The N=1 of Life Advice

In the many, many ideas for everything from very simple life hacking to outright radical lifestyle design, it’s all about the individual.

Implicitly or explicitly, someone is presented or outright proclaims himself (more rarely, herself) *the* example of success.

“I did it, he/she did it – so definitely, so can you! Everyone can do it if they just want it enough!”

Realize it or not, it’s a lot like that strain of positive thinking where you’re responsible for everything that happens in your life. Which, unfortunately, ends up meaning that if you get cancer, for example, you’re being blamed for it all yourself (as Barbara Ehrenreich pointed out so well).

Success, just like cancer, is related to your own doing, but pure (good or bad) luck also plays a big part in it.

Special Snowflakes

So, no, just like not everybody gets, or can prevent themselves getting, cancer, not everyone can “do it.”

One person having managed to make him-/herself successful in a certain way can, in fact, mean that it gets all the more difficult for anybody else to achieve a similar kind of success.

One person’s success is an example, and perhaps an inspirational one, but it may also just be a fluke.

This is a major issue that plagued Tim Ferriss’ “The Four-Hour Body”, where the success is merely physical.

In the book, Tim looks to outliers (and his guinea-pig self) to find how things could possibly be done differently and more quickly, to even greater results. Whenever he can, he tries out things himself – and then suggests that everyone should do them for the same great results.

It doesn’t necessarily work that way.

As one could see in his ultramarathon career (What ultramarathon career? What single ultramarathon, in fact? Exactly.), the outlier he looked to may have been just that, an outlier.

HIIT training, for example, is not necessarily the path to endurance success – just as common knowledge would have it.

And that’s the thing.

What works for most people is not the peculiar thing that worked for some outlier, it is probably that which has been working for most people.

After all, you are most likely not some special outlier, but just another part of that average.

The Experiment of You

The other side of this issue, where a sample size of just one person, i.e. an N=1, is not exactly a great basis on which to make suggestions, however, is that you yourself are only one individual person.

You are an N of 1.

As such, what works for you doesn’t have to work for other people, what works for you may just have happened to work for you and you can’t rewind your life and do a re-test trying out another approach.

And in the same vein, but on the other side of that equation, what works for the average may not work so well for you.

So, you may want to try out where on the spectrum between outliers and average you do fall in matters that are important to you.

(Medicine, in fact, may have to focus more specifically on the individual response to a treatment.)

Maybe the long slow runs are not as good for you as HIIT training.
Maybe a diet with fewer carbohydrates will be good for you; or maybe focusing on fat and protein does not do you good.

Possibly, if you keep up good-enough work on the side, you can turn it into a successful side biz. Or maybe even your main source of income.

Or maybe not. Most startups still fail, most world-traveling vagabonds still settle down at some point.

You’ll have to try out things and find what is good for you.

Just don’t think that something feeling good has to mean it’s the truth for you (until you’ve sensibly tested it out – and even then, don’t tell others this is *the* way to do it, it’s just a suggestion).

Especially, don’t do that when there’s actual science and facts – beyond the most recent case of “a new study says” – involved, not just holy books or personal opinions…

(On that point of science, watch John Oliver’s video, which I’ve also just linked to)

Still, what is likely to be good for everyone, average and outliers alike, is just that trying out of things.

Even if all you find out in the end is that you don’t actually want to try out new things, you’ll still have learned something on the way there…

← Previous post

Next post →


  1. Asaf

    We are infected not only by others’ methods to success (athletic and in general), but by the definition of success. If it wasn’t for Strava, I guess I wouldn’t chase nameless segments, competing with faceless riders…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.