Are you a sucker for success-bait? Do you love reading about the morning routines of the most successful, hoping to glean a hack or two you can apply to your own life?

I'll come clean and admit I find success listicles irresistible. I feel I've read them all. I can recite most of the advice they offer by heart.

Cliffs Notes version:

  • Wake up at 5:00 a.m., or earlier.
  • Don't read your email. Check one email in the morning, you're screwed.
  • Exercise. Preferably something super intense.
  • Meditate. Seven to 15 minutes is ideal.
  • Eat healthy breakfast.
  • Write down what you are grateful for.
  • Keep at it, and success will eventually be achieved, just like XYZ successful person did!)

And so, when behavioral scientists Emre Soyer and Robin M. Hogarth published a piece yesterday in Harvard Business Review titled "Stop Reading Lists of Things Successful People Do," I had to read it. You know, because it had the word "success" in the title. And also because I know this habit of reading about successful people is one I need to break.

The authors present several solid arguments as to why I -- and you, too -- should quit reading success listicles once and for all.

"As palatable as these lists are, they can do damage," Soyer and Hogarth write. "There are several reasons why they may be not only useless but also potentially harmful to decision makers, managers, and entrepreneurs."

Here are a few really good reasons why you should really stop reading about what successful people do, according to Emre Soyer and Robin M. Hogarth.

Where's the science?

The hacks and suggestions that live within every "things that successful people do" article are not proven. That's just what those people, who happen to be successful, do.

No study puts forth evidence that waking up three hours earlier will guarantee you'll have a more productive day. Sure, a bunch of rich entrepreneurs do just that. But many of them also don't.

Success lists also invoke questions about cause and effect. You can't prove someone is successful because they wake up early. Maybe they wake up so early because when you become that successful, your hectic schedule demands it.

Where are the failures?

Plenty of people who wake up at 5 a.m. run startups that fail miserably. It's just that articles don't get written about those people -- unless they ultimately become successful down the line, in which their previous failure becomes a badge of honor.

To argue this point, the HBR authors zero in on a concept called survivor bias. It means we tend to focus on those who have survived (i.e. succeeded) and forget to consider those who haven't, leading to false conclusions. "These are the outcomes that we don't get to see," Soyer and Hogarth say. "Their absence leads to a false sense of effectiveness of certain actions.

Where's the objectivity?

Success is a slippery word. It means different things to different people. There's not an agreed-upon benchmark we can use to apply to all success stories.

While we can generally agree that people like Elon Musk and Bill Gates are successful, they've got different lives than us. Different priorities. Different personalities. Different motivations. That means they've likely made trade-offs and taken actions on their paths to success that simply don't align with what we might do in similar situations.

In sum, success is not one-size-fits-all. Be wary of anyone who says or writes otherwise. To dig into this further, the authors of the HBR piece present more rationale into the perils of reading too much into success lists.

Published on: Mar 14, 2017