As we strive to improve our lives and further our careers by learning from those more wise and experienced than ourselves, it's important to remember that not all success merits emulating. You should pick and choose the advice that works for you. It's interesting to know how a billionaire entrepreneur got to where they are, but that doesn't mean you should try to follow their path.
You Probably Aren't A Genius (And That's OK)
Any reader of Lifehacker knows that there is an entire genre of writing that examines the workflows of unique, brilliant people and shares their tips to improve productivity (I know it well!) And yet it's important, I think, to always be mindful that famous entrepreneurs, authors, artists and people who have achieved great things are unique. Explosive success is rare, and imitating every aspect of someone's work just because they were a genius won't necessarily benefit you. It's interesting, for example, if Albert Einstein had a messy desk, but that doesn't mean a messy desk will help you with your work. You can experiment, and see what works for you, but don't use it as a misguided justification to not clean your desk.
Steve Jobs is a classic example of a fascinating man whose methodology doesn't necessarily merit imitation despite founding what is now the most valuable company in the world. There's a lot to learn from Steve, but -- there's always a but -- he was also notoriously harsh with his staff and his biting, direct criticism inspired lots of fear on the Apple campus. I wouldn't adopt his manner of communications even if it might have motivated people to push themselves in their work. That it worked for him does not mean that I should necessarily follow that example.
If you consider our How I Work series, it's fascinating to see what tools Ira Glass uses to do his job, but adopting every aspect of that workflow won't necessarily elevate my writing to his level. Organising the ideas in this post with pen and paper just wouldn't work for me, but there is certainly value in understanding his methods.
There's No Magic Bullet For Success
So how do you know when to follow the examples of your favourite productivity hero and when to ignore their quirks? You should focus on what matters to you, and what is relevant to the issues you're currently dealing with, and not pursue odd tactics just because someone famous did it. In discussing the myth of creativity in the Pacific Standard, Casey N. Cep aptly pointed out that there is no magic bullet to achieve greatness, and that any productive mind is working with the same tools as us:
They all live and work with the same materials that we do. They use pen and paper and laptops; they eat food and drink coffee; they live in apartments and houses; they write in coffee shops and libraries.
But there's something to be said for the idea that the best tool, gadget, or app for a job is the one you have with you. Sometimes this relates directly to the precedents set by fabled heroes -- I do carry a Moleskine notebook because Hemingway did and the romantic dream of Paris in the twenties made it appealing, but it's actually a good tool that I enjoy using. It would be foolish, though, to think it helps me write like Hemingway. And his other lifestyle choices, well, would probably be best to avoid.
Pick and choose what works best for you and keep in mind that the achievements of charismatic historical figures or contemporary geniuses weren't the result of any simple trick. I'm fascinated by how people work and there is often great value in examining the routines and specific tools used by exemplary people -- just be aware that what worked for them might not be the best for you.