Admit it, you clicked on this because you want to be successful.
It’s okay, I think most of us do. That’s why I wrote this post.
I spend a good portion of my professional life listening to “successful” people talk about what got them to where they are today.
Our culture is addicted to success stories.
We worship business leaders and pop stars and pastors who start great companies, record hit songs, and build mega churches.
We assume they must have something to teach us about how they did it.
So we read their books, watch their interviews, follow them on Twitter in search of things we can apply to our own lives to find success like theirs.
But the problem is, what worked for them won’t necessarily work for you or me.
There is a fundamental flaw in studying the actions of successful people. It’s called survivorship bias.
In his book, he talks about bomber crews during World War II. The British Air Ministry wanted to figure out how to better protect allied bomber planes during combat. So they began studying the locations of bullet holes in planes that returned from combat. Engineers installed extra armor plating over areas with the highest concentration of bullet holes. They assumed these areas would be most likely to be hit on future flights.
It didn’t work.
They made a fundamental mistake by only studying the planes that were lucky enough to make it home.
What they should have done is study the planes that did NOT return. That’s where the important information was. The planes needed extra armor where the bullet holes weren’t.
Survivorship bias is the tendency to include only successes in statistical analysis.
It can lead to overly optimistic beliefs because failures are ignored, such as when companies that no longer exist are excluded from analyses of financial performance. It can also lead to the false belief that the successes in a group have some special property, rather than being just lucky.
The point is, studying failure is just as important as studying success. We need both. And I’m not just talking about studying the little mistakes successful people made along the way. We need to study the failures of people we’ve never heard of. Because for every Mark Zuckerburg, Beyonce, or Billy Graham, there are thousands of people who probably took a similar path but didn’t make it.
The other issue I have with success is our flawed view of what it really means. I think I’ll leave that for another post.
In the meantime, make sure you are paying attention to the stories of failure just as much as the stories of success.