The problem with following the habits of “successful people”

I was reading an article on what “rich people do” that implied that if you wanted to become rich, you should do what they do.

The problem with these sorts of articles, as I’m sure has been explored many times before, is manifold. Firstly, they’re talking about what rich or successful people do now. That is, after they’re rich or successful. Secondly, it could be more a case of correlation as opposed to causation (does eating more healthful foods really make you rich?) And thirdly, they ignore the hordes of people who may already be doing what “successful” people do and yet, as luck would have it, remain unsuccessful.

For example, in the article I cited above:

  • If you’re rich, you tend to eat less junk food — maybe it’s because better food makes you think and behave in ways that will make you rich, but maybe it’s just that when you’re rich you’re able to have access to better food?
  • If you’re rich, you tend to keep your cards closer to your chest — maybe it’s because saying what’s on your mind causes people to think negatively of you. But it could also be a case of “what got you here won’t get you there” — who knows if it might well be that keeping your cards closer to your chest while in the “lower rungs”, so-to-speak, will prevent you from being noticed from the corporate bigwigs?
  • If you’re rich, you tend to set goals — maybe setting goals does get you rich. But it could also be a case of looking at the past and fabricating a cohesive narrative from a haphazard life. I have a hypothesis that goes like this: if you set a goal and failed, you’re more likely to forget having set that goal than if you’d set a goal and succeeded. This would mean that goals leading to success (whatever that is) may be overrepresented?

I’m not saying it’s entirely worthless to study what rich and successful people do, but certainly not in the way it’s currently popularly done.

Rich people tend to drive nice cars. If that’s an activity that’d get me rich, I’m all for it.

The Three Christs Experiment (and Business Superstars)

I came across this nice write up on “The Three Christs of Ypsilanti” experiment (via Marginal Revolution) about how a psychologist put three people — all of whom claimed they were Christ — together in a mental institution, in the hope that the effect of their conflicting identities would somehow awaken them to the possibilities that perhaps, just perhaps, they might not be who they thought they were.

In the words of Alan Bellows who wrote the article:

What might happen, he wondered, if a psychologist were to deliberately pair up patients who held directly conflicting identity delusions? Perhaps such psychological leverage could be used to pry at the cracks of an irrational psyche to let in the light of reason. Dr. Rokeach sought and secured a research grant to test his hypothesis, and he began canvassing sanitariums for delusional doppelgängers. Soon he found several suitable subjects: three patients, all in state care, each of whom believed himself to be Jesus Christ. And he saw that it was good.

This was an experiment that I myself as a child and young man had longed to do, or at the very least to witness. That someone else had already done it, and written a whole book on it, is like discovering wifi in remote country. That someone else had nicely summarised that book into a short post was like discovering the afore-mentioned wifi was both free and fast.

As an older man though, my psychologically-inclined curiosity turned to rather more business and professional pursuits.

It’s not uncommon to meet someone in your working life whom you think is absolutely brilliant, but who has views diametrically opposed to some other equally brilliant person. How exciting it would be to put these business superstars together in the same room to debate their views. To see how they — both brilliant, mind you — would stand up to the other’s arguments. Would one of them see the light, as Dr. Milton Rokeach had hoped with his Three Christs?

Even in my current employ these theoretical debates debates have often raged in my mind, as I imagined hard-hitting Howard coming up against smooth-talking Tina in a battle of wits and personality. It’d be like like Manny and Floyd — possibly the fight of the early century, if it ever comes to fruition.

The Unequal Pay Monkeys Experiment

What happens when you give monkeys unequal pay? Surely monkeys won’t feel indignant at being paid less than a peer?

Well, some scientists decided  to find out, and created this ingenious experiment that’s now available on Youtube. Watch it below and be prepared to laugh your underpants off. The monkey’s reactions are classic.

The Evolutionary Advantage of a Resistance to Change

I was just thinking about organisational change and pondering over how our natural tendency to change is to resist it, when this thought popped up: if resistance to change is so hardwired in our brains, it must serve some purpose — but what?

One of the premises of evolutionary theory is this: if something survives (be it an organism or perhaps even an idea), its survival can be attributed to certain traits or characteristics that help it survive. These traits or characteristics are developed/evolved over time: as those that have these traits survive, and those that don’t die, more and more of the population will have these traits, eventually becoming a “norm”.

Such as a natural tendency to resist change.

At least that’s the theory.

So, let’s make a provocative statement here (inspired by Edward de Bono’s po): Po, a resistance to change isn’t necessarily a bad thing, despite all the bad press it’s getting. In fact, it may be good.

I think that before we get all gung-ho about the next big thing and bashing old ways of doing things, we should think about why things are the way they are, especially if they have been that way for a long time.

Old ways of doing things are, generally speaking, antifragile. They’ve withstood the test of time and have a decent history of working. Good ideas tend to remain good ideas, and the longer they survive the better they tend to be; bad ideas, on the other hand, are discarded as soon as they’re found out (a caveat: those that do manage to survive for long, however, tend to be the most dangerous — bad things are made worse when they’re not known to be bad. Think insidious. Think CFCs.)

So if you have an old way of doing things, it may not be the best way, but it’s likely a way that generates decent results, enough for it to have lasted as long as it has. The moment a better way of doing things is found and tested to work, the old way is discarded. But until then, the old way is the best way.

If people weren’t resistant to change, on the other hand, good ideas wouldn’t have the time to spread. We’d be flitting from one idea to the next, discarding great ones and embracing bad ones in equal measure.

So a resistance to change isn’t all that bad. It’s the way things should be. The incumbent has earned its right on the throne, and the onus should always be on the challenger to prove its worth.

So it does worry me if people rush into new ways of doing things without having redundant systems in place, just in case. I mean, let’s not be too hasty in burning bridges.

If there’s going to be a process change, have the old process remain in place until the new process is proven stable. Depending on what the process is, a few iterations (or days, or months) is most certainly needed. Give it time to prove its antifragility.

When automobiles were first introduced, horse-drawn carriages didn’t disappear overnight. Concurrency. Then obsolescence.

Resist, consider, then change. Carefully.