Thursday, 27 August 2009
Bill Gates and Richard Branson are often held up as examples of success to emulate. The success is undeniable, but is emulation possible or even desirable?
Countless business books, including the inspiration for this post, look at examples of successful people as a way to understand the makings of that success. What is often overlooked in these tomes is that they are post-selecting their sample - they ask people what constitutes success conditional on someone already being successful. The first question is how much they know or will tell about the causes of their success.
This comes down to a couple of factors; there's the influence of chance (see Fooled by Randomness) and the problem of signalling. Let's face facts; had Bill Gates not gone to one of the few schools in the world with computer access in the early seventies Microsoft could never have existed (see Outliers). Even if someone knows the true causes of their success, since they aren't tied in any way to the outcomes of their advice (and may even feel a slight pressure not to reveal their secrets) the interviewee will almost certainly tell a pretty story that bears no relevance to the truth.
Both these questions are extremely important but I see the answers as simple; people don't tell the truth about what they know, and what they 'know' has a fairly limited correlation to what happened. That's why I rarely read business books and why everyone should be extremely suspicious of their advice.
What I think is a larger question is whether society should even consider holding these people as ideals. Why? Well it lies in the average harm done to people who try to emulate them. The Branson/Gates level extreme success is undoubtedly due to a confluence of chance and risk taking behaviour. You have to take the risks to make the most of an opportunity. But this brushes under the carpet all the other poor suckers who took the risk but for whom things didn't work out. I'd like to see some reliable statistics comparing people who took Branson/Gates risks but didn't make it. Then we could truly get an idea of whether the risk taking is actually a desirable trait in a modern society.