Saturday, January 10, 2009

A little bit of redneck wisdom.

The gang here has recently developed a fondness for Reba, the Lifetime sitcom starringthis may shock you—Reba. As in, MacEntire. Though that's one of the Lifetime offerings I don't actually watch, Friday night I overheard a scene wherein Reba's constant sidekick, the ditzy Barbara Jean, who happens also to be married to Reba's ex-husband*, is trying to persuade Reba that the two of them should launch a low-budget vintage-clothing business; this would involve jazzing up their old clothes (e.g. by sewing on cute appliques, etc.) and selling them.

Barbara Jean, enthusiastically: "A lot of people make money selling things they make!"

Reba, soberly: "Right. And a lot of people lose money selling things they make."

Barbara Jean, still with great enthusiasm, and no sense of irony: "But you don't hear about those people!"
The exchange was intended to once again showcase Barbara Jean's lack of smarts. But it aptly conveys a fundamental truth about SHAM's opportunistic misuse of anecdotal evidence (testimonials and the like) as well as a grave error many of us make in interpreting the data that life gives us to work with. That error can be expressed in several ways. Here are two of them, related:
1. Just because we see/hear something doesn't mean that's all there is.
2. Just because we don't see/hear something doesn't necessarily mean it isn't there.**
(All of this, by the way, is directly related to my long article for Skeptic on the foibles and logical flaws of journalism/broadcast news.)

We see a Bill Gates and we think, "See? There's tons of money to be made in this country!" We hear that Gates didn't even finish college and, if we're a young person, we think, "Wow! Why am I wasting my time! Gates dropped out and it worked for him!" (And what's even worse is when self-styled gurus build entire inspirational programs around that absurd and possibly dangerous theme: You don't need a college degree! You just need to believe in yourself. Why, look at Bill Gates and Ted Turner and...!) You see where I'm going with this. Gates is "one of the ones you hear about." He's a highly anomalous mega-success story. For every Bill Gates there are surely tens of thousands if not millions of people who were once similarly situated (or at least positioned to launch entrepreneurial careers that seemed brilliant to them at the time), but failed miserably or at most ended up living the hum-drum, basically OK lives that the rest of us live. Barbara Jean tells it best: You don't hear about those people.

And here's another newsflash, while we're at it. The fact that Gates is successful at an almost other-worldly level doesn't even mean, necessarily, that he has the attributes required to achieve other-worldly success. There is very little reason
yes, I really mean thisto assume that anything Bill Gates purposely did, or purposely didn't do, laid the groundwork for the empire he was able to build and the associated wealth he was able to accrue. There may be no lessons for him to teach us. Sometimes circumstances just pick you. (In fact, as a determinist, I would argue that circumstances always pick you. But once again, we'll leave that issue aside.) And sometimes circumstances pick you in spite of yourself. It is entirely possibleand yes, I really mean this, toothat another person who happened along at the exact time and place as Bill Gates, but was better equipped for the job, would now be a trillionaire, not "just" a billionaire. Maybe Gates actually bungled the opportunity. We'll never know. You think I've lost my mind? Consider the career of Donald Trump. Clearly (and by his own admission), the man made serious miscalculations and outright blunders, yet he remains one of the most powerful "players" in America. Even though the success he now enjoys could well be a byproduct of (a) birthright and (b) accident, he writes oh-so-knowing books on "the art of the deal," and Trump wannabes buy them in droves.

Think about that next time you're standing in Borders, weighing whether or not you should buy some super-somebody's book about how "you can learn to do what I did!" They may not even know what they did, or how they did it.


POSTSCRIPT, Sunday, 9:30 a.m. In recent days I've been besieged with emails asking if I ever saw "Ari Brouillette's" hilarious December 2007 parody review of The Secret on Amazon. (Yes.) That motivated me to look up my own review page for SHAM, which I hadn't visited in many months. And I was struck anew by the fact that even though my book carries an overall rating of 3.5 stars, and was warmly received by (paid) (established) (credentialed) reviewers at the likes of The Wall Street Journal, Publishers Weekly, Booklist and elsewhere, Amazon persists in leading with a succession of so-called spotlight reviews that make SHAM sound like it would need considerable improvement just to be a total waste of time and money: one star, two stars, one star... And even though
when I tried to pursue this line of inquiry with AmazonI was told that spotlight reviews were "the luck of the draw" and that Amazon "rotates them frequently" based on whichever reviews seem "particularly hot,"*** that same dreadful pan by Susan Wise Bauer remains up there in the leadoff spot, where it's been since the month SHAM was published (June 2005). I ask again, as I first asked years ago, when people accused me of paranoia: Can this really just be happenstance?

* and that pretty much tells you all you need to know about the show.
** This eminently sensible line is commonly twisted to the aims of the charlatans as well, which is why the necessarily is there. Context is all-important in these matters.
*** and by the way, don't those two explanations sort of contradict each other?


Steven Sashen said...

Most people underplay the part of Gates' story where the IBM guys who were looking to buy an operating system, ACCIDENTALLY went to the WRONG OFFICE (Bill's)... but Bill was happy to immediately license and then sell the operating system developed by the guy in the correct office.

I wonder what story we'd be telling about Bill had he said, "Oh, sorry, you're looking for the guy next door."

Elizabeth said...

1. Just because we see/hear something doesn't mean that's all there is.
2. Just because we don't see/hear something doesn't necessarily mean it isn't there.

Right on the money (no pun whatsoever), Steve. Good points all around.

Jen said...

Steve, you wrote: "Sometimes circumstances just pick you. (In fact, as a determinist, I would argue that circumstances always pick you. But once again, we'll leave that issue aside.) And sometimes circumstances pick you in spite of yourself."

See, this is the reason I sometimes have to go away from SHAMblog for awhile, to physically restrain myself from what would undoubtly turn into chronic commenting. Seriously, it's thoughts like this that send me right off the edge of the cliff, diving into an abyss of unknown peril.

I have to ask, though. Why must you pigeonhole yourself so? A determinist. My my. (Actually, I might be one of those, too.)

This whole "circumstances pick you" business is intriguing. Would love to hear you talk some more about that.

What it brings to mind is a poem my daughter has come to love. She explained it to me last night, and now I have a new appreciation for it.

A.E. Housman, Terence, This is Stupid Stuff in his book, A Shropshire Lad.

Rational Thinking said...

"They may not even know what they did, or how they did it."

Now that really hits home. Good point. Although in Bill Gates' case, I'd say it's clear that when opportunity came knocking, he didn't show it the door.

Elizabeth said...

I sometimes have to go away from SHAMblog for awhile, to physically restrain myself from what would undoubtly turn into chronic commenting.

You are a wise woman, Jen, I've always known that about you. CSCS (Chronic SHAMblog Commenting Syndrome) is a terrible and incurable disorder (to be included in the DSM-V, I hear). Save yourself while you can. ;)

Anonymous said...

Steven Sashen - you got the Gates -IBM story wrong.
IBM went to Gates first, but he didn't have an operating system, so he told IBM to go see Gary Kildall, PhD who did. Kildall blew-off IBM, so IBM came back to Gates and he bought an operating system and sold it to IBM.

In this case "the circumstances picked Bill Gates in spite of himself".

Steve Salerno said...

I regret that I seldom have the time to chase down the "true facts" in all of the various threads (and subtexts) that come up along the way, but this is why I value a diversity of comment the way I do. So often I find the random threads that evolve in the comment section to be so much more interesting than the post I started with.

It's also fascinating, isn't it, how these stories and sub-stories take on a life of their own, sometimes getting twisted to the politics/purposes of the people who tell them. I'm not taking sides in this little debate about Gates. I'm just saying as a journalist that I too have seen this happen hundreds of times in my own reportorial career. Even leaving urban legend aside, it's uncanny how differently two people who were physically present at the same event will remember it.

RevRon's Rants said...

Our favorite (?) hustler, Joe Vitale, has continually attributed his "success" to whatever program, process, or other swill that he is marketing at the time. Funny thing is, his cheerleaders never seem to notice the fact, much less call him on it.

On the other hand, however, it's quite possible that he simply doesn't allow such comments to see the light of day on his blog, thus keeping the way clear for new sycophants. (I know for a fact he does this) Folks who wise up simply disappear in the shadows of their own anonymous disillusionment. "We never hear about those people."

I suspect most of the hustlers do the same thing.

Stever Robbins said...

Steve, if you ever are inclined to chase down the facts and want to talk to someone who was literally in the room at Digital Research when IBM came calling, a colleague of mine was the marketing manager at DRI and was there the day of the fateful (non) meeting.

I tried to convince her for years that she should publish a motivational novel based on that one incident, hit the lecture circuit, offer workshops, and make a fortune. ("I was there the day destiny chose Bill Gates to be the Richest Man in the World. Here are the ten lessons you should know in case IBM ever comes calling...")

Sadly, she has declined, depriving us all of another set of valuable lessons from Someone Who Just Happened to Be In The Room.

It turns out that the kind of consulting she does is "transfer of best practices," and she would be the first to point out that ad hoc explanations of people who just happened to be present for some monumentous event are virtually worthless if your goal is real learning.

Elizabeth said...

It just may be a bit of your paranoia, Steve (and I say it with utmost understanding affection). Bauer's "review" was nowhere to be seen in the leadoff spot for quite some time there. I know, because I visited a couple of times too in the past few months. Actually, my review occupied the top spot there for a while ("Eye-opening and entertaining"). :)

So I think they indeed "rotate" the reviews (or whatever it is they do with them), but, take a breath, I don't think there is a purposeful manipulation involved.

Having said that, that Bauer woman sucks (in my objective and unbiased opinion, of course :).

Steve Salerno said...

The Bauer review has been there every time I've checked, Eliz. And I was checking daily or almost daily for a year (as many OCD authors will). In any case, even if you're right, I think it's a bit bogus for Amazon to keep bringing the Bauer review to the fore, as they clearly do, if their mission is really to encourage "diversity of opinion," as was once explained to me.

The diversity they seem to sponsor is between people who gave my book two stars, and people who gave it just one.

Anonymous said...

I've just read the Amazon reviews on your book. I think Bauer hit the nail on the head.

Anonymous said...

You may be right, Steve. You have a majority of positive reviews, five- and four-stars, but the ones chosen as "most helpful" are the one- and two-starred ones. That does not make sense, does it.

Elizabeth said...

The poll is closed and in your comment, Steve, you say:

a margin that may well be statistically significant, at least for SHAMblog habitues, who tend to put a lot of emphasis on clear thinking and personal responsibility.

I'm not sure what you mean here. Are you saying that those "who tend to put a lot of emphasis on clear thinking and personal responsibility" voted (or tend to vote) on the side of "character flaws"?

Steve Salerno said...

Eliz: I'm just saying that I get the feeling that a fair number of the folks who read this blog aren't into "excuses," such as those the Victimization wing of the self-help movement began giving America back in the late 1960s. They seem to believe strongly in the power of rationality (i.e. to control one's emotions) as well as in the concept of free will. (As you know, I do not share that belief.)

I'm sure you're familiar with the phrase (and later a book title) "the disease-ing of America." It refers to the idea that once Victimization took hold, and alcoholism was redefined as a disease, there was no stopping the phenomenon: anything recurring negative behavior in which people indulged was a "disease."

Liesl said...

Interestingly, when you click the link on your book page to see all of the reviews and it shows you one with high ratings and one with low, the low one is a 1 star review, whereas the high one is only a 4 star review. Seems odd to me that they wouldn't truly polarize it.

Liesl said...

Something just occurred to me: If we're born to be what and who we are and outside forces shape that through experience, is there really such a thing as disease?

Steve Salerno said...

Liesl: I've been after Amazon for a long time on such points. It wasn't just me, either. There have been a couple of other books about the self-help movement, or on related themes, and they suffered similar treatment on Amazon. Understand, I'm not arguing that there's some Mephistophelian entity at Amazon itself, some angry Tony Robbins fan who hates books like mine and is determined (NPI) to do everything he can to sabotage them. I think it's more likely that the publishers and PR people with heavy self-help-related interests carry a lot of clout, can organize massive review-writing campaigns, and yes, can pull a string or two when such strings need pulling, in their view. In short, they can bring a lot of pressure to bear. For example, it was remarkable how, in the early days of Dr. Phil's book, Love Smart, you'd see glowing review after glowing review that used almost exactly the same verbiage--whereas the bad reviews would go up and then disappear in a matter of hours, sometimes.

As for destiny, determinism and disease, I kind of look at it this way: There is life as we see it--which is why I always say in the end, no one should feel daunted or depressed by the idea that everything is predetermined--and there is life itself. I think you're probably correct in saying that in life itself, there is no disease, no madness, no good or bad or right or wrong. There But to us, at the human level, we have certain norms and standards and aspirations--even if those are totally out of whack with what's really going on--and that's just how we're going to see it (and live it).

Steve Salerno said...

Incidentally, I invite anyone who thinks I'm imagining the situation on Amazon, or that it's pure coincidence, to take a gander at the review page for Phil McGraw's aforementioned Love Smart, which also bears an overall rating of 3.5 stars. There are quite a few pans of McGraw's book, too--if you're willing to root around for them among the secondary and tertiary pages of his Amazon listing. But all three of the page-one headline reviews are breathless, glowing, 5-star "odes to Phil" that portray the book as a modern masterpiece.

This is not just "one of those things," folks. I've been tracking this for a long time, and you can trust me on that.