False Positives

Imagine that at some point during Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career (let’s say around the Predator-Terminator era), I convinced him to let me “train” him. Maybe I even had to pay him for the privilege, or maybe he just owed me an unrelated favor. In any case, I tell him to lift some weights or whatever, having predictably exactly zero impact on his total physique and resulting success.

But guess what that does for me? It lets me say, in perfect truthfulness, that “I trained Arnold Schwarzenegger!”

Okay, so that’s just step one of my devious plan. What’s step 2? Well, using my “success” at training Arnold, I now begin to advertise my training services – my ultra-elite, highly-sought-after (lol) services. If I’m good at marketing, soon I’ll have all sorts of people trying to hire me as their trainer. Except, I don’t actually know anything about training – isn’t that a problem?

Heck no! See, all I have to do is be super exclusive about who I allow to be my client. I won’t take scrawny people trying to get buff, I’ll only take people who are already super buff and want to get even more buff. People that were already going to be successful on average. Then I’ll give them busywork that sounds good and build a lot of ritual into it. There will be plenty of success stories among my clients, I can claim credit, and each new success story feeds into the whole process.

I don’t have to do a thing. And I’d be immune from criticism! My own clients couldn’t criticize me, because if they were successful what could they criticize? They’d never have a counter-factual to prove that they could have been successful without me, and claiming so would make them seem ungrateful or foolish. If they weren’t successful, I could easily blame their own work ethic, and not my training – after all, look at all of my clients who were successful! And people who weren’t my clients couldn’t criticize my methods, because what do they know?

But as long as I always screened for clients who I could predict would be successful without me anyway and convinced them that, on the contrary, they needed me in order to succeed – then I’d have a steady stream of self-sustaining false positives to keep my grift going forever.

Now, you might think all of this was an allegory for something or other. You’re probably right. This grift exists in a lot of different forms, all around you. Whenever you see someone taking credit for contributing to someone else’s success, be careful. It does happen! We help, and are helped by, others all the time. Very few people succeed entirely without help, mentorship, training, coaching, etc. But that just makes the grift version that much easier, because a real version of the same effect does exist. Bill Belichick probably contributed in a real and meaningful way to the success of the Patriots, for example. But that doesn’t mean that you can always tell. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that any team that Belichick coached would do as well. There are lots of factors to consider.

Consider them.

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