... Is not confuse correlation with causation.
So I followed a BusinessInsider link on Facebook yesterday (I know ...) because who wouldn't be fascinated by the premise that one could sum up the differences between successful and unsuccessful people with one infographic? I was really looking forward to seeing how a gifted designer would manage convey ideas like "If you define 'success' by these metrics ..." and "See how different demographic trends, economic developments and policy developments enabled or blunted human potential!"
I suggest you not click through the jump until after you stop laughing.
Anyway, my curiosity is both rampant and undiscriminating, so I clicked through.
The one thing that immediately jumped out at me was the premise that successful people read while unsuccessful people watch television.
I know a great many people who have (well-deserved) national media careers, all of whom wrote or still write at great length, and with wit and insight, about television. So, you know, there is that bullshit-meter moment for me, personally. But it pointed to a larger issue, which is that there is a real tendency in productivity-porn circles to confuse correlation and causation.
The most egregious example I can think of, off the top of my head, is the list of "20 Things The Rich Do Every Day" that percolated across personal-finance and business media back around Christmas, because what better time of the year should a Christian financial professional be focused on blaming the poor for being their own worst enemies?
This list is based on research by Tom Corley, who is now selling all sorts of advice on how to behave like the rich, presumably to people who are not smart enough to realize that behaving like something rarely makes it so. My daughter likes to behave like a bear when she's angry. She has yet to become an actual grizzly bear.
(The Freakonomics podcast did a lovely, indirect job of debunking one of Corley's finger-wagging "The rich are better than you and me" rules by asking researchers whether or not rich people gossip. The entire episode is worth a listen or read.)
The reason I find Corley's list so offensive is because it is so devoid of context: "80% of wealthy make Happy Birthday calls vs. 11% of poor." And? What is the proven link between calling people to sing Happy Birthday and amassing riches? Are we to discount birthday wishes delivered via text or social media or in person?
Or this one: "74% of wealthy teach good daily success habits to their children vs. 1% of poor." You'll note that there is no actual definition of "good daily success habits" here. At all. Only that whatever they are, the poor don't teach their children. (And evidently, the idea that maybe someone else could is off the table.)
What I appreciated about the rebuttal "20 Things The Poor Do Every Day" was how it provided sources for all its items. It clearly pointed out how circumstances shaped behavior. It pointed out that we do not owe our economic position in the U.S.A. solely to our strength of character or our personal flaws.
One of the most pernicious myths in American culture is that failure is the result of our own inability to just think positively and keep on trucking. It is a staggeringly egocentric perspective, positing as it does that our state of mind is more powerful than anything else in the world, up to and including complex marketplaces, wide-reaching policy repercussions, or other people's actions and reactions.
That mindset does us no favors, because it does not teach us how to fail. It does not teach us how to see ourselves in relation to a whole wide world, to broaden our perspectives and to maybe, see things like "success" or "failure" in radically different terms than the people who think that the time you spend on television determines your worth as a person.