Stop Reading Lists of Things Successful People Do

Who doesn’t love a “how to succeed” list? They’re fun to read and easy to share, which perhaps explains why there are so many of them. And the advice they give often sounds reasonable: The World Economic Forum published a post, in cooperation with Business Insider, listing 14 things successful people do before breakfast. It includes items such as drinking water and making your bed. A list that Forbes published claims every successful person shares this quality: “They know when to stay and when to leave.” This list, from Entrepreneur, advises readers to stop seeing problems, and start seeing opportunities; this one, from Inc., encourages readers to give up needing approval and fixating on their weaknesses.

But as palatable as these lists are, they can do damage. There are several reasons why they may be not only useless but also potentially harmful to decision makers, managers, and entrepreneurs.

Evidence is anecdotal. Most of the advice these lists contain is based on subjective interpretations of personal accounts, not on systematic, scientific analyses. Unless advice has been evaluated through evidence-based methods, you can’t judge its validity. In addition, half-baked analyses of anecdotal evidence often blur the lines between cause and consequence. Is someone successful because they avoided meetings, or are they able to avoid meetings because they are successful? A host of behaviors that successful people supposedly share — not caring what others think of them, avoiding meetings, putting first things first, saying no to almost everything — may be luxuries that only the extremely successful can enjoy, and only after they became successful in the eyes of others. Thus some behaviors are what success has brought them, and not the other way around.

Research doesn’t always transfer to different contexts. Some lists do draw heavily from research, like this 2011 one, published by HBR. But academic research is often very context-specific. Take the case of grit as a precursor of success. While psychologist Angela Duckworth’s research and TED talk on the subject are compelling, a recent meta-analysis on the effectiveness of the trait casts doubt on its extensive benefits. As often happens with complex problems, the solutions and their applications are more nuanced than the forms they’re presented in and depend heavily on the context and circumstances in which people find themselves.

Failures are silent. In The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb recounts an anecdote Cicero told about the Greek poet Diagoras of Melos. When Diagoras was told that praying saves sailors from drowning, he wondered about those who prayed but drowned anyway. Prayer receives credit for saving sailors because all those who survived prayed. Yet this strategy is utterly useless if those who died also prayed, which is a fair assumption. If everybody prayed and only a few survived, then praying doesn’t really matter. It just seems like it does to those who survived and those who can observe them.

This is what social scientists call survivorship bias. Taleb refers to the people who didn’t survive as “silent evidence.” These are the outcomes that we don’t get to see; their absence leads to a false sense of effectiveness of certain actions. Both our research and that of other behavioral scientists suggests that, while we are incredibly skilled when it comes to learning from what we can readily observe and experience (such as widely publicized success stories), we are equally incompetent in acknowledging what we don’t see (such as vast numbers of obscure failures). This renders us vulnerable to a biased intuition that success is more deterministic than it really is.

In fact, in a situation where there are scores of failed attempts, the more concrete and specific the advice, the more it assumes that the people who didn’t succeed are either naïve or unintelligent. Analyses based on the successful alone ignore the possibility that many people apply the same strategies but fail.

A key ingredient missing in all these lists, a vital piece of information that decision makers need to judge their actual chances of success, is the base rate. How many people, ideas, organizations entered the game wanting to be successful? How many eventually prospered? The larger the difference between these two figures, the less the value of any specific advice or any version of “common traits of successful people” analysis.

Success is personal. While any given success is specific to a particular person and context, advice often treats it as common and constant, something independent of time and space that we can easily generalize about.

For advice to be relevant, the beginnings, aims, and conditions of those who are analyzed and those who receive the advice should match, at least approximately. Yet our careers, families, social lives, priorities, and visions may differ significantly from those who are hailed as successful by a particular expert. Given the things they had to do and give up for success, we might not wish to trade places with them.

Hence, there are opportunity costs to following even harmless-seeming advice. Taken too seriously, it can cause us to make trade-offs that we shouldn’t make or to engage in actions that are incompatible with our personality. If you decide to get up at 5 AM every morning because a selected group of people does that — but you’re actually wired to do your best work late at night — then you’re hurting your own, specific chances to succeed.

One final caveat: It’s not just personal “how to succeed” lists that suffer from these sorts of problems; it’s also company-level “how to win” guides. A main reason why is that times change, the world evolves, and technology advances. As a result, most advice for success, especially in business, is going to be obsolete sooner than one would like. For example, when Jim Collins and his team started to do research for the best seller Good to Great, they took some “great” companies and compared them with companies that were similar but failed to achieve the same levels of growth (to account for the survivorship bias we talked about above). Unfortunately, most of the “great” companies ran into trouble after the book sold millions of copies. The success stories featured in an earlier bestseller, In Search of Excellence, ran into the same problem. The world is always changing. And so are the secrets of success.

It’s easy to define a situation as a success or a blunder once it has happened. That’s why abilities like recognizing opportunities or knowing when to stay and when to leave seem so magical. One can analyze these episodes in hindsight, with laser-sharp precision, but the rest of us have to face them in the uncertain, ever-changing future.

Emre Soyer and Robin M. Hogarth –


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