lies, damn lies, and big idea books

I’ll start this by saying that coming up with stuff is hard. By “stuff,” I mean: ideas, assertions, advice, findings, etc. The juicy bits that get called out in bullet-points at the end of a chapter or summarized in those business book summaries for “busy and successful executives.”

(Actual busy and successful executives are the ones who read the most actual books, business or otherwise, in my experience. Lazy online MBA students looking to crush it with their first startup, on the other hand…)

Coming up with stuff is only hard for genuine-article experts. Any dude with a rented lambo and a GoPro can start a YouTube channel for “winners who want to dominate and/or win” and start firing off world-class life-coachery. It’s easy. You just read lots of best-selling business books (or summaries) and start parroting the juicy bits with the occasional “dude, you just gotta…”

To the YouTube dude—and it’s not just YouTube, and it’s not just dudes—there’s a real or feigned naïveté. “I’m just trying to help people here, so it doesn’t matter who came up with this first.”

A while back, an author friend discovered that a would-be “thought leader” had copy-pasted my friend’s entire (well-known, best-selling) book onto his own website. When confronted, the guy said, “Yeah, that’s because I’m your biggest fan and I’m trying to help people. I didn’t think you’d mind.”

Well, first he deleted the whole site and denied ever having done it, but my friend had already archived all of it and documented it with lawyers. So then he said the other stuff.

Experts, people who’ve invested a lot of effort in learning stuff and building a wheelhouse for themselves, they know what’s been said in their area because they’ve read most of it and they know how much work went into figuring out what’s already been figured out. They know they have to bring something new to the table. Sure, some ideas are universal and can be expressed in many ways, but you also have to come up with your own stuff.

Often, this comes down to science, some form of experimental research. If you’re familiar at all with the replication crisis facing behavioral psychology (and lots of other areas), you can see how much nonsense even well-intentioned scientists can get up to in their hurry to publish. If we were really doing science, research journals would be 99 percent negative findings. “This doesn’t work, this doesn’t work, this doesn’t work…” Right? But nobody cares about an experiment proving that chocolate doesn’t cure cancer.

Let’s take a single example. I could offer so many. But let’s start with just one: Ever heard the finding that judges are tougher in their sentencing before lunch than after because they’re hungry and no longer able to deliberate carefully and fairly?

Read this excellent article debunking the finding.

Sure, it might just be the researchers’ lack of understanding of how statistics work. But let’s be honest here. These people go to science school. The truth is, they need to publish and it’s hard to come up with stuff.

Science nowadays is difficult and slow and boring and it only gets worse as we figure more and more stuff out. Back in the caveman days, you had all kinds of things you could discover with a little effort. Fire, the wheel, buttons—heck, you could get credit for inventing jumping jacks, or that thing where you press your fingers to your palm and say “pfft.” And they say, what’s that, Og? And you’re like, I’m pretending I have web shooters. And they say, what are web shooters? And you’re like, what Spider-Man uses. And they’re like, who’s Spider-Man? And you’re like, you’ll see.

Even during the Renaissance, you could get away with being a chemist, a mathematician, and a pretty good painter in the same lifetime. “One day,” people would say, “you’ll be considered a true Now Man.”

In today’s world, genuine invention is rare—wonderful, but rare. And yet, we have books to book, talks to talk. Tick tock TED.

Boy do I savor myself some schadenfreude when a best-selling, TED-talking expert (whose book I lost at auction) gets called out on some bullshit. But the truth is, I’m a hypocrite. I have not a leg to stand on. I’ve already falsified data and I haven’t even talked a single TED.

It was the summer of 1995. TLC’s “Waterfalls” and Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose” were on the radio. If you were lucky, you went to see Apollo 13 and The Usual Suspects. If you were unlucky, you also went to see Congo and Judge Dredd.

As a high school junior, I thought I’d major in chemistry. So, that summer, I attended a pre-college science program at Syracuse University. For several weeks, we worked with DNA, lasers, bacteria, and circuit boards. A guy came in and delivered a whole PowerPoint about how animal research wasn’t such a big deal—if it wasn’t done on a pet. Because ethics. Something. Who was that guy?

When we weren’t busy “slinging beakers to the max,” as the cool kids in 1995 would say, we were “kicking it new school” (more cool kid lingo) in the Syracuse computer labs while surfing on the “World Wide Web,” which was basically Compuserve with photos.

Near the end of our session, we were divided into groups and told to design and run a simple experiment on campus. On our own.

The other members of my team were pretty checked out by this point, so I took the reins. I had the idea to test whether the amount of food on a person’s cafeteria tray corresponded to their height. (This may have been a subconscious attempt to justify my eating habits at 6′ 3″.)

We quickly ran into problems. For one, we had no standard metric for measuring the amount of food on a tray, especially at the speed folks were heading to their tables. For another, we were absolutely useless at eyeballing heights. No time to re-design the experiment. We just stood there at the end of the cafeteria line for half an hour gathering “data.”

Back at a computer, I showed my compatriots how to create an Excel spreadsheet with the “data” we had “collected.”

Naturally, our numbers amounted to nothing but a bumpy line that went straight into inevitable academic failure and a career in pharmaceutical sales.

I knew that getting my research team to continue helping me with this half-baked project would be a reach—this camp, after all, was something they’d chosen to do in lieu of sitting in front of a PlayStation all summer. Motivation levels were low; I had to act fast.

“Let’s just fix the numbers,” I said. “Make it look better.” Even as I proposed it, I wasn’t sure how the idea would go over. I’d never cheated before, not once, but I knew cheating was rampant at my high school. I was curious how this particular group of disinterested collaborators (and, in theory, future scientists) would react to the idea of outright fabrication.

They expressed precisely zero misgivings.

Ten minutes of Excel later, we’d found a strong, though not suspiciously so, correlation between height and lunch food volume. Later that day, we won a $50 gift certificate for our remarkably intuitive finding. (In the end, most didn’t even want to schlep to the campus store to spend it. I got an orange T-shirt. It’s a Syracuse thing.)

I didn’t go into chemistry, and from that day I just assumed that “real” scientists figure out how to do science properly. They didn’t just run out of time and decide to fudge things. They planned things out carefully and did their work with consistent professionalism, pride, and integrity.

Then I turned into a grown-up and realized that we’re all up against the clock, and coming up with stuff is hard, and yeah, we all feel pressured to find that finding and move on to the next thing.

I don’t know what to tell you. Don’t. Don’t do it. Come up with stuff. I mean, look around. 2017 is no 1995. We desperately need some stuff.

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