It seems every day I open my favourite news reader or Hacker News to see another Top X on something. It may be the Top 5 ways to earn your first million, or Top 7 secrets to being a successful startup, or Top 12 1/2 ways to win at life. Whatever it may be, they all suck. All of them. If ANY of the things these articles profess to help you achieve were as easy as having a 5 point plan, the people who write them would be on a boat in the Caribbean, not stuck in an office writing blog posts. I think it's great that everyone wants to share their experiences and their passion, but I worry that these "quick start" guides to "succeeding at anything" are misleading at best, and financially disastrous at worst. Here's why:
1. You can't distill success into a two-pager.
I can read music. I can read Mozart's music. That doesn't make me Mozart. If being successful was really as easy as following someone else's success story, then we'd all be successful. And we're not. Success takes more than a few key phrases, buzzwords and theories. Success takes hard work, passion, experience, knowledge and a healthy dose of luck; none of which can be gained from any blog post or top 5 list. No matter how much an author writes down, they're never going to capture the full truth behind their own success.
Whilst every successful business has a clear vision and a strong leader, it is as much about the people they work with, their immediate environment and a plethora of external factors that contribute to their success. Be inspired by an article, but don't use it as your bible. There is far more to success than anything that could ever be written down.
2. What works for them, may not work for you.
Great ideas are just that, great ideas. Reading a blog post or book about how to run your business isn't going to help you if it isn't a natural fit. You can't take a grumpy old bastard of a manager, hand him "Re-work" and expect him all of a sudden to become the greatest manager on Earth. Equally, you can't change your entire business model just because you read an article that says subscriptions are the in-thing this year. Your business and your product are yours, all the advice in the world isn't going to change you or what you find to be most important. The worst thing we can do is play follow the leader blindly, hoping that what worked for him will work for us.
It's great to see and learn from what philosophies other companies apply, but keep in mind that a business is more than just a bunch of concepts and ideas; it's real people with real capabilities and expectations. Similarly, your product isn't the same as my product. It's great for me to be sprouting the benefits of free users, but if you can't make use of free users, you are probably still better off ditching them for paid customers. Use your brain, no solution is going to be a one-size-fits-all panacea.
3. Experience trumps all
I know a lot of smart people, with a lot of smart theories, but they still couldn't run a business to save themselves. It's one thing to read about how to do something, but it's a whole different kettle of fish to have actually done it already. Running a startup is like playing in a band. You may strike it lucky and have the right combination of ideas, skill and people to hit the big time, but 99.9% of successful musical acts have people involved with them that have already been successful. Even The Beatles played thousands of hours of practice gigs before hitting the big time, and even before the Beatles, three of the Fab Four had been playing together for years. No amount of reading can take the place of years of knowledge gained from doing. The experience behind the Top 5 list is the valuable thing, not the Top 5 list itself.
4. Nothing worth doing comes easily
This is my main gripe with Top 5 lists. Top 5 lists break everything down into easy to follow, read it on your iPhone, attention grabbing headlines. The truth is that the only list worth reading is the one that says "work hard". Don't believe the "4 hour work week", don't believe "work smarter, not harder", and certainly don't believe there is a magic bullet theory to creating success. Go listen to your Grandparents, they had the right idea. Do an honest day's work every day, and you'll get there. You may not cash out for $190 million, but then most of us never will. Working hard will earn you enough to feed yourself and family, and still leave you money left over to enjoy your life. Rich will just make you fat and lazy anyway.
5. Do it your way
When all is said and done, you have to make your own mistakes to make your own successes. Following someone else's rulebook will never help you write your own. Get in there, give things a go and see what you can make of it. Who knows, you may find your own secret to success that you can write your own Top 5 list about.