Successful people are often used as examples for others. The message that you often hear is that if you do things like them, you too can become successful. Follow what they do, act like them and riches beyond your wildest imagination will come knocking at your door.

However one of the things that I have been thinking about lately is what lessons can you really learn from these types of cases. Are there relevant things that you can pick out and use them as blueprints for your life or is this just a case of survivor bias coming into play?

This question goes to the heart of self-improvement and any type of advice, in different kinds of fields (business, life, fitness).

It’s very hard to differentiate sometimes. I too have often used examples of successful people in order to illustrate some point or lesson. On the other hand, I have also said that you need to take everything with a grain of salt and warned against taking any type of advice without thinking whether it applies to you and your circumstances.

There are many people who try to present themselves as gurus or authorities and convince people to do what they are saying. Many of these people don’t do it to help others, but instead just to line their own pockets or to increase their influence. Sometimes this advice can be downright dangerous.

Not everyone is out to get you though and some people do offer tips in order to genuinely help others. However even this has its own problems. Most successful people downplay the influence of luck and much of this advice does not take into account randomness, survivor bias or hindsight bias.

David McRaney (author of “You Are Not So Smart”) describes the magical, almost mystical pull of survivor bias in this way:

Survivorship bias pulls you toward bestselling diet gurus, celebrity CEOs, and superstar athletes. It’s an unavoidable tick, the desire to deconstruct success like a thieving magpie and pull away the shimmering bits. You look to the successful for clues about the hidden, about how to better live your life, about how you too can survive similar forces against which you too struggle.

Genius Painter

Maybe you have been in this situation before. You are looking at a modern painting composed of different patterns and colors and discussing with your friends what the artist meant by the different elements in the artwork.

One guy says that the preponderance of yellow and how it mixes in the with the blue at the bottom symbolizes the importance of the sun for the planet by portraying how the morning rays hit the water. The girl next to you chips in with her deep philosophical reflections and how she meditates to a print of the painting before going to sleep.

You then see the artist, the author of the work pass by. Excited, you ask him the question on the meaning of the painting and how it was made. The author responds: “Oh I was just walking around my house one day, tripped and fell and in the process spilled all my cans of paint on the canvas.”

Powerful, ain’t it? 🙂

This situation is not unique, but part of a much larger internal process. The brain looks for patterns and wants to find some sort of an explanation. This happens even if the explanation is wrong and the result occurred because of some random event.

This type of brain functioning is also at work when trying to explain success. The CEO is a creative thinker, who always thinks two steps ahead…etc., when in fact the decision could have gone either way and the outcome was based on luck.

Survivor Bias

Survivor bias is a powerful principle which oftentimes causes our thinking to go astray. Let’s do a practical example to illustrate:

Picture yourself as an aircraft engineer during World War 2. Thousands of airplanes go on bombing runs everyday. They contain crews which are highly trained, however suffer from high casualty rates. These crews go on hundreds of missions and the probability is high that they won’t come back.

As an engineer, it is your job to make the airplane as damage-proof as possible and hence lower the chance of it getting shot down and enhance the chance of its crew getting back in one piece. What do you do?

After every run, you go examine the returning airplanes for damage. After a while, you start noticing patterns. The most amounts of bullet holes occur around certain sections of the planes. The wings and tails are all shot up, while things like the cockpit or fuel tanks only have limited damage.

You need to reinforce the weakest sections of the plane with stronger armor. Which sections of the plane would benefit from getting better protection?

Think about the problem. Where would you put the reinforced armor?


So what was your answer? Did you notice that the description said that most of the holes in the planes occurred around the tails and wings. Did you then decide that these would be the parts of the plane that needed the reinforcing?

If so, then you would be committing the same error that most people, including the engineers working on the planes during WW2 committed. The engineers saw the damage on the returning planes and based on all the holes clustering in certain sections, decided to reinforce those.

That was the plan, until a mathematician named Abraham Wald started thinking about the problem. He noticed that everyone was doing a very common error.

Go back to the description and notice which word gives away the error. The key word here is “returning”, hence the survivors. Wald realized that the problem was survivor bias.

In order to determine where to put the reinforced armor, the engineers shouldn’t be focusing on the planes that made it back, but instead on the ones that didn’t. If the planes made it back and their wings and tails were all shot up, that meant that they were hit, but still managed to survive.

The common pattern was that the surviving planes had other sections which were relatively unscathed. It was in fact these that needed reinforcing, because most likely the planes that got hit there didn’t make it back.

This little piece of thinking probably saved countless planes and lives during the war. The lesson to keep in mind here is that by focusing on the survivors you might be getting the wrong message and coming to the wrong conclusions. If you really want to get the whole picture, then don’t focus only on the survivors, but also on the ones who didn’t survive.

You might have also heard about the following little trick. Imagine you have a sizable mailing list of people.

In the first week, you take that list, pick a stock and email one half of the list the prediction that that particular stock will rise and the other half of the list you will email the prediction that the stock will fall.

Let’s say that in that week the stock price rose. So the next week you discard the emails of the people you sent the prediction that the price will fall, and only send predictions to the people who got the correct prediction.

Once again, you will divide the list in two and to each half you will send opposite predictions. After that week, you will follow in the same manner.

If your initial email list was large enough, then even after several weeks of this, you will still have hundreds of people on your list who received the correct prediction EVERY time. They will regard you as a genius and you can start proposing your more expensive “services”.

Were you a genius? No, the entire matter was just luck and statistics.

Basic Assumptions

Much of this is due to the way we think. The human brain is always looking for patterns, trying to connect things and to offer explanations. Oftentimes these are not an objective reality, but instead only the figments of our own imaginations.

There are two assumptions to keep in mind (one stemming from the other):

1) the brain likes to create patterns
2) the fact that the brain likes to create patterns means that it tends to ignore luck and random events

The brain is always looking at answering the question “why” and the answer “just because” doesn’t cut it.

It can create patterns out of randomness. You might still remember the little story I posted about Ramon Llull a while back.

He created a device (now called the llullian circle) which would piece together random words and ideas in order to create a coherent story. This device could create workable stories out of random words and themes. The building blocks were random, but the resulting story didn’t seem so!

The funny thing is that this way of creating “explanations” is not way off from the way that the brain works. Your mind likes to work on causality. In this way, we create stories about successful people and try to put in explanations about their success.

Correlation and causation are not the same thing. The fact that something happened together with something else, does not mean that that one thing is the cause of the other thing happening. This is very important to keep in mind.

Sometimes people attribute success to something, but in reality it had no effect, but something else (behind the scenes) was in fact responsible.


Imitating successful people can result in blind imitation (or imitating the wrong things). For example on some Pacific islands, the locals developed a cult of Prince Philip.

The human assumption built into a cargo cult is that ‘if I imitate my role model I will become like my role model’. As a consequence, after WWII Pacific Islanders could be observed marching with wooden guns and painted stripes that imitated the ranks of the US Army. The hope for the ‘marching’ cargo cults was that their efforts would be rewarded with material goods such as clothing, food and drink in the same ways that the US GIs were clearly seen to have been.

That’s why marketers like to use famous and successful people in their commercials. People often tend to associate the thing being advertised with the person and their success. Maybe if you do what they do, you too will become like them.

That’s why firms like to use sports stars in their commercials, for example for shoes, or other things.

Grant Hill drinks Sprite?” Then I must drink Sprite in order to be like him…

Hindsight Bias

Survivor bias is the tendency to look at survivors, the ones who made it to the top and then backward rationalize how they made it. This leads to hindsight bias.

Hindsight bias is seeing an event as predictable after it has occurred. Once again, this leads to creating explanations based on a narrative, but missing a lot of information in the process.

Many people backward rationalize their success. Even though the reason for their success had nothing to do with the explanation they gave for it.

I made it, because I worked hard” is how people often explain their success, forgetting about that lucky break that they got. Plenty of other people worked just as hard or harder and they didn’t make it.

The CEO who made the decision to go with Product A over Product B and that decision panned out is hailed as a hero and a visionary, while the one who made a similar decision, but the product flopped is derided as useless.

What we often forget is that there were plenty of sure bets, the next best products that never made it.

Steve Jobs is hailed as a visionary thinker, yet in the early 2000s, he called one piece of technology the most revolutionary technology since the personal computer. Jobs offered millions of dollars to its inventor, only to be refused.

What was this out-of-this world technology? The Segway!

In 2013, John Doerr, the investor who pumped tens of millions of dollars into the project is quoted as saying:

Segway as an investment was a failure, no question about it. I made some pretty bold predictions about Segway that were wrong.

Steve Jobs made plenty of bad bets too. However they seem to be missing from his story. We could probably learn a lot by looking into these failures.

In hindsight, the rise of Steve Jobs and Apple is seen as inevitable. In reality, it wasn’t.

Hindsight bias often clouds our view of reality and backwards reconstructs something in a way which differs from what actually happened. There is an interesting scientific paper on hindsight bias.

In it, the researchers, Neal Roese and Kathleen Vohs, look at what types of consequences result from this bias.

Consequences of hindsight bias include myopic attention to a single causal understanding of the past (to neglect of other reasonable explanations) as well as general overconfidence in the certainty of one’s judgments.

This is how hindsight bias works:

People selectively recall information consistent with what they now know to be true and engage in sensemaking to impose meaning on their own knowledge.

Based on this, people then create some sort of a narrative. This type of a narrative is then the core of the advice that people give to others. They assume that if the others replicate this step by step, they too will achieve the same results.

However that is not true. Most people, even if they follow the advice to the letter will not achieve the same results. This is due to the fact that the narrative is missing many other factors, chief of which is the role of circumstances and luck.

For your next million dollar book idea, use a llullian circle to come up with a way to express the success of a famous person. In one part of the circle, put in names from a list of successful people, in another part of the circle, put in some random characteristics like persistent, hard-working, driven…etc. To make the book even more “insightful”, maybe add a few other extra axes with other different variables. Then spin the circle and voila, you have a bestseller!

Every year, hundreds of books come out trying to explain the “why” and “how” of certain success stories, whether in business, sports or other fields.

They try to list different factors that led to this success and then offer a blueprint how that success can be replicated. If you do what company A or person B did, then you too can be successful.

Look at this raving description of a certain company from January 2001 by the analysts of Bear Stearns, one of the largest investment banks at the time:

Already an established leader in the natural gas industry, the company is moving rapidly — through revolutionary communications systems and interfaces — to become the world’s preeminent energy and commodities marketer, high-density Internet distributor, and distributed energy leader. We believe that this company should be compared to leading global companies like GE, Citigroup, Nokia, Microsoft, and Intel, and that its valuation reflects this eminence.

The company in question is of course, Enron. They went bankrupt later that year after the discovery of massive fraud.

Enron was in fact the subject of several books that tried to use it as a best practice case and an example for others to follow. One of these books was called “Creative Destruction”. The title of the book is an eerie omen of what would later happen to the company.


That one brilliant decision

A stupid decision that works out well becomes a brilliant decision in hindsight.” Daniel Kahneman

Have you heard of George Bell? Unless you are a junkie of internet history, that name doesn’t ring a bell (no pun intended 🙂 ).

He was the CEO of Excite, one of the early internet giants. The Excite webpage also offered a search engine, which was one of the early market leaders.

In 1999, two graduate students came to his office and offered to sell him their company for 1 million dollars. Supposedly they wanted to concentrate on their studies and this little toy of theirs was interfering. Bell rejected the offer.

Later, Vinod Khosla, a famous venture capitalist who was working for Excite, negotiated the deal down to 750 thousand dollars. Bell threw him out of his office. The rest is history.

The two graduate students were Sergey Brin and Larry Page and the company they were selling was Google. Just a short time later, Google became the leading search engine, while Excite tanked and George Bell was soon out of a job.

Funny to think that if things had gone differently, today we could be hailing George Bell as one of the greatest internet visionaries and the Brin & Page duo would just be footnotes.

We can now see what a stupid decision on Bell’s part it was not to buy that small company, but as they say hindsight is 20/20.

At the time Excite was an internet juggernaut and they had already bought several other leading internet search engines. Bell was probably receiving offers daily for other pieces of technology and so another search engine, one basically developed by two students in their garage did not seem that appealing.

Today we have countless books trying to expose the secrets of Brin and Page and no one even remembers Bell.

Things could have been different and we might have been taking business lessons from George Bell and Brin and Page would have suffered the same fate that Rod Brock and Tim Patterson did. Haven’t heard of those guys either?

Well, Brock and Patterson were from a company called Seattle Computer Products and developed the DOS operating system. They sold the system to Microsoft and Bill Gates used it as the premier product to establish the dominance of his company on the computer market.

Gates is a household name, while Brock and Patterson are forgotten.

Is all advice useless?

Of course chance favors the prepared! Hard work, showing up on time, wearing a clean (preferably white) shirt, using deodorant, and some such conventional things contribute to success—they are certainly necessary but may be insufficient as they do not cause success. The same applies to the conventional values of persistence, doggedness and perseverance: necessary, very necessary. One needs to go out and buy a lottery ticket in order to win. Does it mean that the work involved in the trip to the store caused the winning?” Nassim Taleb (author of “Fooled by Randomness”)

No, all advice is not useless. In fact, some of it can often be quite actionable. However you always need to keep in mind that there is an entire story that is missing in the narrative and put everything in context.

Two people doing the exact same thing can achieve very different results, usually through no fault of their own.

Mild success can be explainable by skills and labor. Wild success is attributable to variance.” Nasim Taleb

If you want to be successful, there is a certain amount of serendipity and luck involved in that. You still need to do all the other things in order to get from point A to point B, but you cannot forget the great role that randomness plays in the world.

It is preferable to be lucky than competent.” Nassim Taleb

Most people today severely underestimate the role that luck plays in their lives. We like to think that we are in control of our lives, but that is not always necessarily the case.

To put luck in perspective, you have to look at the bigger picture. In an interesting interview, physicist Murray Gell-Mann, discusses the role of accidents in history:

The importance of accidents in the history of the universe can thus hardly be exaggerated. Each of us human beings, for example, is the product of an enormously long sequence of accidents, any of which could have turned out differently. Think of the fluctuations that produced our galaxy, the accidents that led to the formation of the solar system, including the condensation of dust and gas that produced Earth, the accidents that helped to determine the particular way that life began to evolve on Earth, and the accidents that contributed to the evolution of particular species with particular characteristics, including the special features of the human species. Each of us individuals has genes that result from a long sequence of accidental mutations and chance matings, as well as natural selection.

In today’s society, luck is often downplayed. Sometimes people even say that there is no such things as luck.

However the role of luck in the shaping of events has been viewed differently in other cultures and at different times. The discounting of luck might be a modern cultural construct. For example, in Ancient Rome people realized the importance of luck and even created temples to Lady Fortuna.

Even a great statesman like Gaius Julius Caesar always thought that his greatest quality was his “luck”. Yes, he had other qualities, but he always emphasized that he was lucky and used it as a selling point in fact. The key was that he capitalized on his luck.

A book that looks at the role of circumstances in success is “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell. In it, there is a story on the rise of Bill Gates and Microsoft.

Much of this was due to circumstances. Young Bill was from a rich family and went to a selective private high school, which had a mainframe at a time when even most universities didn’t have one. He was able to get much learning time and acquire key skills when most of his peers didn’t have these opportunities.

However he was not the only one who had this opportunity. What separated Gates from the others was the fact that he capitalized on his luck.

He was able to see opportunities when others didn’t. In fact, much of the thing that Microsoft would end up selling as its products, like the mouse or an operating system, were developed by others. The mouse was developed by Bell Labs, a creative powerhouse, but the invention was just sitting there unused. It took Bill Gates to come in and see its potential.

When luck came, he was prepared.

How to limit the effects of survivor bias?

Survivor bias can not only cloud a person’s thinking, but it can also result in hero worshipping survivors. If you want to limit the bad effects that this type of thinking can have on your life, then there are several things that you can do.

1) always examine two sides of an issue
2) list what are the known knowns, known unknowns, and take into account the fact that there are probably several unknown unknowns (hence luck will play a role)

In any situation, there are the survivors and the ones who didn’t survive. This doesn’t mean just people, but can also be things or ideas. You need to keep this contrast in mind. Focus on the failures, not just the successes.

Keep an open mind. Always judge both sides of the issue. Look at the situation from different perspectives.

For example when looking at the life story of a famous person and trying to get some insights, engage in a little bit of counterfactual thinking. Ask yourself “what if” and also don’t forget to look at some of the people who were doing the same thing and did not rise to the top.

In Antiquity, orators practiced the use of declamations, that is examining issues from multiple angles and perspectives, arguing for the position and then switching roles and arguing against the position. This shed much more clarity on the entire issue.

Cicero was a master at this. This can also be linked to his scepticism or the life philosophy that he adopted. This type of position states that knowing something for certain is not possible.

A sceptic ascertains that nothing is absolute. To quote Nassim Taleb from his book “Fooled by Randomness”:

As the skeptics’ main teaching was that nothing could be accepted with certainty, conclusions of various degrees of probability could be formed, and these supplied a guide to conduct.

If you take to questioning things and examining the probability of certain explanations, you will be able to lessen the errors that come from survivor and hindsight biases and arrive at a greater understanding of the world. This is part of contrarian thinking.

An interesting perspective on this comes from Tobias Buckell and his post.

He looks at the dichotomy of mean vs. median (in this case in ebook sales and authors). He has a graph from a presentation by Mark Coker (author of the book “Smashwords Book Marketing Guide”) where he plots the sales of self-published books to illustrate the point.


Look at the where the average of ebook sales is and where the mean is. Mean (titled “average” on the graph) is the sum of all the sales divided by the number of authors. The median is the middle number of sales.

Notice the huge discrepancy between those two numbers. Most people will only be able to sell around the median number of books. The mean is skewed by the fact that there is a miniscule amount of authors that sell a huge number of books. They are the superstars.

These superstars are often the ones that people want to imitate and so they follow their advice. Oftentimes, even if they follow this advice to the letter, they still cannot replicate the results of the superstars.

To quote Tobias Buckell:

Like in most cultish behavior, if you follow the rules and don’t get the results, you’re either ostracized, ignored, or it’s pretended you don’t exist. Many who don’t get the same results just shut up and go away. Thus creating an environment where people are creating massive amounts of confirmation bias by continually listening to the top sellers.

Oftentimes these superstars are deified and their words and actions taken as gospel. If you are following their advice and not getting results, you are the problem, not the advice.

What the bandwagonners aren’t taking into account is survivor bias. They think that if their hero said it, then it must be true and applicable to anything.

However advice from superstars oftentimes does not give the whole story and usually also suffers from hindsight bias.

How to judge what advice applies to you?

There is tons of advice out there. How do you determine which to listen to?

First you need to take into account that there are different ways to reach a goal and that success depends on:

1) situation
2) person
3) environment

Situations are different, people are different and environments are different. What works for one person might not work for another one. Even what works in one situation might not work in another one.

Rules change often. What works at one point, might not always work at another point. Whenever reading different types of advice and best practice cases keep that in mind.

One big part of success is the environment, basically the world you live in. This includes all kinds of outside factors that might have an impact on your life.

An interesting perspective on this comes from Jared Diamond in his book “Guns, Germs, and Steel”. He examines the hidden, underlying factors that can explain the dominance of Eurasian cultures over the rest of the world.

The premise of the book is that it was environmental differences (the geography, climate, distribution of crops) that played a huge role in shaping the different civilizations around the world, creating positive feedback loops which then accenuated certain factors.

This is a view of history that traditional historians have neglected, with them instead focusing on narratives based on events and ideas. However these events and ideas were often shaped by some fundamental elements inherent in the outside environment and these were the primary drivers in creating the rules for success.

In highlighting this, Diamond gives a unique perspective on the world and the evolution of culture. His analysis is a good example of trying to minimize survivor bias by looking at both successes and failures and potential explanations for both.

Thus the environment around you is a huge influence on what you can do and how you can do it. By this, I don’t mean only the physical environment (things like geography or climate), but largely the different cultural factors and the transformations of the society you live in.

In recent years, the internet revolution created a different outside environment than that of the industrial era that preceded it, with different rules for success. With rapid technological change, the environment around you keeps changing very rapidly and old rules for success can become obsolete rather quickly.

Think about it. Is the world the same now as before?

The answer is NO, and the speed of change keeps on accelerating. That hot tip from last year might not work this year.

Since you are reading this blog, you probably know about blogging. You might have seen several posts saying that blogging is the new way to riches.

The problem is that this advice is given by the early adopters, people who started blogging early (when blogging was taking off, but there were still not that many blogs around) and saw success without even knowing how. They now backward rationalize it and attribute it to their hard work, “groundbreaking” information or whatever.

In fact, the main reason is due to the fact that they were early movers. They started blogging when very few other people were blogging. If you look at some of these big name blogs, the information they give is mediocre and nothing special (there are exceptions). I have found several small no-name blogs that are of much higher quality, yet they get very few visitors.

This is a very good example of survivor and hindsight biases.

Chris Guillebeau makes an interesting point in one of his posts:

If you want to predict when a social network will die, watch for how much discussion on the network is about the network itself. So too with blogging, I think. The abundance of blogging about blogging is a clear sign of blogging’s demise.

Of course you can still probably build a successful blog, but it will be much harder to do and require different types of strategies and tactics than for the guys who started blogging earlier.

That’s why often-used mantras like “provide value” or “if you build it they will come” work only very rarely by themselves. There are other factors at play which determine success.

Let’s illustrate this point by using the example of someone who had a groundbreaking idea which could potentially save millions of lives and tried to share it with the world.

You have probably never heard of a guy named Ignaz Semmelweis. He was a 19th century physician who proposed that doctors should wash their hands before performing surgery.

That was as contrarian as they come at that time. He was laughed off by his peers and ended up locked up in a mental institution, where he died shortly thereafter (after being beaten up by the guards).

His ideas provided immense value and his advice is common sense now. However this was not recognized by those around him.

There were different factors at play that not only buried his ideas, but led to his death. He was a victim of his environment.

This story is a good analogy to remember next time you think that just by having good ideas and executing on them will get you rewards. Remember: success depends on personal circumstances.

You see a plethora of products promising success in this or that area, however what they are missing are all the different circumstances and variables around it. One advice might work for one person, but not for another one. In fact, for the other person, the opposite might work. That’s why you sometimes see two different products giving contradictory advice!

In order to determine, whether that one piece of hot advice works in your particular case, you should adopt Bayesian thinking and look at probabilities.

Spencer Greenberg has a good explanation of Bayes’ Theorem and how it can help you in real life:

Bayes’ rule is remarkably useful because it tells us the right question to ask ourselves when evaluating evidence. If we are considering two hypotheses, A and B, we should ask “how much more likely would this evidence have been to occur if A were true than if B were true?”

Instead of thinking in absolute terms in situations where causality is not clear, it is better to think in terms of likelihoods. That’s when applying Bayesian thinking can help.

You also need to keep in mind that even if you do manage to judge the probabilities, you might not always have all the information. There’s always something that is hidden from view and which could have had a significant impact on the situation.

Let’s use a quote from Donald Rumsfeld (the quote was used to try to illustrate the situation in Iraq, but anyone who bothered to think knew that the invasion was going to be a clusterfuck and that’s not hindsight bias speaking) to examine what is missing:

There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

What you are getting in advice is the known knowns. The known unknowns are usually neglected and the unknown unknowns are completely forgotten about.

If you want to make a good decision you need to keep all three categories in mind. Map out the knowns, list the known unknowns (and try to make them known knowns), but also keep in mind that there might be potential unknown unknowns out there, which have a huge impact on the entire situation.

Here’s a little framework for you to use. Always keep these two questions in mind:

1) which things are replicable by you
2) which things are based on circumstances (and luck)?

The Ancients Stoics divided the world into things that you can control and those that you cannot. Furthermore, over the things that you can control, there are various levels of control that you can have, ranging from total control to only partial control.

This type of thinking can also help you judge how to apply information that you find.

For example, when you are reading about a famous person or some sort of advice which tells you to do something in a specific way, it will be very useful to ask yourself the two basic questions listed above. That way you will be able to see which things are replicable by you and which things are based on circumstances.

In personal development, the basic advice of working hard, being persistent, or brushing your teeth everyday is something that you can control. So you can work on improving those.

Will that guarantee success? No, it won’t.

However it can set you on the path and when luck hits, you will be prepared.

Biographies of successful people are full of these descriptions of the traits that supposedly made them who they are. Yes, that’s true, but there are also circumstances that were crucial in their success and that cannot be replicated.

Take the examples of Donald Trump and Michael Jordan. Yes, Donald Trump is a good negotiator and persistent. That’s something that can be replicated. However, Donald Trump’s father was also worth a couple hundreds of millions of dollars. That is something that most people cannot replicate and you will agree gives a pretty good starting point.

Michael Jordan worked hard, never gave up and practiced til the sun set. However he was also almost two meters tall (6’6). He himself stated that his brother was actually the better basketball player. However he was only around 1 meter 75 (5’8). Michael made it to the NBA, Larry didn’t.

A good way to generate lessons for yourself and minimize the influence of survivor bias is to keep in mind the notions of general principles versus particular. For example, a general principle is that it is important to know people, while a particular circumstance is that someone knew a specific person X and that’s why he got the job or the deal done.

General principles are replicable, particular circumstances aren’t. However by working on the general principles you can increase your chances of being in position to improve your particular circumstances. By networking and developing relationships with more and more people, you will increase your chances that at some point in the future one or several of them could present you with a particular circumstance that will be to your advantage.

Overall, when trying to see what type of course of action to set out on, the most helpful advice will come from people who started off in similar circumstances as you.

What people achieved a goal that you want to achieve? Out of those people, which person had a similar background and circumstances as you? This guy is then probably the one you can learn from the most.

Just like you wouldn’t take basketball advice from a 7-footer (“just jump and dunk the ball“), if you are short, you wouldn’t really learn much about wealth creation from a lottery winner.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t learn from others, only that when learning from others, the lessons will be more general. Different circumstances often warrant different solutions. This applies to both making decisions, as well as taking advice.

With any type of advice always be aware of the circumstances of the person giving the advice or of the person used as an example to illustrate the point. There might be a lot of stuff hidden under the surface, which might have skewed the eventual result.

It is these unknown unknowns that can really make a difference, but are often left unexplored and forgotten. The human mind is built to be selective and perception usually only takes in a small portion of the outside situation.

This helped our ancestors survive, as they needed to be able to focus on some key pieces of evidence to make a snap judgment on whether any potential danger was nearby. That initial wiring still resides in us and makes us come to conclusions based on only a selective view. Our minds are also good at pattern recognition, which favors the creation of narratives based on causality.

This type of thinking hides a lot of different aspects of the initial situation and does not take into account many things that are hidden from view or discarded as an explanation.

Sometimes that allows us to come to the right conclusion, many times it doesn’t. Things like survivorship bias and hindsight bias are a result.

Hopefully now you see a bit better the huge influence survivor bias has on your life and can judge its effect. This ability will allow you to really choose the best advice out there, to help you improve and also to make better decisions.

Read all the best practice cases and advice with a grain of salt. For every Jack Welch, Michael Jordan or Bill Gates, there is equally a no-name who followed the same blueprint they did, but ultimately failed.

Read More:
When to be a contrarian thinker and when not to be

How to be a critical thinker and develop your mental powers


NOTE: The story about Brock and Patterson and the MS DOS system is actually even more complicated. Gary Kildall was the original developer of the CP/M operating system, which the 86-DOS system (the one Seattle Computer sold to Microsoft) is based on.

Apparently, IBM had been negotiating with Kildall for his system previously, but the negotiations failed. When Kildall got a look at the MS DOS system, he immediately surmised that it was a copy of his own system. There is an interesting “Wired” article which describes this story here. More on this story: here, here, and here.

So maybe it could have been Kildall and his Digital Research Inc. (DRI) company that could have been in the position that Microsoft is today.

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5 thoughts on “Beware Of Advice: What Can You Really Learn From Successful People?”

  1. I really enjoyed this article.

    “I have found several small no-name blogs that are of much higher quality, yet they get very few visitors.”

    Could you mention a few? I’m always on the lookout for interesting blogs.

      1. Obviously blogs in genre as this blog, but also technology, and futurism stuff.

  2. I stumbled into this website by chance a couple of days ago and I’ve been reading post after post. Love it! Thanks so much for the valuable insights and lessons

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