Biographies of successful people, stories about their companies, their traits and paths they have chosen in life (From the mundane habits to very specific actions). Many of us try to follow it all, from structuring our companies exactly as they did to keeping the same diet in our attempt to become “rich and famous”. The question that I have, should we? Does learning from success actually increase our chances of it?

The intuitive answer is yes, but I would like to invite you to delve deeper. There are certain misconceptions about lessons to be learned from success that we often fail to take into account.

One such misconception is what is known as survivorship bias. Say you are presented with 3 people who have “survived” to become successful, you are also told that they all read The Economist, like to party and drink wine. This might lead to a day full of reading articles from the Economist, drinking a bottle of wine with you best friend and then heading off to the meanest night club in your city. That is, of course, If you do not take into account the failures who also exhibit those traits. For instance if you found out the next morning that out of 1 000 000 people who also read The Economist, like to party and drink wine only 3 can be considered “successful” then you might regret doing all those things the night before, especially with quite a headache and an inability to work for the whole next day.

What is more, there is also the role of luck to be considered. Take Warren Buffet, one of the most famous investors to date. Now, I will not go so far as to argue that he is lucky, but it could be argued that statistically it is quite probable that there would be at least one hypothetical Warren Buffet on this planet who was simply lucky. And if he was, truly lucky, should we learn from him? In this particular case, I would still suggest that we should. However is that because he made the right choices to begin with or because he gained immense knowledge and power after he became successful? Due to my high regard for the actual Warren Buffet, I would still like to believe that his success has little to do with luck.

The point is – we never hear about the failures, but I would like to argue that this is where we would learn the most. This is where true experience lies, untouched by flaws of bias and skewed results. This is where we can look into the repeatable and measurable mistakes of others that lead to failure and try to avoid those by optimizing our choices accordingly.

Thus I would much rather listen to 100 failed entrepreneurs than to one that has succeeded once, even if this success was massive.

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, Chapter 1”

I will leave you with a TED talk that provides a very clear example of survivorship bias in medical research and how it has a real effect on medications that we use everyday:

Ben Goldacre: What doctors don’t know about the drugs they prescribe

// This post is partially based on the ideas from the book “Fooled by Randomness” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb*

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