The gang here has recently developed a fondness for Reba, the Lifetime sitcom starring—this 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!"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:
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!"
1. Just because we see/hear something doesn't mean that's all there is.(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.)
2. Just because we don't see/hear something doesn't necessarily mean it isn't there.**
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 this—to 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 possible—and yes, I really mean this, too—that 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 Amazon—I 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?