For knowledge acquisition, empiricism beats reasoning

In my life I’ve observed people at all different degrees of success. When I think of a person being successful or not, what I’m thinking of is the degree to which they’ve achieved the results they want to achieve, whatever kind of results those may be.

There are a number of factors that lead to a person’s ability to accomplish their goals. There’s one big factor that I think might be more important than most of the others: an accurate mental model of reality.

To paraphrase the example from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, if I want to navigate around Chicago but I’m looking at a map of Detroit, I’m not going to be able to navigate very effectively.

Same with everything. If I’m trying to build a successful career as a freelance programmer or trying to build an online product business but I have an inaccurate understanding of how the rules of business operate, my success is going to be hindered to the extent that my mental model is inaccurate. (An exception is if I get lucky. Luck requires no understanding.)

There’s a lot of bullshit advice out there. If I uncritically feed all the world’s business advice into my brain, it will be impossible for me to develop an accurate mental map of reality because the body of advice I’ve loaded into my brain won’t be consistent with itself. Somehow I have to figure out what’s true and what’s not true.

This brings me to my next point. There is a such thing as a single truth and a single reality. Two people might have a different opinion on, say, who the most talented Beatle was and there’s no way to say one of them is objectively right or wrong. A lot of people seem to overly apply this same kind of idea to business. “There’s no one single path to success.” “There’s no one right way to do it.” It’s true that there’s no single right way to do many things in business, but some things really do work and other things don’t work. Business isn’t some hocus-pocus field with rules that apply separately from the rules that apply to everything else in the world. There’s one single reality. Our job is to figure out how that single reality works and get on the winning side of that reality.

Everything I’ve said so far has been to lay the groundwork for this: all the reasoning in the world is no match for a little empirical observation.

Some things are simple and small enough that conclusions can be confidently drawn using reason alone. For example, if I hit my toe with a hammer and then notice that my toe hurts, I can safely conclude that hitting my toe with a hammer makes it hurt.

Other things are sufficiently complex that reasoning alone doesn’t work. For example, I once reasoned that if I were to build a hair salon scheduling program that was superior to any existing salon scheduling program (an extraordinarily low bar, at least at the time) then the result would be that people would buy my product. I was WRONG.

What I should have asked was: is there any empirical evidence that this is going to work? Has there ever been a programmer like me who started a business similar to this who had success?

Better yet, I should have zoomed out even further and came at the matter from a more productive direction: for programmers like me (i.e. a bootstrapper with no VC, very little time or money, and a family to support) who wanted to start a successful product business, what did they do? I would have discovered that they did not try to start a SaaS business serving a customer they knew nothing about in an industry where they had no connections and in an industry that hates computers and has very little money and spends extremely little time online.

So, my advice to people out there trying to figure out what will lead to business success and what won’t: place very little confidence in your powers of reasoning. Turn to empirical evidence instead.

5 thoughts on “For knowledge acquisition, empiricism beats reasoning

  1. Pingback: Why vertical positioning for freelance programmers is hard | Jason Swett

  2. Marya

    These are some good thoughts, here.

    However, I think it can be difficult to find out what types of software services or products are successful and worth putting your effort into, because core information (income, effort, and so on) is generally hidden, just as it is for most offline businesses.

    It has certainly become more popular, over the years, to toot your own horn, and show your earnings. However, there’s a bias here. Most people who show their earnings are doing it because they are doing well financially. Do a search for “income report” and you’ll see a a lot of nice success stories, but not the stories about “how I made $3/month by blogging for hours every day”. You can find quite a few income reports from bloggers, for example. The implication is that you just start a food or travel blog and the money rolls in. Clearly, it just doesn’t work that way.

    So, if you’re basing your conclusions off of the successful reports from a few other software developers, I have to ask “how well substantiated is your methodology?”. Business is not a science. You cannot reliably reproduce results; there’s a lot chance involved, and when you read about someone else’s success, you are not being given the complete story. Empirical evidence is very helpful, but no guarantee of success.

    I realize you aren’t talking in absolutes, and you aren’t saying empirical methods will guarantee anything. However, you can do what appears to be all the right things and still fail financially – at least, so far as I can tell, that’s the case.

    1. Jason Post author

      You make some good points. The general message I’m trying to convey with this post is: “Don’t let yourself get tricked into believing claims that aren’t backed up by evidence.”

      1. Marya

        I agree with you there.

        The question is, how do you decide what is good evidence?

        For example, look all around you and you’ll see restaurants starting up and going out of business in a year. But you’ll also see places that have been around for 20-30 years. Do you look at the French restaurant that’s been around for 30 years and conclude that it’s successful because it serves French food?

        It can be hard to extract just what makes a restaurant successful. It seems much more difficult when we’re talking about software businesses, because most successful indie software devs/consultants etc are just quietly cashing big checks, and not talking about it. At least, that’s what I suspect.

        1. Jason Post author

          Ideally a person can observe a large number of cases and spot a pattern. Unfortunately that’s not always possible, so in some areas the truth just isn’t empirically observable.

          About successful consultants quietly cashing large checks – I’m sure you’re right. I’m not only looking for people talking about their success publicly online though. I’ve encountered a number of successful consultants at conferences or discovered the degree of some of my colleagues’ success over private calls. It seems to me that successful people tend to be attracted to certain types of conferences and watering holes.

          I certainly agree that it’s hard to figure out what works and what doesn’t. That’s a big part of why success takes so many people so many years!


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