The title of this note is a bit pretentious. Thoughts on Success? Sounds like something a very successful and important person would write, certainly not a note by a recent college graduate just starting his yuppie life. That’s the very topic I want to tackle, the yuppie and plus obsession with success stories. Let me start with what this note is not. This note is not a post-modern disdain for Horatio Alger exercises. For that, refer to the academic trend of writing about the “real” Founding Fathers etc etc. In fact, by the end of this note, I hope you agree with me that success stories are important in how we see ourselves. This note is not a Marxist manifesto calling for the abolition of wealth and its associated glories. Rather this note is about how we draw our lessons about the qualities of great people, and how we should be drawing our lessons.The typical success story as it’s written and read goes something like this. Person X has X, Y, Z quality. Person X becomes successful because of X, Y, Z. Do X, Y, Z and you will also become successful. The basic argument always takes this form; more sophisticated models incorporate additional variables, like linking variables to childhood experiences or including some element of luck. I have several gripes with such thinking. The first two are logical ones, the third one a practical one. Finally, I’ll submit my own interpretation for consideration.
The first issue is known in the finance world as survivalship bias. I was lucky enough to have an amusing professor who explained survivalship bias through the following animal metaphor. In movies and pop culture, dolphins are seen as friendly creatures, saving drowning sailors and swimmers. Part of this belief is based on the real observation that dolphins have been seen pushing struggling swimmers towards the shore. From these observations we construct the belief that dolphins are lifesavers. Recently, this image has become more nuanced. It turns out dolphins only sometimes push swimmers towards the shore; sometimes they push swimmers further from shore. Naturally, many of these swimmers drown, so we only tend to observe the dolphins saving lives. Combined with the fact that dolphins are one of the few animals known to kill for sport, we see how naïve we were. The same prolonged metaphor applies to the qualities our success stories tell. Sure, Steve Jobs has X quality and made it big, but how many people with X quality have crashed and burned never to be immortalized in a multi-billion dollar company? Yes, Steve Jobs was combative to the point of aggression, but how many assholes do we know end their lives as Middle Managers? The point is that if we blindly apply the qualities (even the appealing ones) we might be trusting the nasty dolphin, pushing us towards a nasty end.
The second issue is the lack of counterfactuals. Counterfactuals are just “what-ifs”. With history, it’s hard to say what would have happened if we went back in time and tweaked an event. When we look at only the qualities of successful people we lack the “what-ifs” of successful people. What if Jobs was a nice guy? Would he still have been able to build his empire? We’d be tempted to say no. We have the benefit of hindsight and we tend to assume out of habit that things that precede an event are necessary for the event to happen. The truth is that we can’t know. We can’t turn back the cogs like an experiment and see what would have happened. Because of our inability to carry out experiments, we lack the right tools to tell if something is a necessary quality for success. Compounded in this problem is that we see plenty of examples of people succeeding in the same field with polar opposite qualities. Being headstrong made some of the best lawyers, but so did knowing when to cut losses.
Some people may be off put by the previous two objections. They’re too abstract, too out there. What did this kid do, study liberal arts? (By the way I studied business). For these readers (few who have made it here) I pose the following question, “Why aren’t biographers the most successful people?” If success is really just some formula, then it follows that those who study it the most should be able to replicate it the mostly easily. If success is really just some application of imitation, it follows that people who dedicate their careers to studying success would be able to become fabulously successful. Maybe, the argument can be made that studying success does not imply that you will be successful. Those scholars are missing that spark that takes them into the realm of the successful. If you buy that argument however, then you agree with me that success cannot be studied and developed!
Why do people, especially young people fall for such rubbish? I suspect the reason is simple. There’s comfort in formulas for success. There’s comfort that if I do X, Y happens where Y is desirable. Where life is beginning, such formulas, stories and simplicity appeals to us. Maybe society trains us to be this way, to accept formulas. Maybe there’s innate comfort encroached in human biases. Either way, it doesn’t matter much why we fall prey to it, but that we do fall prey to it.
I finally put forth my own argument. There is no secret. If there was one or several secrets to success, there would be only one book in the world. This book would contain these secrets; why bother reading any other books? Success is found in X,Y,Z but also most importantly in E. E is the error in the model, the unknown unknown. E means that there can’t be one formula for success. E can override all the other observable variables. We shouldn’t be in the habit of ignoring something just because we cannot pin it down. E is the underlying driver that we should be looking for. E are the secrets that successful people keep to themselves, perhaps only telling it to their children or spouses. E isn’t a simple as luck; luck can’t be quantified and added in as a variable. E is the uncertain element. What we need is not to search for a path to success but the courage to embrace the uncertainty that there is no path. That there isn’t a formula to success doesn’t mean that we should despair. It means that we should find freedom in the fact that we can develop our own paths toward success. It means we don’t have to ape our heroes to become heroes ourselves. Human beings love a good story; there’s a reason that every good politician uses anecdotal evidence. We need to be careful of the stories we tell and the lessons we draw, especially when the impact is on our own life stories.
My thanks to my editors
All mistakes are of course my own.