Big Questions for “Secret Ingredient for Success” (NYTimes)

Ranting about opinion pieces isn’t generally worthwhile, but some pieces are deeply flawed and popular enough that they demand critiquing. I’ve taken Susan Cain and Jonah Lehrer to task in the past, and I’ve come across another post worthy of examination.

The article is a New York Times opinion piece titled “Secret Ingredient For Success” and the title itself is hyperbole: what they describe is no secret and it’s not necessarily an ingredient for success.

Even it’s opening story is problematic on several counts:

WHAT does self-awareness have to do with a restaurant empire? A tennis championship? Or a rock star’s dream? David Chang’s experience is instructive…

He recalls a low moment when he went with his staff on a night off to eat burgers at a restaurant that was everything his wasn’t — packed, critically acclaimed and financially successful. He could cook better than they did, he thought, so why was his restaurant failing? “I couldn’t figure out what the hell we were doing wrong,” he told us.

Mr. Chang could have blamed someone else for his troubles, or worked harder (though available evidence suggests that might not have been possible) or he could have made minor tweaks to the menu. Instead he looked inward and subjected himself to brutal self-assessment. Was the humble noodle bar of his dreams economically viable? Sure, a traditional noodle dish had its charm but wouldn’t work as the mainstay of a restaurant if he hoped to pay his bills.

Mr. Chang changed course. Rather than worry about what a noodle bar should serve, he and his cooks stalked the produce at the greenmarket for inspiration. Then they went back to the kitchen and cooked as if it was their last meal, crowding the menu with wild combinations of dishes they’d want to eat — tripe and sweetbreads, headcheese and flavor-packed culinary mashups like a Korean-style burrito.

Here’s the rundown on poor logic in this opening story:

  1. This story suffers from survivorship bias. How many restauranteurs make the same type of choice Chang did and still fail? Many.
  2. It doesn’t show Chang as particularly self-aware. There’s no mention in the story that he’s aware of his tendencies, his thinking process or his biases (or even thinks of himself as particularly self-aware). The story merely says he chose to continue the same career, and same restaurant, by taking a new risk in the face of failure. He might be very self-aware but nothing in the article suggests it.
  3. He was working 18 hour days. Was he aware of his workaholism? Aware of the impact on his health?
  4. And worst of all, nothing in this story, or the entire article,  is a secret. The notion of pivoting a business is an old idea, far older than the term itself.

The article falls further into overwrought and unnecessary theory:

During the 1970s, Chris Argyris, a business theorist at Harvard Business School (and now, at 89, a professor emeritus) began to research what happens to organizations and people, like Mr. Chang, when they find obstacles in their paths.

Professor Argyris called the most common response single loop learning — an insular mental process in which we consider possible external or technical reasons for obstacles.

LESS common but vastly more effective is the cognitive approach that Professor Argyris called double-loop learning.

A better and simpler term for this is metacognition, or the ability to think about how you think. It’s an ancient idea that was also popularized and given this name in the 1970s. Metacognition is a term often used for learning, and learning how to learn, but it’s applicable to skill development too.

More importantly, there are always multiple obstacles in front of us. The question is when will we deal with them and how? There’s a good argument you can’t deal with every obstacle at the same time and you have to choose carefully which challenge you take on, and how you decide to move on to the next one.

Arguably Chang was desperate. Is desperation a valuable forcing function? How is desperation different from courage? These are good questions raised by Chang’s story, but not raised in the article.

The successful people we spoke with — in business, entertainment, sports and the arts — all had similar responses when faced with obstacles: they subjected themselves to fairly merciless self-examination that prompted reinvention of their goals and the methods by which they endeavored to achieve them.

They have this story backwards: these people didn’t set out to be self-aware. They set out to ACHIEVE. They were already highly competitive and high functioning individuals who had failed. With their level of commitment they would have tried just about anything to achieve their goals and in the case of already successful athletes (Martina Navratilova is mentioned) they had coaches and trainers who were experts at analyzing their weaknesses and training them to use new approaches.

Another observation: high achievers are sometimes assholes. They can be narcissistic, self-centered and frustrating to live or work with. Are high achievers self aware in this way? I’d love to know but it’s not a question suggested (e.g. what are the downsides of being a “high achiever”?).

The indie rock band OK Go described how it once operated under the business model of the 20th-century rock band. But when industry record sales collapsed and the band members found themselves creatively hamstrung by their recording company, they questioned their tactics. Rather than depend on their label, they made wildly unconventional music videos, which went viral, and collaborative art projects with companies like Google, State Farm and Range Rover, which financed future creative endeavors. The band now releases albums on its own label.

This example has nothing to do with self-awareness or metacognition. The band was frustrated with their music label! Is there any band that isn’t? Do you know how many bands have made unconventional music videos to get attention (most of them)? Do you know how few get offered projects by Google and State Farm (almost none)? This is an even more egregious example of survivorship bias than the Chang story (although the famous treadmill video for the song “Here It Goes Again” is fun to watch). Most bands that followed similar thinking as Ok Go did not see the same results.

But what we learned from conversation with high achievers is that challenging our assumptions, objectives, at times even our goals, may sometimes push us further than we thought possible. Ask David Chang, who never imagined that sweetbreads and duck sausage rice cakes with kohlrabi and mint would find their way beside his humble noodle dishes — and make him a star.

That last sentence is a complete mistruth and contradiction: Chang did imagine that sweetbreads and duck sausage would find their way next to noodle dishes. It was his idea, at least according to the opening story.

What I think they meant to say is his imagination was fueled by:

  • his commitment to his craft
  • his persistence in the face of failure
  • his willingness to take risks and try new approaches

These are admirable traits, but none are new, none are secrets and sadly none are at the center of this poorly constructed article.

7 Responses to “Big Questions for “Secret Ingredient for Success” (NYTimes)”

  1. Phil Simon

    Nice analysis, Scott. Posts with titles like “Secret Ingredient For Success” are essentially linkbait. As you point out, the history of business and technology teaches us that many things are only evident or obvious in Hindisght. Books like The Black Swan, The Halo Effect, The Signal and the Noise, Everything Is Obvious, and others make this point very clear.

    Of course, great storytellers like Gladwell ostensibly help us make sense of our confused, chaotic, and often random world. Brass tacks: everything isn’t simple. If it were, everyone would be successful for following apocryphal tips like the ones in the NYT piece.

  2. Phillip

    Thanks for the clarifications of your view. My own bias, based on similar personal experience, led me to read the article more positively initially.

    1. Scott

      Part of my frustration with the article comes from a similar source. There is potentially a good story and useful insights to come from examining David Chang and Ok Go, but they entirely dodged them :)

  3. Scott

    I should mention I like David Chang for his charming persona on Season 1 of The Mind of A Chef, narrated by Anthony Bourdain.

    I’ve never met him nor eaten in his restaurants, but I can recommend you watch this show. Season 2 is good as well.

  4. Yan

    Excellent take down! Thanks Scott.

    This is the kind of article (the original) I would have read and supped up a few years ago. I’ve learn since that I’m too willing to accept what I read from reputable sources (NYT), and I need to check myself and cast a more critical eye. Now that’s self awareness!

  5. Metatone

    FWIW, Chris Argyris’ body of research is pretty compelling. In particular he did a lot of good work on how to practically develop “metacognition” (if you prefer the term) in individuals and groups.

    (The Ancients bang on a lot about metacognition, but weren’t noted for much success in spreading it beyond elite philosophic types…)

  6. Kwame Davis

    I was confused when I read this piece on NYT awhile ago but you made it clear why. I thought it was a positive article but I had no takeaways.


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