Why Outliers are Bad Role Models for Most of Us

Outliers are the people we look up to and admire. They determine our definitions of success and the standards we measure ourselves against. Their stories might be inspiring. But, outliers are bad role models for most of us.

They are anomalies. And it’s unlikely you’ll get their results by following their advice.

“Observing a few instances of a strategy working does not make it universally effective. IT is necessary instead to study many examples and ask what worked in the vast majority of cases” — Cal Newport, So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

Modeling outliers to make the most important decisions of your life is like betting your paycheck on a number at the roulette table. Your probability of winning is low and the odds are against you.

4 Reasons Outliers Are Bad Role Models For Most of Us

outliers are bad role models
outliers are bad role models

It’s hard to see why outliers are bad role models for the rest of us until you understand how they became our role models for success. There are several factors we ignore in the stories of how outliers became successful.

1. Media Coverage

Outliers write books and people write books about them. Their pictures appear on magazine covers and on lists like the Forbes 500, 30 under 30, or Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in Business. Because we read their books, watch their TEDTalks and see them on Oprah, they become our role models.

Articles on Medium, self-help books, and motivational seminars all use outliers as examples of what’s possible for the rest of us. Outliers get all the press.

When millions of people read a book, they collectively agree that the author’s advice is a formula for success. But they mistake that advice for universal truth.

Tim Ferriss’s book, The Four-Hour Workweek, caused a tidal wave of aspiring digital nomads. Millions of people believed they could follow in his footsteps and achieve similar results. But for many of them, it’s been a road to poverty or nowhere.

In Paul Graham’s essay about wealth, he says the following about Bill Gates:

So let’s get Bill Gates out of the way right now. It’s not a good idea to use famous rich people as examples, because the press only writes about the very richest, and these tend to be outliers. There is a large random factor in the success of any company. So the guys you end up reading about in the papers are the ones who are very smart, totally dedicated and win the lottery.

As nice as it might sound, you can’t reverse engineer someone else’s path to success and expect to end up with the same results. Even though most of us will never become the next Steve Jobs, Beyonce or Oprah, we think we will.

2. Genetics, Talent and Intelligence

“People don’t rise from nothing. We do owe something to parentage and patronage. The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.”- Malcolm Gladwell

DNA is not destiny, but it certainly plays a role in the success of outliers. Some people win the genetic lottery. They are born with innate athletic ability, have intelligent parents, or are born into wealth.

It’s great to have a growth mindset. You can build skills to develop your talent and you can give yourself an education that kicks the crap out of the one you got in school. But this doesn’t change the fact that you can’t change certain parts of who you are.

Genetics, talent, intelligence, and skill all play an important role that we ignore when we use outliers as our role models. I didn’t hit the jackpot in the genetic lottery, but I also did pretty well.

  • Indian parents
  • Son of a college professor
  • Rigid discipline and intrinsic motivation
  • The expectation of straight As

Indian parents don’t put their kids’ report cards on the refrigerator when they bring home a report card with all As. They only ask why when you don’t. There’s no question that they had an impact on whatever I’ve accomplished in my life.

On the flip side, I’m a scrawny Indian with limited athletic ability.

  • I could follow Lebron’s workout routine for the next two years. I might improve my jump shot, but I’ll never make it to the NBA.
  • If I read Tom Brady’s book and adopted his diet, I’m not going to win the Super Bowl 7 times.

Genetics don’t determine what you can accomplish. But they do play a role.

3. Context

“So much of how we see and interact with the social universe around us is shaped by our immediate context,” says Sam Sommers in his book, Situations Matter. In other words, context determines all of the advice you come across in books, podcasts, online courses, and motivational seminars.

When most people read self-help books and take online courses, they overlook context and ignore probability. They focus solely on the possibility of achieving the same results as the creator.

Timing, connections, and geography all shape the context of what makes an outlier successful.

Bill Gross, the founder of Idealab, conducted a study of more than 200 startups to see what they had in common. Many of them were the beneficiaries of good timing. We’ll never know if Facebook would have become the behemoth it is today if Mark Zuckerberg had been at Harvard a year later or a year earlier.

My old roommate was employee number five at a very successful startup. But he’ll be the first to tell you it wasn’t because he was the most talented graphic designer in San Francisco. He happens to be looking for a job and met the founder at a charity event.

If context didn’t matter, every person who takes a blogging course would have a massive audience, everyone who attends a Tony Robbins seminar would be a millionaire, and every founder who raises a round of venture funding would build a unicorn.

4. Hidden Variables

There are a lot of hidden variables that you can’t replicate that play a role in someone else’s level of success.

As a podcaster, I had a lot of advantages that another person couldn’t replicate. I was the beneficiary of several hidden variables.

  1. A brilliant mentor
  2. An editor at Penguin who stumbled one of my articles, and offered me a book deal
  3. 10-year head start on what became a massive cultural trend

If I gave you my map for success, it would look like this:

  1. Get fired from every job
  2. Graduated from an MBA program without a job
  3. Move back to your parents’ house and live there until you’re 38
  4. Start a podcast 10 years before it becomes the next big thing
  5. Get lucky enough to have an editor at Penguin find your article on Medium

It would be the height of stupidity to think you would get my results by following my path. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from 1000 interviews and reading over 1000 books, it’s this:

Never follow anyone’s advice to the letter. And never follow an outlier’s advice to the letter.

Outliers are bad role models when you don’t question Advice in the Context of Your Life or Business

I always tell people I’m helping with creative work to consider the possibility that everything I’ve told them is bullshit.

When David Heinemeier Hansson was on the Unmistakable Creative, he said this about best practices:

As a single guy, I have a different lifestyle, schedule, and responsibilities than a mother with an infant and three-year-old. My best time management strategies won’t work as well for her as they do for me. I don’t have to change diapers or calm down a screaming toddler.

If you don’t question advice in the context of your life, that advice will do more harm than good.

The Danger of Advice of That “Everybody Should” Follow

Online marketers are notorious for giving ridiculous advice that begins with the phrase “everybody should.” Anytime you come across the phrase “everybody should,” you should be skeptical.

Benjamin Hardy, PhD, who is a friend and former Unmistakable Creative guest, wrote an article titled “8 Things Everyone Should Do Before 8 am.” Millions of people read it. His advice isn’t flawed. But the way people interpret it is.

If you’re a doctor who just worked a 13-hour night shift, there’s nothing on his list you should do. The only thing you should do is get some damn sleep.

If you dissect the stories of people giving this advice, it’s easy to see you won’t replicate their results. So why do we treat this advice as gospel?

There is no formula that guarantees success. When people think there is, they overlook a blatantly obvious variable that throws off the formula: themselves.

Causation and Correlation

outliers are bad role models
outliers are bad role models

When people see that Elon Musk works 120 hours a week, they assume they’ll be just as successful by doing the same. They mix up causation with correlation. But instead of building Tesla, they’re more likely to crash a Tesla.

“To achieve something on the extraordinary scale of building companies like Amazon, Tesla, and Google, a leader needs to be obsessive. But that kind of obsession comes at a significant cost. Often, the mission of these kinds of leaders is to prioritize their project over EVERYTHING else in their lives,” says Robert Bruce Shaw in his book, All In.

Even if you’re willing to cultivate this level of obsession, it’s dangerous to believe that you’ll end up at the same level.

Knowledge is Not Enough

People assume if they read enough books, hire enough coaches, and go to enough seminars, they will accomplish something extraordinary. If the outcomes in my life were a reflection of the books on my shelf, I would:

  • Be a billionaire with six-pack abs
  • Have a harem of supermodels a phone call away
  • Wake up happier than a Zen Buddhist on ecstasy

As amazing as that might be, I’m none of those things and probably never will be. What you do with the knowledge you acquire matters more than the knowledge itself.

You Can’t Have, Be, or Do Anything You Want (But It’s a Good Thing)

When it comes to setting ambitious goals, most people start with what’s possible. They ignore what’s probable. Then, they try to develop the capability to bridge that gap. This leads to a popular personal development delusion that you can have, be or do anything you want.

This delusional causes people to overlook and ignore two major cognitive biases.

1. Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias causes us to look for evidence that confirms our beliefs. A few months ago, a friend of mine was in talks with a publisher to write his first traditionally published book.

Before reaching out to me, he spoke with an author who had sold millions of books. Thanks to the success of his book, that author was getting a lot more opportunities for speaking engagements than ever before. My friend assumed writing a book with a publisher would do the same for him.

But, the author who sold millions of books already had a massive audience. It was inevitable that his book would lead to more speaking engagements.

Instead of looking for evidence that confirms our delusion, we should look for evidence that doesn’t before we pursue a goal. Then we’ll be able to make a much more accurate prediction of our results.

2. Survivorship Bias

The media we consume (books, podcasts, TEDTalks) play a big role in reinforcing our survivorship bias. Outliers might get the press, but you never hear about the people who busted their asses for years and amounted to nothing.

When you let confirmation and survivorship bias determine your goals, you’re less likely to accomplish them and be much more dissatisfied with your life. But the reason it’s so common is that it sells.

The snippet below from one of our podcasts came from my old mentor Greg Hartle who provided one of the most compelling explanations of why outliers are bad role models for most of us.

An Alternative Using Outliers as Role Models

Outliers are bad role models for most of us. But, the alternative is likely to lead to much better outcomes and more satisfaction in our lives.

We should consider what we’re capable of, determine the probability of our success, and then decide what’s possible.

1. Capability

Capability comes from understanding the difference between what you’re made and what you’re able to do.

I’m able to make the occasional shot in a game of basketball. But talk to my coaches or teammates from seventh and eighth-grade teams. They would laugh if you said I was capable of this.

My only claim to fame from my short-lived junior high career is the game our team lost to 48 to 7. I threw up a prayer. My coach wondered what the hell I was thinking. And by some miracle, the shot went in. Two of those seven points were mine.

Talk to people who listen to my podcast and read my writing. Most of them would agree I’m a better interviewer than I am a writer. The evidence is in the numbers. More people listen to the podcast than read my writing.

There’s a lot of bad advice that sounds good in self-help books, podcasts, TEDTalks, and motivational seminars. This advice is misguided at best and total bullshit at worst.

It causes people to neglect their capabilities, and overlook the difference between what they’re able to do and what they are made to do. If you don’t have the talent, skill, or intelligence to execute this advice it’s not going to make you successful.

2. Probability

What’s the probability that you’ll become the next Joe Rogan? One in a million. I’m an Indian person who sucks at math and even I know those are piss poor odds.

What’s the probability that you’ll become the next Oprah? It’s not high. I can’t tell you how many podcasters have told me that they want to be the next Oprah.

The context in which Oprah started her career was different. We didn’t have a million media outlets or a million podcasts on iTunes. In today’s media landscape, it’s impossible for anyone to become the next Oprah.

Overlook the context and you overlook the probability.

When you ignore the probability of success and focus only on the possibility, you set yourself up for failure. Taking the probability of our success into account leads to rational optimism, a more realistic approach to living the life we want, and accomplishing our goals.

3. Possibility

The paradox of considering what’s possible last is that it makes more possible. By knowing what we’re capable of, and understanding the probability of our success, we set goals we’re more likely to accomplish.

Outliers are bad role models for the rest of us. But, it’s inevitable that you’re going to read their books, listen to them on podcasts, and watch their TEDTalks.

I’m not saying you should stop reading these books or listening to podcasts. I’ve made a career out of being a life advice merchant, promoting these types of books and the outliers who wrote them.

But you should consider the context, determine the probability that their advice will work for you, and then decide what’s actually possible. Otherwise, you’re going to spend your life chasing pipe dreams that never come true.

You’ll never realize that outliers are bad role models for the rest of us.

Want to Learn from Realistic Models Possibility?

The Realistic Models of Possibility collection will help you gain a deeper understanding of how biases and cognitive distortions limit our thinking. Together, these realistic models of possibility explore the essential business skills that underlie any successful venture. Carefully selected interviews with searchable transcripts and book recommendations will help you better understand the information in each book, while also giving you practical steps to help achieve your goals. Click here to get access.

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