Taking Success Advice from Successful People Is Not a Good Idea

I was recently watching the last The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien, in which he said goodbye to NBC and his fans. His memorable last words were: “If you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen. I’m telling you: amazing things will happen”.

I’m sure Conan O’Brien is a cool guy and I think he has some great achievements, but if working hard and being kind were the only two ingredients for amazing things to happen in one’s life (aka being successful), we would have a lot more successful people, living amazing lives.

I believe that sometimes, successful people can give powerful success advice. I personally know some who do. However, I believe this is rather the exception than the rule, and in most cases, taking success advice from successful people is not such a good idea.

The main reason is the fact there is a huge difference between being successful and being able to understand success and teach it to others. Here are some phenomena which often happen with successful people:

  • They’re naturals. They do things in a certain way out of instinct, and this gives them results. But they don’t really know what exactly they’re doing which gets them success, even if they think they do. So they will often give advice like: “Just be yourself. Act naturally.” Ha?
  • They may consciously try certain things which give them the results they want, but they try multiple things at once and they’re not able understand which one of them exactly works and is the true source of their success.
  • They discover things which help them get results, in their context, and they wrongly believe these things apply to everyone, in every context. They generalize quickly, ignoring the specifics of each human being and each situation.
  • They lack the skills to present and explain their ideas for success in a very clear and meaningful way, which would make the advice truly useful.

I know that successful people are given a lot of credibility in offering advice for success, and sometimes for personal development. People think that someone who has success is the best to teach it. Considering the points above, you can see why this is faulty logic.

Successful people need a lot more than success to also provide solid success advice. They need a high degree of awareness, analytical skills, scientific, critical thinking, communication and people skills. Only then, you can rely on them to give powerful success advice.

Beyond successful people, I believe there is one other category of people which is usually much better at giving success advice. I call them modelers. They’re the people who observe, study and model successful people, extracting the patterns of success.

Why are they better at giving success advice? For one, because they generally have a lot more of the skills presented above, which are required to understand and teach success. And also, because they don’t stop at modeling just one successful person.

It’s great that you’re looking to understand success and use this understanding in your personal development. In this journey, remember that choosing the proper sources for success advice can be just as important.


  1. I see myself a bit of a modeler,
    My advice: instead of looking for advices, try to interact directly with successful people. Do whatever you can to meet them directly, spend money on their seminars, not just read their free blogs and books. If you can make your way up and find yourself surrounded with successful people, you will be one of them. The start is really hard, the losers surrounding you will fight hard to keep you among them.

  2. Eduard – this is an interesting one. I reckon that you can learn a huge amount from successful people, but not always from what they say. Studying what they DO is probably a better recipe. I find that whatever advice comes our way, we’ve always got to look at how to bring that to bear on our own circumstances. That is when we can work out the best practices to live life by. Thanks for a thought provoking piece.

    .-= Phil – Less Ordinary Living´s last blog ..How to Make a Living doing what you Love =-.

  3. Veronica Sirbu says:

    Excellent idea!
    Never thought of it, but I often found it difficult to explain to people what it was that got me in a certain place when asked how i had done it, and always lost myself in general advice like “be yourself”, “believe in yourself” etc… 🙂

    It makes sense. Just like great specialists in a certain field, such as lawyers etc. that make for horrible teachers because they lack teaching skills..

  4. Patrick Dieter, BA, CADC II says:

    I suggest you revisit the practice of accurate and critical listening. You quoted Conan accurately, but then you made a huge leap of logic to support your point. Mr. O’Brien did NOT say “you will be successful if …” nor did he say “You will be as successful as me if you …” He said “amazing things will happen.” If you even glance over the studies, past and currently in progress, in the field of positive psychology, you will see that it is true. If you work hard and are kind, amazing things do happen. These are some of the practices that raise character strengths and resiliency which increase a person’s happiness level. Your definition of success is extremely narrow and cynical in this case. Napoleon Hill, the great-grandaddy of almost all our personal growth ideas today wrote in Think and Grow Rich that there were 12 different kinds of wealth, and that financial wealth came last on that list. Success is only accurately measured in a balanced way: Family, relationships, spirituality, health, leadership qualities, and creative self-expression are all very important, and I would assert they are all more important than money or fame.

  5. Excellent point. The definitions of success of vary–one definition is that successful people are peaceful and joyful and compassionate regardless of their circumstances. These people are not always able to articulate how they developed.
    .-= Kaushik´s last blog ..The Basics – 9 excellent techniques for developing Awareness =-.

  6. @Doru – my first impression is that you probably are a modeler. Considering that you encourage meeting successful people face to face. Typical personal development advice for a modeler.

    @Phil – I think the same. Studying what they successful people do is more important than listening to what they advise.

    @Vero – Now you know why you found it difficult. Teaching and doing something are 2 different skills.

    @Patrick – In the context, I interpreted ‘amazing thing will happen’ as relating to achieving your goals (aka success). The sentence is ambiguous to say the least, so I think it’s open to interpretation. Anyway, glad you liked the article 😉

    @Kaushik – There are as many definitions of success as there are people. The first challenge in teaching success is actually defining it from your perspective.

  7. Nice, to achieve success, get advice never enough… In NLP, I learn about modeling… Model the right person (the person who have succeed in our subject).. Do exactly what he or she have done will help us to achieve the samething
    .-= Fast Phobia Cure´s last blog ..Secretly Hypnotize Someone =-.

  8. Context plays a big role.

    While success leaves clues, it needs to be relevant and accurate for your scenario. That’s where I think mentors come in … they help bridge the gap between good ideas and how they map to your specific situation.
    .-= J.D. Meier´s last blog ..Information Overload is Not the Problem – It’s Filter Failure =-.

  9. Yeah, I think mentors are very good. I have a couple of them and helping me bridge this gap is one of their most important ways they assist me. Especially in the area of people skills.

  10. Sometimes successful people are not successful people either. Some people are not successful because they made it. Some of them cheat and lie to make it and that may have an affect on you. That might put you behind when you should have been the one on top. People become successful different ways. You can have everything that it takes to be successful and sometimes it means nothing. It may not always be intended for you because of something that might not be right for you up the road ahead.

    • These are the people who I would call short-term successful. They only figured out what would get them the initial results, but not the long term ones. So unless you wanna wind up like them, they’re not very good role models.

  11. Taking success advice from successful people is not such a good thing?

    As we all know everyone’s version of success is different. So first the person needs to define what success means to them. As far as advice, I think advice usually boils down to no more than the communication of principals that are perceived to be of value. Some people communicate effectively and clearly and other do not communicate effectively and certainly not clearly. I think is imperative that people who want to be successful take advice from successful people and also model successful people. Just as it is with everything, you need to think about the advice, and decide if it is right for you.

    I think advice is good only if it is communicated effectively, and it makes sense for what you are trying to accomplish. It also needs to come from a reputable source whose ideals and ethics are in line with yours. We get very positive feedback on the success advice that we provide at topsuccesssite.com. Now with that being said, we do not preach and we try to give success advice a little at a time.

    As far as there being a huge difference between being successful and being able to understand success and teach it, I would have to disagree and agree. I disagree that successful people might not understand success. It is not very probable that you can achieve success without understanding success and the principals of success. I do agree though that just because you are successful certainly does not mean you will be able to teach success because teaching has a lot to do with understanding defined principals and effectively communicating those principals in manner that the student can learn them and implement them. Very good article in the sense it makes all have to think a little.

    Very well done,

    Jeff Moore

    • Hey Jeff,

      In my experience, many people that have success in various areas just act the way they feel like acting. It’s outside their awareness what exactly they’re doing and why that works for them.

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