Monday, September 19, 2011

Don't take investment advice from lottery winners

I was listening to an NPR interview this morning with actor Aaron Paul of the show Breaking Bad, and he told host Terry Gross that he had the blessing of his family and teachers when he moved to Los Angeles immediately after graduating early from high school to pursue an acting career.

Paul said when he was getting ready to leave, one of his teachers pulled him aside out of concern and asked if he had a Plan B in case he can't make it as an actor. He did not, and his mother was so angered that she went to the school and yelled if the teacher had a Plan B in case the education field doesn't work out.

This drivel annoys me, that people should follow their dreams no matter what and ignore the naysayers. Gross really did her audience a disservice by not challenging Paul's arrogance. The reason is something I call the VH1 Behind the Music effect.

I'm open to a punchier title if anyone has one.

The idea is similar to the Anthropic principle in physics, where we only observe a universe that appears designed for life because we won the cosmic lottery and are alive to observe. VH1 interviews musicians who say they were told they'd never make it in the cutthroat entertainment business, and every one of them turned out a success.

But VH1 only interviews successful musician, they don't talk to the miserable record store clerk who never wrote a hit song. There is a survivorship bias at play, where the successful musicians give advice and the failures don't share their experience.

My generation has been fed this awful "follow your dreams" advice that has lead a lot of them into pursuing useless college degrees for fields where they can't make money. The problem is, everyone wants to do these fun jobs so there's a lot more applicants than positions. Instead of having a rewarding job that never feels like work, most of them have to settle for a different job that pays poorly, or rack up more debt and go back for a degree in something practical.

Kids don't benefit from bogus feel-good advice. Paul's teacher was right to be concerned with his future because he was using a risky strategy. It doesn't matter that it turned out reasonably well for him, it was still a bad move to make without a back-up plan. As Greg Mankiw said, it's better to judge on the logic of ones decisions than their results.


  1. This sort of problem occurs in other areas as well. How often does one hear from the failed entrepeneuers? There does seem to be a practical difference in that if one fails at starting a business one has likely in the process developed skills that can be used in a variety of other contexts. The musicians don't have that advantage.

  2. Yea... I think people of our generation would greatly benefit from reading Marcus Aurelius. Or perhaps Aurelius as it's digested by Ryan Holiday (

  3. Also, let's not take advice from the star of the Dragon Ball live-action film about anything, ever.

  4. Nor should you take it from those who inherit their wealth or win it in a divorce. Case in point: Patricia Kluge

  5. @Michael
    I'm not sure if that's what you meant but Aaron Paul wasn't in Dragon Ball: Evolution.

    1. To be clear, the "Michael" who posted on Oct. 5, 2011 was not me.