Who doesn’t love a “how to succeed” list? They’re fun to read and easy to share, which perhaps explains why there are so many of them. And the advice they give often sounds reasonable: The World Economic Forum published a post, in cooperation with Business Insider, listing 14 things successful people do before breakfast. It includes items such as drinking water and making your bed. A list that Forbes published claims every successful person shares this quality: “They know when to stay and when to leave.” This list, from Entrepreneur, advises readers to stop seeing problems, and start seeing opportunities; this one, from Inc., encourages readers to give up needing approval and fixating on their weaknesses.
But as palatable as these lists are, they can do damage. There are several reasons why they may be not only useless but also potentially harmful to decision makers, managers, and entrepreneurs.
Evidence is anecdotal. Most of the advice these lists contain is based on subjective interpretations of personal accounts, not on systematic, scientific analyses. Unless advice has been evaluated through evidence-based methods, you can’t judge its validity. In addition, half-baked analyses of anecdotal evidence often blur the lines between cause and consequence. Is someone successful because they avoided meetings, or are they able to avoid meetings because they are successful? A host of behaviors that successful people supposedly share — not caring what others think of them, avoiding meetings, putting first things first, saying no to almost everything — may be luxuries that only the extremely successful can enjoy, and only after they became successful in the eyes of others. Thus some behaviors are what success has brought them, and not the other way around.
Research doesn’t always transfer to different contexts. Some lists do draw heavily from research, like this 2011 one, published by HBR. But academic research is often very context-specific. Take the case of grit as a precursor of success. While psychologist Angela Duckworth’s research and TED talk on the subject are compelling, a recent meta-analysis on the effectiveness of the trait casts doubt on its extensive benefits. As often happens with complex problems, the solutions and their applications are more nuanced than the forms they’re presented in and depend heavily on the context and circumstances in which people find themselves.