Don’t generalize from personal experience

One of the few weblogs I follow faithfully is written by James Altucher. He is a good writer, one of the few who can be both funny and thoughtful simultaneously, and has a remarkable ability to tell difficult stories about his own life in a winning manner. The language is sometimes rough, the content is often very rough, and you are sure not to agree with some parts of his outlook. But I think he exemplifies a kind of blog writing that is going to become more common, and we will all be better for it.

Altucher repeatedly circles important things he knows, which encourages you to submerge yourself in his thinking. His blog posts are focused on one thought, usually based on a personal anecdote, but in the telling he will mention four or five other important things in passing. If you follow him for awhile, you learn that he will eventually focus on that thought as well (and if he already has, he will link to the older post at that point). Post by post he constructs a universe for his readers which they can explore at their leisure. And the promise of more to come keeps the reader coming back.

I was stopped short this morning by one of Altucher’s passing thoughts, in a post entitled “I Shouldn’t Want to be Liked So Much.” I want to extract it here for posterity, and I’ll quote a generous amount just to give you a feel for his writing.

I went to a dinner the other night where I was the featured guest and by the end of the evening almost everyone there hated me. It feels bad to be so obviously hated and I always want to be liked. I probably want that too much.

The reason I was a featured guest is because they wanted to talk about the subject of whether or not kids should go to college. I had to start off with my ten minutes on the topic and then the discussion would begin.

There were two people there from the NY Post, one person who called himself “an economist” who used to work at Fox Business. One interesting woman was starting an online dating service that matches people based on their sense of humor. One woman worked at 60 Minutes. There were some teachers there. There was one person there who fights terrorists for a living. Several people were ex Washington DC political people. A few lawyers. I felt like I was going to be accepted.

But they hated me.

I gave my ten minute spiel on it.

I started by reading this death threat.

Readers of this blog know my stance. Here are three links:

My main point: Student loan debt is higher than credit card debt for the first time ever. Kids can’t be entrepreneurs or artists anymore. They have to be janitors until that debt is paid off.

I also stated that a smart, aggressive kid with a five year head start (i.e. they don’t go to college) will figure out all he or she needs in terms of networking, socializing, critical thinking, etc. and not have the extra $200k in debt and 5 year lag that their college-educated peers have.

To me this is all obvious.  Why go to prison when you can be free?

Probably 16 of the 20 people there completely hated me by the end of my ten minutes. You ever get that visceral feeling when everyone in a room is sending waves of revulsion in your direction?

One guy said, “I went to college those four years and now I’m in my dream job and I learned things about myself that I never would’ve learned and…” I can’t remember the rest of what he said. For one thing, how could he know what he would’ve learned if he didn’t go to college?  And for another thing, who cares about his personal experience?

We’re all in NYC and the average age around the table was about 40. We’re the masters of the universe! What about the personal experiences right now of 22 year olds who graduate who can’t get their dream jobs and are worried sick about all the debt they collected?

Before the end of the night everyone had given me their personal experience and how great college was for them. It was like I was the accused and my judge, jury, and executioner equated college with perpetual orgasm. [Emphasis in original]

Now, remember, this is all in a post that isn’t about sending kids to college. It’s about the reaction of a group of people who listened to Altucher’s thoughts about sending kids to college, and his reaction to their reaction. But to set up the punchline Altucher has taken the time to briefly but thoroughly lay out his position on college, with links to much more detailed posts on the subject. It takes up the first half of the post. He could have cut to the chase much more quickly, but it would have been a mistake. The setup is concise enough to not bore even a faithful reader (I’m one, and I’ve read him on this several times, and I was still glad to hear it again), yet thorough enough to give you a solid sense of where his audience’s heads were at when he gets to the meat of the post.

Even better, there is a passing point buried in the above excerpt that merits just as deep an examination as the college question. Altucher doesn’t provide a link, so he may not yet have written at length about it. I hope he does. Here’s the section I’m talking about.

And for another thing, who cares about his personal experience?  [Emphasis added]

We’re all in NYC and the average age around the table was about 40. We’re the masters of the universe! What about the personal experiences right now of 22 year olds who graduate who can’t get their dream jobs and are worried sick about all the debt they collected?

“Who cares about his personal experience?” This is a good example of where not to quote out of context. Altucher does not mean that personal experience is irrelevant or uninteresting—his whole approach to blogging is built on it! What he means (if I may be so bold) is that it is a mistake for the people in the room to generalize from their own experience. Especially for them, since they are nowhere near normative. These are people who have made it in one of the most competitive environments on earth. Most of the rest of us have not, and would not be able to. Just because something worked for these very unusual people does not make it relevant to the average person.

The same goes for anyone. A personal experience is not always normative. Just because your kids turned out smart or did not desert the faith when grown does not mean that your child-rearing method was the reason. It may be extremely relevant to someone in your situation, and your situation might be a common one. But in other situations it may be meaningless.

I’m definitely in Altucher’s camp when it comes to conveying wisdom by relating personal experience. Look back through my own weblog and I think you’ll see that in my posts I only ever tell readers what I’ve decided to do and why, never what they should do. So how to use personal experience in an edifying manner? I think the trick is to generalize first, and only then rummage around in your personal history for an experience that illustrates the general point.

This is big, and I will write about it at length somewhere down the road. But for now I just want to make a note of what Altucher wrote, and to give you a taste of his writing.

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One thought on “Don’t generalize from personal experience

  1. That’s a very good lesson!

    I did not go to college. I would be lying if I said I did not wonder what I would have learned, or if I would have had more opportunities, but I realize that I have spent my entire life learning, and there is no sense in stopping now. I have learned enough in my few years to work as an editor’s assistant in a global ministry. I have developed skills through my college years (without acquiring the debt that comes along with the more official education).

    My pastor has said that our culture does not consider what a person knows, only whether they have the documentation to prove it. I think that is a sad fact.

    I’ll look forward to the “at length” post. :)

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