“Never trust the advice of a man in difficulties.” – Aesop (“The Fox and the Goat,” Fables, sixth century B.C.)
Since I began writing ETR every day, I’ve begun paying attention to books, newsletters, and videos that talk about success. The great majority of them are written by 20-something journalists who get their notions from reading other advisories written by 20-something journalists. A much smaller few are written by older, success “experts” — men and women who have made a career out of advising others. And very few, indeed, are written by people who have had success in their own right. Understandably, such folks are usually too busy, too rich, and/or having too much fun to give themselves the task of working for a writer’s wage.

This gives us three types of advisers and three schools of thought on what it takes to succeed:

1. The young journalists tend to write about business protocol, corporate manners, and “how to treat people with dignity and stay out of regulatory trouble.” They get their ideas, as I said, from other writers. Their knowledge is information-based.

2. The seasoned experts tend to focus on underlying secrets and themes — figuring out the fundamental habits, patterns, and/or behaviors that make one person more successful than others. Their information is theory-based.

3. The third group, the guys who’ve done it themselves, tend to talk about what they — and people they’ve worked with — have personally learned. Their ideas are based on experience.

Let me give you an example of the kind of advice you’ll get from information-based advisers:

* At an office function, never hold a drink in your right hand. That should be reserved, warm and dry, for a handshake.

* Create clear requirements so that everyone knows what the organization’s advertising is saying.

* Treat employees with respect.

* Follow up on every meeting with a written agenda.

* Never smoke a cigar at an office function.

And here’s the kind of thing you can expect from theory-based advisers:

* You’ll never have a quality product until you eat, breathe, and drink quality yourself.

* If you make your business a fun place to work at, your employees will make it successful.

* The Internet has changed the way business works. Those that follow the old rules are doomed to failure.

So what kind of advice do you get from the experience-based advisers — the people who have done it themselves? Stuff like this:

* Fire the bottom 10% to 15% of your employees every year and you’ll build a better workforce.

* Don’t expect that giving employees more will make them more productive.

* What you say at a business lunch, not how good your table manners are, will determine whether you succeed.

There is something unpretty about this last group of ideas. They are rough around the edges, politically incorrect, almost insensitive, don’t you think? They also tend to be a little extreme — almost radical, as opposed to the more comforting, kindhearted, and evenhanded advice the other two groups tend to provide.

It takes all kinds of knowledge, and every reasonable approach, to figure out anything as complex as what it takes to be a success. So I’m always eager to hear what anybody has to say about it.

That said, I find that the ideas I value … the ideas I pass along to you every morning in ETR … come mostly — say 80% of the time — from my own experience and from other experience-based advisers. A small number — say 15% of them — come from the theory-based advisers. And only a very few — less than 5% — come from the information-based writers.

When you think about it, success itself is a radical idea. Most definitions of success — those that apply to great artists and athletes as well as those that apply to tycoons and movie stars — relegate true success to the very few. No more than the top 5%.

It’s tough to reach the top 5% in any group if your course of action is middle-of-the-road.

Something to think about.