Evidence not Eminence

I’ve spent a chunk of time recently digging over graveyards, looking for corpses. Not literal ones, because that’d be weird. Rather, things I’ve tried, or friends have tried, in their businesses / hobbies / macrame class. I’m trying to find the solve for: why is there so much bad advice?

Or maybe, why do seemingly smart people take bad advice without engaging their brain?

People will say, “You know Richard, you should really do this thing, because this other really successful guy did it, and he’s rich!” (Assuming your name’s Richard). Or, perhaps the really rich guy will hop on stage, and say, “I’ve done this stuff, and it’s amazing!”

There’s not a problem with these statements necessarily, but they don’t go far enough. They are eminence-based, rather than evidence-based, and this is a tricky wee beast, because looking at data is hard, man. It often involves math, or forensics, but most importantly a grasp of all the data, not just a vertical slice someone wants to present to us.

Allow me to give a small example. There’s a writer I know of who, a couple years back, struck gold. Proverbial lightning in a bottle, amazing cash money coming from the sky, and people were all, “Be like Barbara.” (Her name’s not Barbara). I had a look into not-Barbara; the claims she made, and others supporting her, were a refrain like this:

  • Write in Genre X, because it’s hot!

…that’s pretty much it. I could see from evidence like Amazon sales ranks other people in that same genre were not striking gold. So, what happened? This is where I started looking for the bodies (in the graveyard…) and found a few (relatively peaceful deaths, as it happens). Not-Barbara had, for the previous couple years, spent time building a sizeable Instagram following. She’d grown a mailing list before these things were blasted back to the bedrock, and through a little bit of good fortune, didn’t populate it with freebie hunters. Not-Barbara also had a couple of in-lane stacked promos to drive strangers to her work.

That’s a little more than, “Write in Genre X, because it’s hot!” The reality was not-Barbara had done years of work to generate eventual lightning in a bottle, except now we’re calling it dreary treacle, and that shit does’t look as good as a clickbait headline.

When I dug deeper, I found other authors who also had not-Barbara’s kind of Instagram presence, mailing lists, and books in that genre, somehow didn’t strike gold. The reason here has nothing to do with skill (trust me on this: I read not-Barabara’s book and really wanted to sand my eyeballs after; like any author, she had a style that some liked and others didn’t). How’d she do it, then?

The factor that’s difficult to adjust for is … luck.

Normally you can, with the right sources, work out what “luck” tastes like. Did Amazon’s algorithms trigger at the right time to get people in the front door and snowball sales? Was not-Barbara’s book released on the tail-end of a successful Genre X TV show? Did Danny DeVito recommend it to his book club? Etc. These things are all below the waterline, and when faced with trying to strip-mine facts out of the basalt of ignorance (…because not-Barbara in this context wasn’t a data person, and had no real understanding of why she struck gold), most people nope out and assume the not-Barbaras of this world are something a little bit special.

Gifted. Talented. Perhaps their dad was Zeus.

This isn’t useful if we want to grow the vault of human capability. We need to spend time working out what the real predicators of success are within our market. If someone within a popular direct-marketing system tells you they don’t have a mailing list, be fucking suspicious, because there’s some weird shit going on there. If another tells you they’ve got by without quality, can shovel shit, and people love it, become quietly concerned.

Even if someone tells you the path to victory is slow, and you’ve gotta do the work, pull back the curtains. What specific work needs doing? How often? Why does it work? If you stop doing it, does your business fail? If you do twice as much, are you twice as successful? And so on.

It’s somewhat further compounded by people who are successful feeling it’s an intrinsic quality they have – that they really are gifted, talented people with a direct lineage to Olympus. This is hard to refute, because they stand on podiums often fashioned of pure gold. It’s difficult to call them out, because they might eye you and ask, “So, what have you done that’s so great?”

It doesn’t make their assertions on why they’re successful accurate, though. Maintaining a critical mind in the face of societal groupthink is hard; it’s no wonder so many of us want divine inspiration, feverishly scribbling down any mote of wisdom that drips from on high. But until you understand all the components that went into the mote, it probably won’t work for you.

Unless you’re lucky.

If someone’s offering you a course on how to be awesome without a money-back guarantee, that’s because it’s not a system that provably works. We’d love all our answers to be given to us by gods. It worked great for humanity for a long, long time, but that shit doesn’t scale, and not least of which because we’ve a poor god:human ratio. Be a little critical, and you’ll be more awesome.