Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach

Bad Science Makes For Good Stories

Motivational speeches and hot air are often eerily similar. Life coaches, consultants and finance gurus all hawk different formulas for success:

Think out of the box, don’t buy outdoor coffee, get your ducks in a row, pivot, lean into discomfort, get a side hustle, and definitely follow the seven habits of effective people.

These formulas give us the idea that everyone can be a success. So it seems not a matter of if, but of when. 

Did your organisation go belly up this year? A motivational speaker may tell you that you failed because you didn’t have an authentic story. But in reality, close to half of all businesses don’t make it beyond five years.

Still don’t have a job after more than 100 interviews? He may tell you that you failed to awaken the giant within. But really, you’re underqualified for the position and ought to go for an entry-level job.

Lying six feet deep after being rear-ended on the highway? You may hear a muffled voice outside your coffin going, “Quitting isn’t an option.”

In the world of motivational speakers and life coaches there is no room for talent, circumstance, and luck.

Which is seriously insulting to all the people who are breaking their backs to scrape together a living.

Most models of success aren’t a solution, but a problem. How many people do you think are living 4-hour workweeks after reading Tim Ferris’s bestseller? Hint: not many. And many have uprooted their lives trying.

So how do you know if you’re following the advice of an expert or a bullshit merchant?

That’s a toughy. 

Part of measuring the efficacy of a success formula is common sense. Footballer Lionel Messi takes 100 free kicks after every training. Great advice. But it won’t turn me into a professional athlete.

So common sense is often enough to expose bullshit advice.

But common sense falls short when the advice is to ‘be proactive’ or ‘think win/win.’ Sure it sounds good. And it certainly can’t hurt. But will these generic principles drive you to success?

Not unless scientific evidence says so. Can’t your expert cite anything but anecdotal evidence? Odds are you’ll have to cancel your holiday to the Bahamas and top up your 401(k).

Which hits the nail on its head: success revolves around odds. It’s never a given. Otherwise we’d all be living like royalty.

As Phil Rosenzweig wrote about at length in The Halo Effect, science knows little about promoting success or telling fun stories. That’s why the best stories have bad science.

Enjoy the success stories, just don’t believe the hype.

P.S. I’m not calling out Tim Ferris for being a swindler. He’s a terrific marketer who pulled a fast one on all of us. Plus, Tim’s 4-Hour Workweek had a wonderful side effect: it got millions of people to reevaluate their careers and redesign their lives.

By Jeroen Elsing
Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach