Thursday, 27 August 2009

Emulating Windows

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.


  1. When you bring up Bill Gates and Microsoft, another side to success immediately jumps to my mind: ethics and philosophy behind the success.

    There are just too many wrongs that Microsoft has done to its competitors [1] and customers [2] for me to take their success as a role model.

    I'd prefer "less success" but a more fair game. Maybe I'm just being too idealistic for today's world...

    [1] "embrace, extend and extinguish", for example
    [2] vendor lock-in is the prime example - I've been a victim of it for about 6-7 years, until recently.

    See "Criticism of Microsoft" on Wikipedia for a more detailed list of their business practices.

  2. "It is also possible that society benefits from excess individual risk‐taking in some disciplines; for example if entrepreneurs, inventors, and young academics overestimate their own chances of success. If these occupations have net positive externalities, it could be beneficial that biases and unrealistic expectations of fame, fortune, or high achievement seduce additional entrants into these fields."
    -Nick Bostrom

  3. That's a very valid point. The net effect on individuals may be negative but the overall impact on society might be positive. I'm not sure whether that makes it right or wrong to encourage these overly optimistic fantasies.

  4. How can there be a "net negative effect" on individuals while there is an overall positive effect for society? Are you as confused as that sounds?

  5. I think what Bostrom and Marc mean is that there might be a "net negative effect" on the set of risk-taking individuals. Nikola Tesla comes to mind. He dies in poverty and loneliness, while everyone benefits using the AC current.

  6. Plenty of people die in poverty and loneliness. Everybody dies in some condition.

  7. Yeah, Aida's right.

    If we were talking about a sum over ALL individuals then you're correct, a net negative for the individuals is a net negative for society, since society is just made of individuals.

    But in this context we're actually discussing a negative impact on a small group of individuals (the risk takers) and the large pay off for the rest of the society that fosters them.

    I can see why it's not particularly clear from what I wrote. If it's clearer maybe think of it this way; throughout 24, Jack Bauer (the risk taker) has suffered some extremely negative consequences personally but he's protected America from some pretty hazardous situations - bringing a larger benefit to his society. There's no reason why this is illogical.

    [I wonder if a society that sells these illusions of grandeur will out-compete a society that doesn't, exactly for the reason that Bostrom suggests, with all the pseudo evolutionary consequences.]

  8. I couldn't agree more. My intuition is that society that doesn't create "unrealistic expectations of fame, fortune, or high achievement" will be out-competed by one that does. But then looking at history, the sh*t and suffering that comes out of these illusions probably equals to the achievements except achievements are always emphasised and celebrated whilst and atrocities are played down - isn't this part of the illusion?

  9. It seems like we may be wrong. Discarding some illusions actually makes people happier. Happier people means better society? I'm not sure about this myself but take a look at this article from a recent Nature.