Why we’re wrong about success


Good to Great was a book written to try and predict what made companies successful. Years later, half of those companies went bankrupt or were in trouble. Scientists have something they call the survivorship bias. It describes the faulty thinking that comes from learning by only focusing on success instead of both successes and failures. Thus leading one to believe something succeeded because of, having certain traits whilst failing to consider all the failures who had those traits.

Learning from past success isn’t bad. In fact, it’s what has gotten humans this far. However using what we learn to predict the future is another thing altogether.

Both personally and on a large scale, humans are bad at predicting the future. Trump, Brexit, Google and Africa are some subjects over which, not laymen but experts have been wrong.

And on a personal level there are many events that took place in our lives which we had no idea would have the impact they did on us.

So why are we probably wrong about what makes us successful? Because we don’t know what we want. Research has shown ironically that traditional market research wasn’t helpful because customers don’t know what they want until they have it. That explains why customers tell you what they want in a product but won’t buy it when you give it to them. They don’t really know what they want until they have it.

An experiment was performed where three bottles of soap were given to customers, each supposed to have different formulas and with a different color. Here’s the catch, they were all the same formula with exactly the same level of effectiveness. Yet when asked for feedback many preferred one over the others even though there was no difference whatsoever.

And we’ve all bought something we thought we wanted only to regret it days later. And we realized it was no one’s fault but ours alone.

Then there’s how bad we are at relating with others. Humans are supposed to be born to be social beings. Yet we struggle with it. Understanding how others think, who our friends really are, and how what people actually think of you affects your success. On that last point I’d like to note; although caring too much about what people think is dangerous, not caring enough is deadly. After all, none of us is the epitome of objectivity. And sometimes what is perceived is more important than what’s real.

Most people reading this blog will probably be waiting for what my proposed solution is.

Three things;

  1.   Hope for the best but Prepare for and expect the worst.

This may seem like pure negativity but its realism. Things don’t always go your way and you have to accept that. Accepting that allows you to move on when things don’t. It also keeps you from easily getting discouraged. And when the success does come, you can forget about your failures. Except the ones that taught you important lessons.

2.       Be prepared to be wrong. 

   As I stated earlier, none of us are purely objective. Sometimes we lie to ourselves or can’t see things clearly.  And sometimes we’re just wrong. An ability to tolerate the possibility that we could be on the wrong path and to consider is what managers  call ‘adaptability’. We’ve all heard the story. Of the big shot who underestimated the underdog and was later outwitted. Tech startups are full of such stories. IBM has been replaced by Google and tomorrow who knows?

3. Think about what you’re sacrificing   

I feel most people don’t consider this enough when undertaking a project or venture. People want to be successful at their careers, without realizing they could be sacrificing time with friends and family. People want to be ‘successful’ without realizing that it takes years of mistakes and painful uncertainty. People want to be successful but don’t realize that to get something you have to give something. Any amount of time and energy given to a particular activity is time and energy that could have been used doing something else. Economists call that opportunity cost. Which is a fitting name, I think.

So if you follow all these three will you be successful? You’re probably more likely to be, but I don’t know for sure.

First and most important however, is the question “What does success mean to you?” I left this out because its something I feel everyone must decide for themselves. Continually everyday. Because the definition of success does change. What society considered successful a century ago isn’t what it consider successful now. So what you consider successful today may be different from your definition a decade or two from now.


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