Posted On: Friday, 14 August 2015 by Rajiv Popat

Most of the self-help industry is built around a simple three step model:

  1. Find people who are insanely and consistently successful.
  2. Find out how they do things.
  3. Do what they do and do it exactly how they do it.

Put simply, use the "Monkey see, Monkey do!" approach to achieve success.

From 7 Habits of highly effective people to the Rich Dad Poor Dad; potentially any self help book that you bump into builds on the foundation of emulating or copying success from people who are hugely and consistently successful.

But success is not as simple as doing what others do. Author Rolf Dobelli describes this fallacy of copying successful people in his book "The Art of Thinking Clearly" which has huge sections dedicated on human fallacies. This specific bias is called the "Outcome bias" and it often results out of the fact that we tend to use outcomes to define and evaluate individuals and why they were successful. Rolf explains:

A quick hypothesis: Say one million monkeys speculate on the stock market. They buy and sell stocks like crazy and, of course, completely at random.

What happens?

After one week, about half of the monkeys will have made a profit and the other half a loss. The ones that made a profit can stay; the ones that made a loss you send home. In the second week, one half of the monkeys will still be riding high, while the other half will have made a loss and are sent home. And so on.

After ten weeks, about one thousand monkeys will be left—those who have always invested their money well. After twenty weeks, just one monkey will remain—this one always, without fail, chose the right stocks and is now a billionaire. Let’s call him the success monkey.

How does the media react? It will pounce on this animal to understand its "success principles." And they will find some: Perhaps the monkey eats more bananas than the others. Perhaps he sits in another corner of the cage. Or maybe he swings headlong through the branches, or he takes long, reflective pauses while grooming. He must have some recipe for success, right? How else could he perform so brilliantly? Spot-on for two years—and that from a simple monkey? Impossible!

The monkey story illustrates the outcome bias: We tend to evaluate decisions based on the result rather than on the decision process.

While there is nothing wrong in having role models and learning by emulating some of their approaches and styles it's also very important to realize that success looks very different in hindsight when it's backed by certainty of known past than it looks when it is clouded by the uncertainty of an unknown future.

It's easy for Steve Jobs to stand on a podium and connect the dots, and for us to listen in awe; even when he is connecting all the wrong dots!

It's hard to understand the fallacy of success and support logically stable approaches over the successful outputs. Rolf explains:

Another experiment: You must evaluate the performance of three heart surgeons. To do this, you ask each to carry out a difficult operation five times. Over the years, the probability of dying from these procedures has stabilized at 20 percent. With surgeon A, no one dies. With surgeon B, one patient dies. With surgeon C, two die. How do you rate the performances of A, B, and C? If you think like most people, you rate A the best, B the second best, and C the worst. And thus you’ve just fallen for the outcome bias.

You can guess why: The samples are too small, rendering the results meaningless. You can only really judge a surgeon if you know something about the field, and then carefully monitor the preparation and execution of the operation. In other words, you assess the process and not the result. Alternatively, you could employ a larger sample: one hundred or one thousand operations if you have enough patients who need this particular operation. For now it is enough to know that, with an average surgeon, there is a 33 percent chance that no one will die, a 41 percent chance that one person will die, and a 20 percent chance that two people will die. That’s a simple probability calculation. What stands out: There is no huge difference between zero dead and two dead.

Even when every probability 101 class teaches us that the odds of getting a heads remains 50% in each toss even if you are going to toss a coin a 100 times and the coin has already landed with a tails 99 times out of those hundred times; we still like to go back and look at past outcomes to forecast future performance of people, organizations and even our own endeavors when in reality, what we be doing is evaluating the approach to solving the problem; not the outcome. Put simply your systems are more important than your goals; and if your systems are correct, a failure or two hardly matters.

So the next time you pick up your favorite self-help book and the author plays the card of how he / she has studied successful people to write the book and how following the same approaches will bring you success, go on and read the book but take it with a grain of salt. Not because the author is full of crap, but because the well-meaning author has fallen prey  to a basic human fallacy and failed to understand success has too many variable components and even the people who are hugely successful don't understand the components that led to their success. Quite a few of these components, are, in reality, beyond your control.

In fact, the only two components of success that you can control, are: how you do your work and how much of it do you. In other words, place a lot of little bets and keep showing up!

By all means have role models and by all means emulate their behaviors if that makes you happier or more efficient. But when these role-models talk about the 'why' of their success don't take their speeches at face value because more often than not, even they don't know why they are successful! They're looking at success from hind-side and the story of success told from the perspective of hind-side often makes even a very successful story-teller fall prey to the outcome bias; irrespective of how well intentioned the story teller is. And when it comes to evaluating people - remember - you can fail at everything and still win big!

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