Gary Vaynerchuk, the paradox of hindsight, and the corruption of the self-help industry

Photo: Gary Vaynerchuk

Somebody like Gary Vaynerchuk succeeds. They look back. They tell you how they did it and how you should do the same. This corrupt reasoning pervades all motivational writing, and nobody even notices. Starting now, I will.

The energetic and provocative Gary Vaynerchuk wrote a Medium piece in June called “The Day I Decided to Become GaryVee.” Thanks to a new critique by Alexis P. Morgan, it’s become a raging debate.

Vaynerchuk’s piece, like all of what he writes and says, is long on enthusiasm and short on logic. The basic point is that you have to stop sitting still and decide to do something with your life. Here are a few excerpts:

When I decide something, it just happens. I go all in. 30 was the year I decided that I was going to become GaryVee. That I was going to live my life in the pursuit of my ambition. That I would not waste another moment on anything but my dream.

If you’re not happy, and you’re stuck in a rut, you need to do the same. You need to look in the mirror and become self-aware. Financially at 30 I was actually in a good place. On paper I had already accomplished success. But it was not enough. I knew that spending my time selling Wine wasn’t going to make me a billion dollars. I needed to adjust my strategy if completing my bucket list was going to become real. . . .

For me, it’s simply about staying the course and putting in the work and positioning yourself in the right place to succeed. Fuck what anyone else says. You have to do you.

So you know why I’m sitting here right now? At the top of one of the fastest growing creative agencies of all time… At a 150M dollar annual revenue business? At a company that has ambitions to become worth billions and billions of dollars? Not because I got lucky but because I outworked you. I went for it. Think about it. I out worked you. I didn’t come from money. I didn’t come from opportunity. I didn’t go to the best schools. I was a D & F student. I just think a lot of people feel this enormous pressure to get it right in their 20s, 30s, 40s and beyond. But that’s false.

I’m 41 and I’m just getting started. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from or what you did before now. Each day is an opportunity to deploy your time and energy toward your dream. Think about what you want, reverse engineer that, and then execute. . . .

Please take a step back. Use this article as a reminder. It doesn’t matter what you did before. It matters what you do TODAY.

Alexis P. Morgan says he’s full of crap. She wrote “The Terrorism of Capitalism” to rebut him. A few key points:

I’ve been in business circles for almost a decade now and have gotten to the point where I simply roll my eyes at the oversimplified, buzzword-sprinkled ignorance that tends to filter onto my radar from this corner of the Interwebz.

But this?

This took the cake. . . .

While growing and stabilizing a multi-million dollar business is some version of achievement and work (dosed heavily with luck!), let us be clear: the first million is the hardest, and that honor belongs to your parents.

We’re being devoured by people infected with the Damnable Trinity of capitalism, white supremacy, and kyriarchy. They are munching on people’s bones and baying to those infernal gods while our blood drips down their faces. . . .

This while they have the audacity to scold us with lies about having ‘earned it’.

This, while having the arrogance to say that their wealth means they outworked us all.

The corrupt logic of “why I succeeded” pieces

Basically, Gary Vaynerchuk has said he is winning because he decided to work hard, while Alexis P. Morgan says it’s because he started out white with money from his parents and got lucky.

Here’s the problem: successful people get to tell any story they want, and because of the cult of success in the developed world, people will believe them. They cherry-pick whatever elements of that story they like and get their followers jazzed up. For Vaynerchuk, it’s hustle. For somebody else, it might be analytics, or comedy, or nurturing, or audacity. You can pick what you want from the thousands of self-help success stories out there.

It’s true that statistically, successful independent people are more likely to have decided to go off on their own and worked like mad, like Vaynerchuk.

It’s just as true that statistically, most people who quit their jobs, go off on their own, and work like mad will fail. (And as Morgan would say, this is even more true if you didn’t get a headstart by having the right parents).

This is the paradox of hindsight:

People who succeed ascribe their success to certain qualities that they have and actions that they took. It does not follow that if you have those qualities and take those actions, that you will succeed as well.

The logical paradox is like playing the lottery. Everyone who won the lottery chose to play the lottery. Playing the lottery is a necessary and causal step to winning. But that doesn’t mean that if you play, you will win. You’ll probably lose.

For Vaynerchuk, the qualities and actions that lead to success are decisiveness and hustle (and profanity). But there are millions of people who hustle and get nowhere. And, my own experience aside, cursing will not necessarily generate success, either.

Lots of people will read what Vaynerchuk wrote, quit their jobs, follow their dreams, and flop.

Lots more people will ignore him, stay in their jobs, put their heads down, plow ahead, and get nowhere.

Frankly, most of us will get nowhere.

How to succeed

I am sorry to depress everybody today, but I’m very skeptical of “succeed like me” narratives. In fact, the whole self-help genre is full of advice that is based on cherry-picked “just-so stories.” And yes, that includes much of what I’ve written.

And yet, there is a lot of wisdom here, too. Lots of people read these pieces, take the advice, and do better.

So here is some advice about self-help books by people who have succeeded:

  • Do not assume that you can do what the people you are reading about have done. What worked for them won’t work for most people.
  • Where there is advice that resonates with your own capabilities and common sense, take what you can from it.
  • Find people who you feel are like you, and learn from what they have done. These people are called mentors.
  • Eventually, you will find yourself in a spot where no one else has ever been. You will have to survive on your wits and experience. It is at those moments that you may actually accomplish something new.
  • If you fail, dust yourself off and get up again. Failure is as common as dust. Just try not to make the same mistake twice.
  • Don’t bet your whole future on one thing without a safety net. Bet what you can. It might be great, but what are going to do if it isn’t? Failure is always an option.

I cannot prove this advice is good, anymore than Gary Vaynerchuk can. But I hope you find some of it useful.

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  1. The only valuable lessons come from well-researched case studies, as business professors know. Even those only provide small bits of insight you can apply, because situations differ fundamentally.

    Gurus are 99% motivational, 1% informational; but they’re easier and more fun to consume than case studies. Gurus feed the fantasies of people who wish to be rich, innovative rebels for the sake of being considered rich, innovative rebels.

    Your time is better spent mastering a craft.

  2. Sometimes, getting a little motivational advice is the catalyst for change. Who cares how people get it? Or whether academics agree. Clearly, more people need motivation. Just look around. It’s clear to see.

    I’m not sure exactly why some people are successful while others aren’t. But I am certain that many people I know seek out the ‘easy button’ instead of doing the hard work often required to succeed.

    Not everyone gets to be a successful entrepreneur. Not everyone needs to be.

  3. Thanks for this Josh. I think motivation to achieve is overrated. Like Robert D. Smith in 20,000 Days and Counting, I believe that motivation is an after-effect of just doing it. You are not motivated to do, you are motivated when you do. Too many of us are trying to get to the end without taking the journey. This was a much needed post.

  4. My favorite how-to-succeed-in-business book is The Max Strategy by Dale Dauten. It contains several stories about the roles of experimentation and chance in success, and reveals that advice like Vaynerchuk’s is worthless. If you only follow the path someone else has already taken, you will never be original and never be yourself.

  5. The Medium self-help BS is pervasive. Jon Westenberg is another author that is riding this wave. Lots of great writing on Medium, though. Thanks for your insight on this.

  6. “This corrupt reasoning pervades all motivational writing, and nobody even notices. Starting now, I will.”

    It’s about time someone did. I am glad you did. I have felt this for a long time but never did verbalize it.

  7. I ghostwrite nonfiction books for a living—a decent percentage of them self-help and leadership books—and many of my authors are highly successful businesspeople. When they are, I always give them a piece of advice: Do not fall prey to the fallacy that because something was easy or self-evident for you, it will be easy or self-evident to your readers. A successful book is absolutely, positively NOT about stroking the author’s ego and congratulating yourself on how you’re crushing life. Garbage self-help books are about “Here’s how you can be more like me!” Solid self-help books begin from the premise, “Here’s how I learned to be more myself and leverage my strengths, and here’s the process I used to do that.” Great self-help books start there and add humility and wisdom. I’ll leave others to decide where Gary V.’s books fall in that continuum.

    1. Thank you for this powerful, but simple filter for choosing books to read, Tim. “Garbage self-help books are about “Here’s how you can be more like me!” Solid self-help books begin from the premise, “Here’s how I learned to be more myself and leverage my strengths, and here’s the process I used to do that.” Great self-help books start there and add humility and wisdom.” I’ve been leery of authors and leaders who show you how to be more like them. I appreciate a process and backstory, but know that following steps does not equal the same outcome, nor do I want to be a carbon copy of someone else.

    2. Tim, do you have a recommendation of a ‘Solid’ self-help book? Would be interesting to see the format versus every other piece of crap I’ve come across.

      1. I don’t read many of them anymore, honestly, because they’re so bad and so hackneyed. But I’m a big fan of Brene Brown’s “Rising Strong” and Simon Sinek’s “Start With Why,” because they’re about self-transformation leading to success, not the success itself. I’m rather a Buddhist in these matters: I don’t believe you can achieve success or make money, you can only initiate and maintain the activities that you hope will LEAD to those outcomes.

        If I may throw in a shameless plug, I have two books—one hat came out on 9-12 and one that comes out October 3, that show I’m walking my talk. The first is a major release from Anthony Sullivan called “You Get What You Pitch For,” about how to pitch and persuade to get what you want. That’s an example of “Here’s what I did and how, it might work for you, if you do it, you’ll get better results but it’s probably not going to change your life all by itself.” That, to me, is an honest message. It’s here:

        The other example is a book from former TV star-turned underwear entrepreneur Rhonda Shear, and it’s called “Up All Night: From Hollywood Bombshell to Lingerie Mogul, Life Lessons from an Accidental Feminist.” That’s Rhonda’s very interesting life story mixed with advice for women, but I think what makes it work is that it’s humble and vulnerable, the advice of someone who honestly says, “I got here and didn’t manage to fuck things up too badly, some of it was luck, some was hard work, a lot of it was sticking to my values and not being afraid to try, maybe this will help you.” I’m really, really proud of that book. It’s here:

        To me, most of the genre is B.S. Over and over again, the only success principles I’ve seen hold up over time are these: have strong values and stick to them no matter what, be brave and do what other people fear to do, and treat people honorably and honestly. Beyond that, any “succeed like me” advice is largely crap, especially since one person’s idea of success is generally nothing a like another’s. Hope this helps.

      2. I made a long reply, but I suspect that because I cited two of my own books, it was not published. So I’ll just mention the two by others: Brene Brown’s “Rising Strong” and Simon Sinek’s “Start With Why.”

  8. For motivation: Watch ted talks, and gain insight into new thinking and problem-solving. Read books like Exponential Organizations and open your mind to a broader view that will stimulate you to act on things you can implement today.

  9. The post that shared this article on LinkedIn said:

    Great piece on the corrupt logic of Gary Vee.

    The guy inherited a $3 million dollar business from his parents and lectures people about only needing to work harder to get ahead.

  10. First of all Gurus Doesn’t exist.
    Second, to me CEO of big companies have more knowledge of Gvee, is more about show biz than a business man.

  11. I think this is a bit of a generalization of both Gary and his fans (disclosure: I am subscribed to him on YouTube and I follow him on social). Unless you have data otherwise, I’m not sure tons of people are jumping off the bridge because he says it’s part of the process.

    Granted what he says to do might sound like the panacea but I think most fans do what you said at the end: take what you can and use it. I get a lot of energy and motivation from listening to what he’s saying. Am I going to quit my job? No. Am I going to downsize my life and “eat ****” while I try to ascend into mass success? Definitely not. But I do think some of his ways of thinking have merit are useful to what I want to do in life.

  12. haha, so they go on to bash Gary and then sum the article up with “how to”…which most of them are things Gary is all about…pretty pathetic how this article also says “most of us will end up nowhere”…yes if you don’t give what you are going after time every day, every week, for 5 to 10 year…get a grip…

  13. Another thing…even if you all haters were given $100,000, $1,000,000 or $10,000,000….how many of you would become satisfied, lazy, or squander it all versus how many of you would turn it into a $150,000,000 dollar per year business…just sayin..