Saturday, September 13, 2014

An Open Letter to My New Favorite Author

Shane Snow, Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success
Note: this commentary is a continuation of my previous review, Success on the Installment Plan.
Dear Mr. Snow:

On August 12th, 2014, shortly after I published my pre-release review of your first book, you contacted me personally. Among other things, you asked: “what [do] you think would have solved that ‘half an argument’ issue?” And: “were there chapters where you feel the ‘half an argument’ thing wasn't a problem?” Having taken a month to contemplate your questions, I think I’m finally ready to venture an answer.

Let me first thank you for your courteous, intelligently self-critical message. I’ve suffered recently from authors who think they’re owed positive reviews simply for publishing something, or accuse me of vitriolic bias for disagreeing, or aggressively attempt to squelch and silence my response. Your gentlemanly willingness to keep civil, engage in dialog with opposing viewpoints, and solicit further feedback suggests you’ll go far.

Therefore, after careful consideration, I must conclude my problem isn’t with your book specifically. That is, while your book embodies problems I’ve seen increasingly often recently, my problem is the trend upon which you ride. I’m troubled by the popularity of a secularized pseudo-Calvinist determinism that treats success and failure as foreordained, business and life circumstances as transferable, and life as free from contingency.

Essayist, businessman, and hedge fund manager Nassim Nicholas Taleb identifies three fallacies that impede our ability to analyze economic, social, and cultural movements:
  1. “The illusion of understanding,” the belief that reality is, in full, comprehensible;
  2. “The retrospective distortion,” the tendency to evaluate events afterward, seeking linear narrative and clear cause-and-effect relationships; and
  3. “The overvaluation of factual information,” the assumption that, with sufficient facts, we can preclude flukes and fortuity from all decisions.
This tripod accurately describes my problem with many business theorists’ writings, including Clayton Christensen, Seth Godin, Josh Linkner, and now you. By assuming we can retrospectively reconstruct success, and market it generically, we systemically dismiss life’s unpredictable circumstances. We treat every success as happening in a vacuum. (I have significant problems with Taleb, too. But that’s for another diatribe altogether.)

The model you utilize in writing your book essentially involves finding people you deem successful, admirable, and worthy of emulation; tracing the path they followed to arrive where they are; and urging us to do much the same. Certainly, in describing business pioneers like Elon Musk, or cultural innovators like J.J. Abrams, I cannot fault your facts. Yet in stepping outside your text, I cannot avoid noticing significant omissions.

Consider: your profiles frequently involve what your subjects reveal in direct interviews, official press biographies, and other forms of self-reporting. You never ask yourself why successful people report themselves certain ways. Smarter people than me have observed that simply being wealthy changes how people think. They write biographies to justify themselves, or propound moral principles, or sell product. Factual accuracy ranks low in their priorities.

I’ll revisit an example from my first review. Having a theatre degree myself, your Jimmy Fallon example speaks to me directly. I’m intimately familiar with performance—not just the love of engaging an audience, but the frustration of turning one’s love into one’s career. Therefore, it bothers me that you spend pages and pages and pages on Fallon (and several on Louis CK), but none whatsoever on the thousands of aspiring comedians forced to quit every year.

Examining Fallon’s success, and nobody else’s failure, creates the retrospective illusion that Fallon succeeded because he had to succeed. Numerous comedians follow his exact arc. But they didn’t play Zanies the night network scouts visited, or they died onstage the night somebody else killed, or they auditioned for SNL the day Lorne Michaels ate bad pastrami, or any of ten thousand circumstances not encompassed by Fallon’s official biography.

Because your work spells out success anecdotes in exhaustive detail, while giving only nodding recognition to failures in similar fields, it creates an illusion of false control. In your personal e-mail, you acknowledge that “business indeed is often like gambling...but that there are ways to make smarter bets, and that's through pattern recognition.” But remember the bromide, the house always wins. Your best chapters aren’t about gambling at all.

I particularly like your chapter on how Eli Pariser parlayed into a competitive Web venture by co-opting techniques from listicle writers and spam merchants. My favorite bit has you describing how he floats multiple link titles to experimentally test which attracts the most clicks. But that’s almost exactly the opposite of gambling: he starts with a desired outcome, tests variables, factors for contingencies, and thinks like an engineer. Can you not see that?

Benedict Carey’s How We Learn, published the same day your book was, focuses on how people can systematically improve themselves, their careers, and their chances in real life. It’s truly possible to reduce happenstance to an acceptable level. But to do so, we must plot opportunities prospectively, not retrospectively. And we must chart our own course, not assume we can replicate something somebody else already did.

If we could genericize success and market it broadly, somebody already would have. While I don’t mind using others’ stories as inspiration or exemplar, we must resist the temptation to think we can follow somebody else’s paths to success. “Overnight successes” play from long, painful investments. You hint at the difficult parts of slow learning, Mr. Snow, but your text spotlights dramatic high points. In short, your book needs more process, less spectacle.

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