Don’t Take Advice From Successful People

“You get praised for being rare as a successful woman…but I bet you know a lot of other women with the potential for success” Jessica Wiliams 

Take virtually any of the ‘big’ self-help or leadership books and they are based on studying top companies or leaders. Here I will outline the healthy scepticism we should treat them with. 


When Tom Peters profiled successful companies in the 80’s he was at pains to make the point that 1950’s management had made a grave mistake. They had mistaken the post war boom, when many companies experienced astounding success, to be down to how they did it. In other words it was a bubble, which for many, didn’t burst for decades. The accepted wisdom of of the time as to how to run a company and treat people  (much of which we now know to be false) was seen as being a successful strategy because the companies were successful. 

In a similar vein we have the ‘finding a nieche’ brand of success. This could be as a person or as an organisation. Don’t get me wrong finding that nieche is admirable in itself but there are two main fallacies associated with this. 

Firstly, similar to the above point, that because the nieche was found the way in which it was exploited is the way to do things. When eBay first hit the market it was the only reliable auction site out there and when it started to experience success other sites struggled to catch up for exposure and market saturation. But it didn’t exploit that nieche by design, it started for collectors of Pez dispensers, it just moved into a vacancy in the market. The simple question to ask before you follow the way in which breakthroughs operate is to ask ‘would that have been successful almost irrespective of how it had been excecuted’? 

Secondly, and this one is a bit more subtle, how do we know that anything was done to find that nieche? In the eBay example above you could just about argue that their ability to move quickly into a multi-product platform was smart. If we zoom out for a moment and remember that at any given time there are thousands of people cultivating new ideas. If a nieche is found is it because someone has cleverly done so, or is it because it was inevitable? Inevitable not that a specific individual finds the gap in the market but that someone would find a gap, it just happened to be that person.


How much of anything is luck? I have taught in leadership training how some combination of locus of control and Seligman optimism is desirable. Why? Because it serves you to assume that you have the ability to influence all outcomes at least a little bit (I.e. you have an internal locus of control) but that the bad stuff that happens probably won’t last and probably wasn’t mainly your fault (yes I know that sounds a bit delusional I’ll perhaps write about it another time). 

But the truth is that luck plays a big part. Perhaps you were the lucky one that found the nieche described above. Or it was due to a chance meeting with the person who had an opportunity. Jessica Williams (who I quoted above) is undoubtedly a very talented person but retains the humility that fuels her efforts to help others be ‘queens’. Her first proper job out of college was as a correspondent on the Daily Show: A very big gig. But this was also due to chance meetings and lucky timing. She couldn’t have taken advantage of this if it wasn’t for her immense talent but her talent alone wouldn’t have got her there. 

The topic of success is dealt with fairly comprehensively in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, and again ‘right place right time’ comes up. Examples such as statistically significant birth dates/times of the year: successful hockey players being far more likely to be born in winter months is one example. 


In Marshall Goldsmith’s book ‘What Got You Here Won’t Get You There’ he follows the format of ‘interview successful people’ but makes a very good point. They lie. For the same reason that we soak up books that profess to give us the secret of success: We are more comfortable believing it is something we have done/can do than just luck and timing. So if you ask a CEO how, he (because it is probably a ‘he’) is unlikely to say ‘right place, right time’. How precarious does that success look then? How often do you hear “I wanted it more/badly/passionately”? What a smack in the face for all the other schmucks working their proverbials off just to scrape a living.  So Goldsmith takes a different tack. He asks them what behaviour that they see in others, sabotages their chances. Now it isn’t about them, it is about some ‘other’ so out comes the honesty ‘they talk about themselves too much’ for example. OK so they still aren’t likey to say ‘they don’t suck up to me enough’ but I think there are some real gems there. Perhaps for another blog. 

The Ugly Truth

There are a few uncomfortable truths about successful people that we might struggle to reconcile with our preferred view of the world:

These effects are small but as we have already said there are potentially lots of people vying for success and the difference between two equally qualified candidates for a job or a salecould easily come down to one of the above.  

So what does drive success?

I remember attending a weekend of training in the Silva Method. Success and its realisation was highly prominent. At one point a man in the front row seemed to have ‘had enough’. He almost yelled ‘All this talk about ‘success’ … I’m just not interested’ and the trainer responded ‘Then you aren’t defining it right’. It stuck with me because success is often linked with money, or if not money some aspirational pre-requisite to happiness. ‘If only I had more time I’d be happy’. I would suggest that rather than studying successful people it may be a better investment of time to look at what you are hoping success will give you. More freedom? More time with your family? A better retirement? There may be ways in which you can get that now that don’t require ‘success’. And of course that ultimate aim is very individual so you can’t learn that from Bill Gates. More importantly if you pursue what you are most interested in you mind find you are already more successful than you thought. 

Further reading:

“A Passion for Excellence: The Leadership Difference” Peters, Tom and Austin, Nancy (1985)

“Outliers” Gladwell, Malcolm (2008)

2 Dope Queens” Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson (podcast) 

“Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful.” Hamermesh, Daniel (2011)

Images from Slate Magazine and