The Staggering Bullshit of Self-Referential Journalism

I recently came across an article entitled “Why ‘C’ Students Usually End up Being the Most Successful in Life”. The author of the article argues that the most successful people in the world are those who got mediocre grades throughout their life and “didn’t allow their academic experiences to deter them from rising to the top.” I’m normally one to ignore Elite Daily articles, but this article struck a chord with me, because it is a perfect example of the type of self-referential bullshit peddled by most journalism targeted at Millennials today.

What do I mean by self-referential? I mean the types of articles that try to get every reader to pigeon hole themselves with the titular archetype described in the article. For example, in the aforementioned article, a reader who is currently pulling a C average may think that they too will be successful because they are going through similar hardships to the success stories described in the article. This is a dangerous connection to promote, though, because it completely ignores the myriad of factors responsible for success to the magnitude of becoming President or becoming a billionaire. The problem with self-referential articles of this style is that they provide poorly described correlation, but no established causation. If these articles don’t provide much empirical evidence for the points that they are making, why are they so popular? I’ll seek to answer that question later on, but first, let’s critique the article to see what’s so wrong about this particular piece.

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Let’s begin with the examples the author uses to illustrate his point. Former US Presidents George W. Bush, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, George H.W. Bush, and Vice President Joe Biden are all listed. Additionally, the late Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Elizabeth Holmes, and Sir Richard Branson are listed as entrepreneurial evidence that poor students make successful people. What about the qualities the author describes? According to the article, “Success requires passion, perseverance, emotional intelligence, and the ability to understand the value of failure.” All admirable attributes, but are these qualities only bred in individuals who achieve a sub-par academic standing?

George W. Bush

George W. Bush

Of all of the Presidents listed, George W. Bush is the most well-known for his academic struggles. What the author seems to ignore is the impact of nepotism. Bush, along with every other President he lists, came from a wealthy, well-connected family, including the former, whose father also happened to be President. It’s not like he had a tough upbringing. Kennedy came from a wealthy Massachusetts family that was heavily involved in politics. Johnson came from a similar background, except that his father lost the family’s wealth for a brief period, but not before he was well known in the Texas political scene. While Vice President Biden was hardly a model student, he still made it to law school, graduated, and was admitted to the Delaware Bar in 1969.

Let’s move to the entrepreneurs. Steve Jobs was brilliant, and only dropped out of school because the financial strain was too great on his parents. Bill Gates came from an upper class family, was programming when he was 12, scored a 1590 (out of 1600) on his SAT, was a National Merit Scholar, and only dropped out of Harvard because he was going to start Microsoft. Hardly a C student. Zuckerberg, the son of a dentist & psychiatrist parents, dropped out for similar reasons, and was also a brilliant and gifted student in high school like Gates was. Holmes was a star student at Stanford and received a scholarship from the university to pursue an independent research project, which eventually evolved into Theranos, the company that made her the youngest female billionaire in history. Branson already had his business well in motion when he finished preparatory school, not to mention his father was a lawyer and his grandfather a judge.

So despite the fact that the author is conflating dropping out of an Ivy league school because you have better prospects with being a ‘C’ student, let’s evaluate a larger sample size to further disprove his argument; say, the top 20 richest people in the world (from Forbes).

1. Bill Gates – see above

2. Carlos Slim – Civil Engineering degree

3. Warren Buffett – M.Sc. in Economics from Columbia

4. Amancio Ortega – No educational info

5. Larry Ellison – Drop out, no information on academic performance

6. Charles Koch – M.S. in mechanical and chemical engineering from MIT

7. David Koch – M.S. in chemical engineering from MIT

8. Christy Walton – Inheritance

9. Jim Walton – Inheritance

10. Liliane Bettencourt – Inheritance

11. Alice Walton – Inheritance

12. S. Robson Walton – Inheritance

13. Bernard Arnault – Engineering from Ecole Polytechnique

14. Michael Bloomberg – MBA Harvard Business School

15. Jeff Bezos – B.Sc Electrical Engineering/Computer Science, Princeton

16. Mark Zuckerberg – see above paragraph

17. Li Ka-Shing – forced to leave school at age 15 due to father’s death

18. Sheldon Adelson – dropped out of college, discharged from the army, began a career in sales

19. Larry Page – M.S. Computer Science, dropout of Stanford’s Computer Science Ph.D. program

20. Sergey Brin – B.Sc Mathematics, dropped out of Stanford’s Computer Science Ph.D. program

As you can see, the common trends seen among the above are that the extremely wealthy in the world were hardly average students, and only dropped out of university to pursue better options, which ended up being the businesses that made them the billionaires they are today. While there are some outliers, such as billionaires who inherited their fortunes or worked their way up through a sales career, the prevailing theme is that most of the world’s most successful people got to where they are because of intelligence or nepotism, and because they studied engineering, computers, business, or even a combination of the three.

While intelligence may be hard to measure with one specific method, the fact remains that almost all of these billionaires also attended prestigious schools. Even if their admittance was not indicative of their intelligence (George W. Bush did attend Yale after all) the fact that these individuals were surrounded by intelligent peers and offspring of the elite surely contributed to their success. Page and Brin formed Google after they met as Ph.D. students at Stanford. Zuckerberg didn’t create Facebook by himself. Holmes was able to create Theranos in part thanks to the mentorship provided by her brilliant mentors at Stanford. The author clearly does not understand how successful people are created, and it is quite unfortunate that they are voicing such a poorly misinformed opinion on a popular website read by millions each month.

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Fame and fortune to the magnitude of being a billionaire is incredibly hard to come by, and while it would be a terrible thing to give up on your dreams if you buy into the odds, it is equally as foolish to buy into the self-referential garbage being promoted by articles like the one discussed above. In North America, the youth of the past few decades have been raised to think that they are all special. For me to state the opposite would be met with a great deal of criticism because our culture celebrates individuality and shuns normalcy and the average. However, the notion that everyone is exceptionally special is in fact a dangerous myth; anyone who understands statistics will tell you that.

world-population-day

With over 7 billion people on the planet, perhaps we should begin to accept that we might be more similar than we think? By rejecting the notion that we are all special, great things are destined for us, and bad things should never happen to us because, as special people, we don’t deserve such misfortune, perhaps we can begin to cope with the reality that not everyone is destined to become rich and famous. We should learn to accept the fact that it is perfectly acceptable to lead an average life, so long as one is happy with their existence and the hobbies and interests they pursue.

An article that paradoxically promotes poor academic performance and success is a symptom of our narcissistic and entitled culture. We are curiously led to believe that we will be successful, whether that be through fame, fortune, or both, simply due to the fact that we have gone through a few hardships in life due to a below average GPA. What may be difficult to acknowledge is the fact that hard work is often not enough; extraordinary financial gain takes more than that, otherwise every single mother who works three jobs would be a millionaire. Financial success is a consequence of hard work, yes, but also upbringing, personal education, parents’ education, peer group, mentors, nepotism, and more.

If this article sounds pessimistic, then the existence of that feeling in your head has proven my point about the entitled state of society today. However, this doesn’t mean that we should approach life with a negative outlook, only a more realistic one. For starters, you should work hard to get the best grades you can. Along the way, if you happen to come up with an idea that you think has the potential to grant you a life that good grades alone cannot, then at least you have the stability of a solid academic standing to fall back on should your idea fail. Aside from extreme cases of success, the best way to a stable, well-paying job is through high academic achievement. Medicine, law, academia, banking, consulting, and other high-paying careers typically treated as “successful” all take your grades into account along with other key character traits. To dismiss grades as meaningless is foolish, but to stake all of one’s worth in them is equally so. Social skills and your personal network are also vital to landing a fulfilling career, so don’t ignore the value of making friends along the way.

narcissism-scores

Narcissism and sense of entitlement are on the rise today.

Even if you don’t end up becoming a billionaire, millionaire, or achieving the job you dreamed of getting during your time at school, what you should try to remember is that while income is important to a degree, happiness and fulfillment are achieved through many other avenues beyond financial compensation. When you get to a certain pay grade, everything you buy simply upgrades, but your overall happiness does not. Yes, you can afford a nicer car, a larger house, and more expensive clothing, but in all likelihood, so can your peers, and then you are right back to where you started.

Your high salary will draw you to a larger house, which are traditionally surrounded by other large houses owned by inhabitants with incomes similar to yours. Their cars are also of the same level of quality as yours, as are their other possessions. By attaining a career with a higher salary, you merely further the process of competitive consumption, but in no way do you ever experience some sort of ultimate victory; merely a brief one. That is why it is important to remember that happiness is achieved through other avenues: art, travel, philosophy, religion, politics, and volunteering are but some of the many. Income is subject to diminishing marginal utility: the less you have of something, the more you will sacrifice to get it. Focus on first gaining a life of stability, upon which you can pursue happiness through a variety of interests not influenced by income or status.

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Why is self-referential journalism both so popular and so damaging today? As mentioned earlier, we are an increasingly narcissistic population and we love finding positive support for our idealized version of ourselves, even if it’s incredibly far from the truth. For example, one common misconception many people hold is of their relative intelligence. This is explained by a psychological phenomenon called the Dunning-Kruger effect.

dunning-kruger-effect

In a series of experiments, Dunning & Kruger discovered that those who scored low on the tests they administered (known as incompetents) grossly overestimated their own abilities and were unable to accurately position the extremity of their own inadequacy. Basically, people that aren’t that smart don’t know that they are, and this can prove harmful during interactions in general society, the workplace, or other team-based initiatives. So when an article comes out that says that people who drink more, stay up later, and do drugs are also more intelligent, this leads a large group of people to misattribute their social habits to a perceived a higher intelligence than their peers.

 Self-referential journalism also exploits the confirmation bias of its readers. The confirmation bias is “a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions, leading to statistical errors.” When applied to self-referential journalism, it becomes quite clear that these types of articles seek to exploit this cognitive bias and cause readers to create a false picture of themselves in the process.

For example, if an article comes out that says that funny guys are better in bed, sarcastic people are smarter, sexier, and more successful, or that people who have sex every day are healthier, happier, and more creative, confirmation bias will lead people to seek out articles like the ones above that describe things about themselves they think are true. Someone could read all of those and leave thinking that they’re now better in bed, smarter, sexier, more creative, and are destined to be successful, all because they think they’re funny, sarcastic, and perhaps have sex every day (even if that isn’t necessarily true). This can lead to some very inflated egos, and since we are constantly being exposed to journalism framed in a self-referential context, the problem will only get worse.

What can we do? Humility is perhaps the most lacking virtue of our generation. The narcissistic are rewarded in an era of self-promotion and a content-laden news feed. Those who stick to the background are often left behind those who command more attention. It is still possible to command attention without being a narcissist, and that is through earning attention instead of forcing it on people. A good example of this? Compare Bill Gates to Donald Trump. Gates stays out of the spotlight, contributes to the betterment of humanity, has remained faithful to the woman he married, and refuses to spoil his children despite his immense personal wealth. Donald Trump puts his name on everything, had a reality TV show, and has had failed marriage after failed marriage because he opted for the trophy wife instead of the trophy marriage. Look at which one of the two is richest -in both senses of the word – and there’s your answer.

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