The Problem with Success Stories

You see a lot of articles, posts and videos all over the web about what it takes to be successful. Whether that be the 12 things successful people do differently or 17 tips from the world’s greatest, but do these things actually help?

My biggest problem is, since this information is literally all over the internet, how come everyone hasn’t made it yet? A smaller issue is, if everyone has access to this information and everyone tries to follow this advice, how come so few people actually make it?

After hours of research, I finally found an answer…

Survivorship Bias – the bias of concentrating on the people or things that have “survived”, hence, made it through something tough or difficult, while inadvertently overlooking those that didn’t because of their lack of visibility… In context, only listening to the successful people about their successes, while ignoring the failures and their struggles when reaching success.

This doesn’t just apply in this context, however, as there are many examples in life where we will talk to the people who have “succeeded” in life, whether that be financial, in a relationship or just those who are great at video games. No one really knows what it takes to be successful, so take advice with a pinch of salt & consider those who fail too.

Let me give you an example. The most common advice I’ve heard about how to be successful is about being prepared to take risks, as, you either 1) get through and the risk pays off, or 2) you fail and learn from your mistakes. Even though that seems to make sense, what about all those who are bankrupt? Surely they took risks too, but the consequences of their risks just so happened to be fatal? How can we seriously consider “take more risks” as good advice, then condemn gambling? Isn’t gambling the mother of all risks?

Here’s another short example. If you haven’t already read In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters & Robert H. Waterman Jr., I strongly recommend you buy it from that link and have a good long read! The book contains a close analysis of around 50 “top” companies and compiles a list of eight of their key traits to success. If you’ve read the book, you may have noticed that Kodak, the so-called “excellent” company, has actually gone bankrupt since the book was released in 2005… Say what?

Kodak isn’t the only company in that book to go bankrupt either, Dana, Delta and K-Mart are also in the same boat, and other organisations in the book have since fallen well under the market average. So, were these companies really excellent? Can we really trust this advice?

The truth is if you only listen to successful people, and ignore all the failures, you’re going to have a very distorted view on life. Fundamentally, all advice is very anyway. Taking (smart) risks can pay off but only if you work hard and work smart in order to get through it, you also need to have a great attitude towards your work otherwise you’ll often struggle to give it your all.

All in all, all advice is useful, but it’s good to be sceptical and question the relevance of what you hear. Also, speak to those that have failed too, as that may help you learn more.


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