In my podcast with my good friend David Ruddock (Mr. Podcast), we discussed the book “Who Moved My Cheese?”, a (very) simple book about how being aware of what’s happening and adapting quickly is good and will help you in life. Unlike most self-help books, it does not attempt to be particularly smart or clever, but does fall into the trap of calling itself “amazing” for its fairly blunt-force analysis of the world. That being said, it was remarkable to read it and think about the convoluted, exhausting analyses that many people make of the world to attempt to understand things that are oftentimes far simpler than they want them to be.
Naturally, this book led to an insufferable surge of new management theory, where the C-suite used the book to try and condition workers to deal with downsizing, and Perpetually Mad Chudlord Scott Adams referred to it as “a patronizing message for the proletariat to acquiesce,” I assume forgetting that he wrote several million cartoons about Dilbert where the entire point was that this guy hated his job and everyone he worked with but basically sat there and accepted it and changed nothing. The reality of this text is that it likely grew in popularity off the back of saying something fairly obvious in a way that was more palatable, which is otherwise known as “explaining stuff,” but also hit upon a genuine thing that I’ve noticed about my own business and others.
Most people want to believe that there is a great cosmic meaning or “fairness” to the world at large, which is where a lot of hustle culture gets its energy. The world is more complex than it seems, they say, and if you just learn the right levers to pull and work hard enough, you’ll eventually have money come out of it, just like it has for others*. That asterisk usually refers to the fact that there’re many obvious, simple answers to the reason someone got rich - privileged upbringing, related to or friends to someone who already was a success, and so on - and even in those cases where these historical elements are acknowledged, they are often treated not as the root cause of the success but as periphery to some larger brain genius idea. And, in all truth, these people likely noticed something someone else didn’t and capitalized on it.
Most success that I’ve seen is a combination, as I’ve mentioned, of luck and happenstance, with the right idea in tow. My own success - building a PR firm - mostly came from me noticing fairly obvious things about how PR worked, and doing the things that people who were good at the job did and ignoring the things that didn’t seem to help. Almost every bad situation I’ve found myself in my career I absolutely saw coming, or was a result of me being too lazy or indignant about how I wanted the world to work to operate differently than it actually did.
I also want to be clear this isn’t me moralizing against people who are having trouble, but against those who seek to overcomplicate the world as a means to manipulate others. The self-help part of the business industry is the business equivalent of Pick Up Artistry - the world is simply a series of equations that, when solved correctly in the right way, will reward you with money and power and sex with people. These people - and a great many of the manipulators that exist to tell you that you’re just X away from Y - have made many millions promising contrivances to solve very simple problems, like finding your dream job and starting your own business.
Take Jake Paul’s online education scam, which promised to give you “the roadmap to becoming social media FAMOUS” (that is how he wrote it), and ended up being an endless slew of predictably vague videos. The predictable uselessness of these programs play on the desperation for people to have an easier life, but also help people reinforce a depressingly common belief that people who become rich and/or famous get there by virtue of their hard work and following the right guidelines.
The simple reality is that Paul got on a platform early and his videos were shared enough that he got a following, and the larger his following got the easier it was for his content to keep growing his following. His content was good enough, and he had to put in effort to create it, but it was not a virtue of him being the best, or the hardest working, or doing anything specific - it was a result of, like many things, of chaotic luck and having the ability to spend the time to invest those hours.
The reason that this is such a hard pill to swallow is that it feels as if - and rightly so! - it would be virtually impossible to succeed at most of the things that most people have become rich and famous from. Hustle culture (and a large amount of stardom) is predicated on the belief that you too could be rich and famous, assuming you “do the right thing,” when the “right thing” usually requires you to be in the right place at the right time, which in most cases is not possible to manufacture unless you have some sort of privilege to work with. And even then, it’s a case of continually being at the place where the right thing happens and hoping you get lucky - like unpaid internships and warm introductions.
I think that there is a shared belief that the world is a lot fairer and more complex than it is because it’s easier to see it that way. We want to perceive the world and the people that live in it as a machine that can be tuned, improved on and fixed, that is predictable and malleable, because the alternative - that it is uncaring and chaotic - runs contrary to our educational system and the supposed “hard work gets you success” mentality we have drilled into us as kids. As a result we come up with reasons to justify decisions or things we accept - that our manager must know what they’re doing as they’ve got 15 years of experience, that the boss that tells us we’re “on the right track” to get a promotion is telling the truth - because that’s what we’ve been taught to accept.
In many ways the mediated appreciation of “success” makes us less prepared for the working world, because it gives us an idealized narrative around how work is done, money is earned and lives are lived. Those who currently chide millennials for not working hard enough likely are not aware of the current state of the world, and yet they are the ones that continually are given the pulpit to teach us. These people would much rather tell a story that makes them feel better - that their success was a complex rhythm of hard work and awareness that came only from their own graft, and was more contrived than “I kept working at this job and I got better at it.”
What I’m saying is not meant to be taken cynically, but pragmatically. The world of business advice and success rarely tells you to just look at what’s happening around you, and what actually works, and what could be done better. The adulation for the wealthy and successful is based on wanting what they have, but rarely accepts the common means through which they got it - luck, privilege, chaos and the ability and means to be persistent. Most people don’t have the time or energy to do a side hustle, and it’s an act of cruelty to guilt them into thinking that carving out a separate job on top of their other job is something they “have to” do.
Most of the lessons I’ve learned from in my working (and personal) life have come from watching other people mess up, and trying my best not to do the same. Dressing up the successful as templates for our lives is a recipe for failure, and continually perpetuates a culture of misery and guilt - that we are failing not because of the obvious forces against us, but because of a lack of guile and investment of time and energy.