Why "How-to" May Not Be for You

D.R. McElroy

There’s More Than One Way to Kill a Bear 4 min read

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Photo by Brendan Church on Unsplash.

Shortly after getting my first book contract, I dashed off a series of blog posts entitled “How to Have a Writing Career”. I outlined the steps I took to reach that goal: from starting the blog, writing short pieces for pay, then finally achieving the milestone of the first book contract. The series was popular and I was pleased with myself.

The sin of pride.

Having written a lot more since then, I am now aware of the flaw in that series, and in 90 percent of the advice articles on the internet. That flaw is hubris.

*…we humans are naturally inclined to look for short cuts.*

Call it “excessive pride” or self-confidence, hubris leads us to overvalue whatever amount of success we have and to then dictate to others how to achieve their own hearts desires.

This strategy of self-promotion succeeds because we humans are naturally inclined to look for short cuts. Here’s an example of why.

Why people want short-cuts.

Suppose you are a caveperson who needs to know how to kill a bear. You discover two people who have previous bear killing experience. The first one tells you an entertaining story about his encounter with the bear, how he felt about it, what it meant to his life experience, and FINALLY how he killed it — though there may be more discourse about what he tried first that failed.

The second person tells you, “I saw a bear, this is how I killed it.” While the first person’s story both entertains and informs (and you’d enjoy hearing it around the campfire at night), it’s the second person’s advice you’ll likely take — especially if that bear is about to eat you.

This is why we take the advice of people who declare “This is how you do it”, instead of that which says, “Well, this how I did it.” Humans live in such a high-stress world that we constantly feel like everything is a matter of life and death. Literally, we are being bombarded with stress hormones on a daily basis that cause us to feel pressure from some nebulous impending doom.

The problem with dictatorial advice is that success isn’t a straightforward path; what works for one person may not work for others, especially since all of the “discovery steps” are cut out of the solution by those who tell us how it should be done. In other words, the person who said, “I saw a bear and this is how I killed it” likely went through the very same processes as the person who told you the longer story about killing the bear — they just cut to the chase.

*Because person two hasn’t told you his process but only the result, you have no idea how to figure out how to kill a bear with an axe.*

But cutting out those discovery steps is not always best. For example, suppose caveperson number two tells you, “I killed the bear with a spear.” Great, but what if you only have an axe? Or they tell you, “Use a bow and arrow to kill a bear,” but you happen to only have one arm? Because person two hasn’t told you his process but only the end result, you have no idea how to figure out how to kill a bear with an axe.

Why how-to’s focus on the ends instead of the means.

It’s easy to argue that people who have succeeded at something may be reluctant to spell out precisely how they got there in case someone might use their methods to rival, or even out-do, their own success. There’s probably some truth to this idea; however, it’s just as likely that the successful person has actually forgotten the many missteps and failures that occurred along the way to achieving their goal, in the same way that a new mother tends to forget the pain of labor when handed her newborn.

*…these failures are usually offered as humorous punchlines to break up the tedious “Yay me!” presentation of their so-called “secrets” to success.*

Who wants to admit to their many stumbles on the way to success? Granted, there are some people who are willing to detail their flops, but these failures are usually offered as humorous punchlines to break up the tedious “Yay me!” presentation of their so-called “secrets” to success.

So what’s the point?

The point is, not only is the path to success different for every person, but the very definition of success itself is different. There are plenty of people for whom riches and fame are not the be-all-end-all of life. Personally, I’d rather be a cipher than an open book. I want to be J.D. Salinger instead of James Patterson.

We all really need to decide what success looks like for ourselves, instead of having it dictated to us by others. Learn how to think, not just how to imitate.

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D.R. McElroy is a published author, writer, and copy editor with 15 years professional experience. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Horticulture and a Masters in Environmental Resources. A conservationist, naturalist, and environmental advocate, she spends her time writing nonfiction articles on a variety of topics, as well as writing books on contract for publishers. D.R. wants to build a community of people who love nature and wildlife as much as she does, and who want to help protect our resources for public use.

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