The narrative fallacy in how to be successful

I’ve been doing a LOT of reading over the past 18 months and I have to say, binge consuming business biographies really gets you to thinking about them critically (here’s a great article on how to read).

So here’s a category of literature where I think we too often end up with hindsight insights where we mistake random attributes as causal relationships.

It’s especially prevalent when someone wants to write a great business book and needs to somehow come up with a set of learnings and a narrative as to the “why’s” to attribute one’s success to.

For every example of a “successful” attribute, I can come up with a counter-example.

Prime example – there’s a myriad of business people who apparently do well because they “walk the floor” and “meticulously count every paper clip”.  But hey the most successful businessperson in the world, Warren Buffett, hardly ever even set foot into his own multi-billion dollar businesses.

Second example – both in the world of online retailing in the USA.  Tony Hsieh of Zappos is known to have run one of the most “happy place” to work in the USA (he’s even published a bestseller about Zappo’s culture) and he managed to build a billion dollar company out of it.  Jeff Bezos, on the other hand, is known to be extremely hard-nosed and run Amazon with a tight fist and a “take it or leave it” approach to his employees.  He’s also built a multi-billion dollar company.

Without being specific, an anecdote often come across is that “one can judge someone by looking at their shoes – i.e. how much attention they put into caring for their shoes“.  This is utter crap because you can also make a contrary argument that “if someone pays too much attention to something superficial like their shoes, then they’re not taking care of business and haven’t walked the floor“.  It can make sense either way depending on how it fits into the narrative.

Besides, most of the great self-made business titans of this generation wear sneakers!

That’s not to say we should not learn from success people.  There are a set of attributes that are universally pre-requisites for success – things like perseverance, hard-work, single-minded focus on a goal.

Ultimately though, one needs to just be true to themselves and work to their own style that suits their own personality rather than trying to emulate everything that Jack Welch or Mark Zuckerberg does.

Update (10th June 2016): Here’s Nassim Taleb’s take on this topic in his commencement speech to the American University in Beirut.