Don’t wanna read? I gave a keynote about my main interests! Click here!

I’m a white female living in Portland, Oregon by way of NYC (mostly) and a bunch of other places. My first book, Can You Learn to Be Lucky? Why Some People Seem to Win More Often Than Others, was a Fast Company best book of 2018.

I wrote my second one, Making Numbers Count: The Art and Science of Communicating Numbers, with Chip Heath. (Heath is the New York Times bestselling author of Switch and Made to Stick; I am an elder millennial with student loan debt.)

Working with Chip for three years—and now teaching data storytelling—was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life. It made me realize:

The self-help industrial complex is bullshit

Most books on productivity, self-development, and “getting things done” are written from the vantage point of privileged workaholics who fail to keep in mind the simple fact that other people’s lives are much different. Great success depends on a perfect storm of events coming together—which is largely due to luck—but we’re all blind to the things that come easy to us. It’s a combination of this narrow POV mixed with overly-simplistic suggestions that are tailor-made to prey on our insecurities.

Data is not divine

All data points are subjective, lagging measures of what imperfect humans once measured imperfectly. But we workshop them because of their promise of objectivity, of feeling like we know something for certain in a chaotic world, and the love of feeling like we’re right.

The scientific method isn’t valid for phenomena as complex as human behavior in the wild

Psychology! It was once my North Star to understand humans, until I had a prolonged immersive experience behind the scenes and contrasting it with real life. Many problems with psychology stem from two things:

Researchers. All humans are biased. Psychologists excel at justifying their own behavior—they have all of the tools to do so.

Complexity. The scientific method is simple. Lab results do not accurately represent real world experience.

What sets the sciences apart is that they claim to construct reality but not to be themselves constructed.

Emily Martin (1998)

  • We’d all read Brad Pitt’s advice on dating (clearly he must know what he’s talking about—look at his success!)

  • His simple formula would be comforting and catchy (go to a place where there are women; wait)

  • It would be woefully incomplete for 95% of humanity

In other words: “Thought Leaders” are incarnations of privilege. They tell us to “rise above your surroundings,” without understanding the dynamics that affect people differently. They tell us how to be productive, but are often workaholics or have live-in domestic operations managers.

Only listening to a few privileged voices means that we’re not getting the full story that other people need. Specific advice is only useful for people coming from the same place going in the same direction, with access to the same resources, an idea summed up here:

These books are written for and geared toward a very specific audience of privileged individuals who have their life decisions affirmed and their failures explained away. The specific assumption they make is that everybody comes from the same sort of background - that they communicate in the same way, that they grow up the same way, and that, much like the world of advice articles and hustle culture, your failure to succeed is only a result of you not working hard enough.

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Everything we know about work, self-improvement, and getting things done was written by privileged people and left out a lot of useful information. Here's the rest.


Karla Starr

Author, MAKING NUMBERS COUNT (w/ Chip Heath) & CAN YOU LEARN TO BE LUCKY? Just a single 🐶 mom trying to make it in this world 🌎