The fallacy of success

Recently, Israel has been inundated by new “colleges of success” that attempt to teach one how to get rich. Such colleges collect fees in return for courses and books with titles like “Coaching Your Business to Success” or “Quick Profit Making Training in Real Estate.” These courses, books, and colleges are self-refuting, since anybody who can make a million dollars in real estate or the stock market won’t both teaching financial novices. They are dangerous, because their advice is typically irresponsible: in a particularly egregious example, a major Israeli newspaper recently published an article by the CEO of one such “training for success” corporation advising young couples to take loans so as to invest in real estate abroad, a notoriously risky enterprise. All they need to do is “buy real estate that gives good returns”, and – presto! – they will be successful! On how to actually pick and choose the real estate in question, the author says nothing.

But above all, they are tautological: as G. K. Chesterton noted in “The Fallacy of Success” (1909), one may want a book that teaches how to jump the high jump, but one couldn’t possibly want a book about “success” which tells you that the secret of success in the high jump is to jump higher than anyone else. The CEO mentioned above tells us in another article the key to “achieving financial independence” is “making more than one spends” by “reducing one’s expenditures and increasing one’s income.” But since “financial independence” is making more than one spends, and that the only way to make more than one spends if one currently isn’t is to reduce expenditures or increase income, the advice amounts to, “to make more than you spend, make more than you spend.” Once more, the author neglects to mention (apart from some trite clichés) just how one is supposed to make more or spend less.

Is this all due to mere ignorance on the clients’ part, and desire for a quick buck on the authors’? I would say the answer is somewhat different: both commit a basic metaphysical fallacy about the nature of success. They are unclear about the meaning of the concepts they use, in particular “success.” What’s more, this fallacy of success applies more broadly than to the easy target of, “success” books.

As Chesterton notes, underlying these books is the belief in the metaphysical realism “success”, divorced from any particular field in which one labors, or the goals one is supposed to achieve. They believe the fallacy that “success” exists as a Platonic ideal, and that their job is to show the unenlightened the way to grasp this ideal in their mind’s eye, or, as these teachers of success call it, to “develop habits of success”, “create a winning mindset”, “have go-getter attitude”, and the like.

Like Plato’s wise man who understands “the Good”, they, who “understand success” (as they often boast), must teach the less enlightened by the only method available, namely, by showing them various examples of “success” manifested in this lower world, with the hope that this will result in enlightenment: to explain to the students that “success” in real estate means finding good properties, “success” in budgeting means making more than one spends, and so on, with the hope some general insight about “success” will emerge. Pointing their eyes skyward, they have no particular interest in the details of how one creates a successful budget for household expenses, or buys good real estate. This, they assume, will all be taken care of automatically once the student develops “a successful mindset”, that is, his mind grasps the Platonic ideal of success in a flash of enlightenment.

The flaw in all this is that, in reality, there is no such thing as “success.” There is no Platonic ideal. “Success” is just a convenient word to describe vastly different actions which result in vastly different results in various fields. A successful actor played a character convincingly; a successful doctor cured many patients; a successful real-estate dealer made money in real estate. “Successful real-estate dealer” is simply another way of saying “someone whose properties make money.” These success book’s “secret of success” is therefore inevitably tautological: “to become a successful real estate dealer, learn to find properties with a high return on the investment”, for instance, simply means “to find properties with a high return rate on the investment, find properties with a high return rate on the investment.”

The fallacy of success manifests itself elsewhere, in more serious ways than these “success” books and colleges. Today, numerous young people consider their life goal to be “successful”, i.e., to gain money, power, and social status. But they pay very little if any interest into what they want to be successful in, whether it be in (say) medicine, or law, or engineering.

It is far from my intention to criticize ambition as such. But the “by any means necessary” attitude often leads to a sort of generational cultural hysteria. Whenever it is discovered that some field lacks workers and thus the salaries in it rise (currently it is engineering; previously it was law, pharmacy, and other fields) there is a mass exodus of talented young people to that particular field, without them considering whether it fits their talents or desires. They have no particular desire to be a successful engineer, that is, someone who is good in designing complex systems in his field. They simply wish to be successful, and currently “being an engineer” seems to them the correct way.

This, for one thing, tends to lead to a glut, and thus to lower salaries and prospects, in the very field those who wish to be successful “in general” chose. Second, naturally, in most fields those who are the most successful are those who are interested in the field itself, and naturally so, as (to repeat) there is no such thing as being “successful” as such, only being a successful doctor, or lawyer, or engineer, etc. Finally, they become easy prey to pseudo-colleges which offer them a “fast track to success” by giving them the coveted title (“engineer” or “lawyer” for instance) as if the title, and not the actual knowledge and ability, is what makes one “a success.” If, by some miracle, tomorrow philosophy were to become lucrative, numerous new colleges would start offering a fast-track-to-success Ph.D.s in epistemology or metaphysics; but does anybody think more good philosophy would be done?

About the Author
Dr Avital Pilpel is a lecturer of Philosophy at the University of Haifa and the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (IDC). As a hobby, he researches the history of Chess in Israel and the Yishuv