Stop with the Success Porn

There is no listicle that will make you successful, rich, and happy

I have written a lot of listicles in my career. I love them. They are fun to write and fun to read. They perform great in magazines and search engines.

I have written listicles about everything from employee engagement to HVAC design to Marie Curie. But, there is one kind of listicle I won’t write: ”___ Ways to be Successful.”

These lists are just success porn.

We all want to be successful. We all want to find a shortcut to success. But, the success porn that you find all over business sites will not help you fulfill your dreams.

There is no listicle that will make you successful, rich, and happy.

There is No One Path to Success

One of the issues with success porn is that it leaves you with the impression that there is only one way to be successful. This is a lie. It assumes there is a uniform definition of success. But, each of us has a different idea of what success looks like. Often, it changes as we age.

I used to think success was making at least a million dollars a year. But, as a father of four, success much more complex. For me, success means being able to provide a comfortable living for my family. I’m not even sure what comfortable means yet.

Success also means being able to attend practices, volunteer for field trips, help with homework, and to be there when life gets ugly for my kids. It means having enough money that I can donate extra school supplies, give to charities, and help people who are struggling.

Success to me means raising kind, loving, and curious children who will grow up to be kind, loving and curious adults.

Your definition of success may be different. There are lots of ways you can be successful. I have chosen to be a freelancer because control over my time is central to my concept of a successful life.

Even if your idea of success is to be a millionaire, there are millions of ways you can get there.

Don’t buy the idea that you have to follow a checklist to be successful. Is that how the most successful people you know did it?

Biographies are Not Instruction Manuals

Biographies are another format of success porn. Don’t get me wrong. I love biographies. I started reading biographies in third grade. Each week I checked out a different biography from my school library.

I still enjoy reading the stories of interesting people.

But, today many articles and books present biographies as if they were sacred texts or success instruction manuals. The idea is that if you could just recreate the routines of Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs, or some other business giant, you could finally obtain the success you desperately want.

But, success isn’t like a high school chemistry experiment. You can’t just put together the right ingredients, add some heat, and wait for everything to come together. Each one of us is too different.

You have to find your own path to success. You can learn from biographies, but the lessons will never be universally applicable. The more biographies you read, the clearer it is that there are many ways to be successful.

The Science of Success is Evolving

The worst part about success porn is that it is often couched in pseudo-scientific language. Often, the lists are “based” on the latest psychology or neuroscience study.

But, many of the studies that writers use to back up their claims have been discredited or cast under serious clouds of doubt.

The social sciences are in upheaval over the replicability crisis. Researchers are unable to replicate many formerly-foundational studies. This crisis has led to the discovery of many flaws in research methodology and analysis.

One example of this phenomenon is what I like to call the Zuckerberg shirt obsession.

You have no doubt encountered many articles that explain one of the secrets behind Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s success is his habit of wearing the same style shirt every day. Zuckerberg’s wardrobe choices are based on the concept of decision fatigue. The scientific literature uses the term ego depletion instead of decision fatigue.

Decision fatigue means we only have a limited amount of willpower to make decisions with each day. Zuckerberg doesn’t want to waste his willpower on his wardrobe choices. So, he saves his precious decision-making juice for how to squeeze more ad revenues out of our data.

The problem is, decision fatigue may not be real. Many of the studies that this concept is based on are not replicable. It has been clear since at least 2016 that ego depletion may only exist subjectively. If you believe in ego depletion, you will suffer from the effects of ego depletion. If you do not believe in ego depletion, you do not suffer the consquences of it.

In other words, having a closet of plain black t-shirts will not magically give you the willpower to create a billion-dollar company.

The science of success is evolving. We are continually learning new things about the ways our brains work and how we react to different situations. However, one of the complications is that so much of our psychological makeup is based on our own life experiences. Many studies only have narrow applications because of the broad spectrum of human behavior and experience.

Success porn isn’t really about success at all. It’s about finding a shortcut to success. We all want to life-hack our way to our own personal El Dorado.

The sooner we all stop indulging in the fantasy of success and instead start examining our values, the happier and more successful we will all feel.