Business coaching and success podcasts are a huge global industry. American coaches collect $1B+; no wonder 3x as many coach today as 10 years ago. And the number of ‘how to succeed in business’ podcasts are too many to count. Many rely on a simple, intuitively obvious formula: study tricks/habits/thinking of successful people, and then do the same things. It extends also to companies: ‘Good to Great’ and dozens others decode success factors for great companies, and distill as life lessons.

All of this would be incredibly valuable.

Except it is fundamentally wrong.

To achieve success, studying failure is far more valuable than listening to success.

Figuring out how people who COULD have been successful FAILED to be successful, is far far more valuable than reviewing how people have achieved huge success.

The simple reason is ‘survivorship bias.’ People, companies, leaders survive and thrive based on a whole range of factors, some they can control, many they cannot. And amongst ‘successful survivors’ there are a whole range of personality types, abilities, and eras in which they live that affect dramatically what they do and how successful it is. Jeff Bezos would probably have always been successful at business, but creating iconic generational wealth had an awful lot to do with the exact moment in time he entered online commerce; starting 5-10 years later, its hard to imagine Amazon being the same size and breadth. Steve Jobs likely always would have been a great, but challenging leader, but without the computing and semiconductor technologies in place 10 years ago its hard to see the iPhone become the best selling consumer product ever.

Below is a short extract from a brilliant recent Medium post about survivorship bias and the very poor guidance it gives any business person. In a nutshell it nails the key issue: reviewing what has succeeded is the wrong way round. Review what has failed and you can address it, and maximise your chance of actually being successful.

The problem with success stories is that they are not stories about failure. And thus by their very nature, they are distortions. At this point briefly retelling a familiar story about World War II is obligatory.

The story goes that during World War II, the statistician Abraham Wald was tasked with helping the Allies reduce the number of bombers lost to enemy anti-aircraft fire. The Allies wanted to understand how much additional protection was needed. The challenge was not straightforward. Armour would make the bombers heavier, less manoeuvrable, and less fuel-efficient. But armouring the bombers too little would leave them vulnerable. Examining the bombers that did make it back, the Allies had noted that that the damage wasn’t uniformly distributed across the aircraft. Since there were more bullet holes in the fuselage than in the engine, the Allies concluded that this is where they should concentrate the armour. The question they had for Wald was how much armour.

Wald did not answer their question. Instead he argued that the armour shouldn’t go where the bullet holes were – it should go where the bullet holes were not, namely on the engines. This argued Wald, was where the bombers were most vulnerable and where the planes that didn’t make it back had been hit. Returning planes with damage to the fuselage simply showed that this damage could be survived. From this insight, Wald then calculated how much damage each individual part of an airplane could take before it was destroyed and how likely it was that the average plane would get shot in those places in any given bombing run depending on the amount of resistance it faced.

Wald’s achievement lay in the fact that unlike his superiors, he did not focus exclusively on the survivors. He avoided what we call ‘survivorship bias’ and instead found a way of seeing the bombers that did not make it back and the bullet holes that were missing. The lesson of this story of course is that focusing exclusively on survivors creates a very distorted reality. As advertisers have long known, focusing exclusively on say, the successful lottery winner or the successful weight loser not only obscures quite how hard success really is to achieve, but all too easily oversimplifies or misrepresents the real reasons behind success.

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