and so all who don’t are a bunch of weaklings.

There’s a hefty survivor effect here: we only hear about those who applied the techniques and succeeded, not those who have applied them but failed (which is then further evidence they aren’t trying hard enough yet).
But there’s a deeper problem. To borrow some terms from mathematics: these salesmen confuse a local exception for evidence that there are no global tendencies.
I come up with a short analogy for the situation as I see it.

Imagine a city that suffers a systemic traffic problem. Inhabitants regularly have to spend hours upon hours waiting on the highways, not managing to arrive to their jobs or their families in time. Obviously this is leading to quite some stress and unhappiness in the society.
Then, some clever salesmen figure out a way around the traffic jam: they find some small shortcuts into the countryside by which they’re able to undercut a big chunk of the traffic.!/fileImage/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/16x9_620/annacis-island.jpg

Now imagine the same style of Meesix salesmen starting to sell their tactics (fair in themselves) but then claiming that “It’s possible for anyone to get to home on time, if only they knew about the shortcuts!” and that “If you’re not able to get home on time, it’s simply your own fault.” How much sense would that make?

The fallacy here is to assume that because one can undercut some people in traffic, that the congestion problem is not there. It is in fact fully reasonable to complain about the quality of the roads and the traffic system: it is a legimate problem and the only way to make a change for the majority of the population, is to expand the highways.
Furthermore, the only reason the shortcuts (i.e. the “special mindset and techniques”) of the salesmen work, is because they are not well-known. If more people started using the shortcuts, then these would almost instantaneously get congested as well. A few extra people would benefit, but basically we’d just be in the same badly congested city. This is what we refer to as a solution which doesn’t scale.

The guaranteed-success ethics described above are in the same boat.
They can work, but not because they actually offer a sustainable solution to economic (or traffic) problems. They’re simply enabling you to skip a sufficient amount of people in line. You personally will feel the sting of the problem a lot less, but it is still there in the back view mirror… bothering all the people you just passed.
The salesmen aren’t proving that the global tendency doesn’t exist (“90% of people will not arrive home on time because of congestion problems”), they’re just creating some local exceptions (“If you take this shortcut, you’ll have a much higher chance of being in the first 10% who do make it home on time -leaving the others behind” ¹).

I don’t mind trying to perform better than other people, or the existence of valid techniques to do so (even the get-rich-quick variety). There are indeed some shortcuts in life and it’s not always a bad thing to exploit them -that’s part of the game of being a smart and continuously improving professional.
But anyone who reaches success in this manner should be aware that they didn’t show that anyone can do this, or twe live in an eminently fair and equitable society after all. Selling shortcuts doesn’t scale.

So how about the Meesix salespeople stay a bit more humble about the state of society and the extent to which everyone can ignore the laws of cause and effect. Caaaaaan do.


1 The traffic analogy is a very static system that can’t be influenced. One could argue that if several people get business results through a positive mindset, say, then the overall economy would improve -whereas the successes of a few don’t impact the traffic of the masses.
Still, there’s only a limited amount of resources in the world and the techniques of the salesmen are not generally aimed at making our use of resources more efficient. So I do think the “skipping in line” analogy is quite sound.

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