How to critically dissect a success story

We thrive on stories. We want to know who did what to whom and what happened after that. People watch the news for hours and binge on Netflix because we’re evolutionarily wired to seek stories. Our ancestors who told and listened to stories had a higher survival rate because stories bound them together. Stories helped form groups that killed Mammoths and take over the world.

Stories bind people together because they provide a natural boundary between us-and-them.  Those who share similar stories are ultimately similar people – Christians bound together by Biblical stories, USA bound together by stories of freedom and independence. When friends gossip, what they’re really saying to each other is: we belong together.

Because stories are compelling, they can animate listeners to act. Crusades, Jihad, Putting Man on the Moon, Nazis – all human action is a result of someone telling a good story. A good story is manipulative.  It can make you do things that otherwise you’d never think of doing, make you regret time and effort wasted chasing a fictional goose, make you adopt someone else’s values. Of course, if you are lucky – depending on the story and your circumstances, it can also do a lot of good to you.

Actually, the dangerous thing about stories isn’t just that they’re manipulative. It’s that when you’re immersed in a story, you can’t tell if it’ll do you good or bad. There’s no way to only listen to the ‘good’ stories. All stories are ‘good’ from the perspective of the storyteller. Whether it improves your life or makes it worse is impossible to tell because good storytellers can convince you of anything.

All this sounds ominous but there’s no doing away with stories. Being human is to tell and listen to stories. But you can arm yourself with a perspective that’ll help you not get swayed away by a story right away. Of course, even this essay is a story. So I encourage you to read critically and intently.

I’ll focus on success stories but similar ideas apply to failure stories.

Biases in success stories

Successful people rarely admit that it was luck

– They, like everyone else, desire status, so they want you to respect and like them
– They’re less likely to mention about luck or chance, or foolish things they did. You’ll always hear how smart they are
– It’s called the narrative fallacy

Media shapes the story to make it seem like anyone can do it (otherwise who’d pay attention)

– Journalists gobble up rags-to-riches and against-all-odds stories because they appeal to a wider audience. Otherwise, no one would read their detailed, nuanced and likely boring account of someone’s success

You pay extra attention to the parts of success stories that seem within your grasp

– Subconsciously, you do not analyze the totality of story but direct your attention to the parts that are within your reach
– You cherrypick factors accessible to you from all the factors that contributed to the success

Because the story is so compelling, you (implicitly) assume that striving for success is a good choice in life

– What if a success story makes you quit your job even when you’re perfectly happy with it?
– To pay attention to a story is to buy into its author’s value system. Your value system could be different and unless you’re aware of what you want in life, a good story can make life choices for you without your deliberate choice

Success is complicated and multidimensional, stories are simple and unidimensional

Success isn’t like flipping a switch. Success builds up over time – little by little, one decision at a time.

Think of success as a sequence of coin tosses that have to come up in an exactly right. So if millions of people are engaged in tossing coins, you’ll see someone that gets it right and start rationalizing how s/he was motivated, worked hard and made all the right choices while tossing.

We can acknowledge when successful people tell their story as humans are wired to self-promote. But we have to be skeptical when we listen to them because self-promotion is always a necessarily biased account.

This narrative fallacy happens because the longer it takes for someone to be successful (say win an Olympics Gold medal, take a company public, win a Nobel Prize), the more is the number of events and decisions that have to go right and more is the number of situations in life that are required not to derail the success trajectory.

Think of it this way: the more the number of events in a sequence that have to go right, the less likely is that a successful person can take credit for all those events. Some decisions or actions may have been deliberate but many events may have happened by chance (or unknowingly to the person). But, nobody tells such balanced stories because they’re long, boring and take away the shine from the successful person. So all you hear about is how successful people did something special that lead them to their success.

What you also don’t hear about is success stories that contain a thousand little details that had to go exactly right. You don’t hear about that because even successful people aren’t aware of all the reasons that contributed to their success. Imagine that you’ve got good athletic genes and you’re unaware of that, if you win a sports content, you’ll end up attributing your success to your practice or your coach. Or, if as an entrepreneur a key customer promoted you at a conference without you being aware of it, you’ll attribute your success to all the marketing you’ve been doing.

The world is complex, success stories are simple.

Beware of simplified success stories

When you come across a success story, ALWAYS think about:

What is the story teller’s motivation?

Is it to sell you something? Get your vote? Make you like him/her? Make you share the story widely?

Has the storyteller shown evidence (previously) of being a nuanced and deep thinker?

It isn’t necessary for someone to be a deep thinker to be a successful person. Other attributes – perseverance, networking ability, luck, etc. – can play a role in success. But, to know the full set of reasons behind success, the storyteller needs to be a critical thinker.

What is the storyteller not telling you?

What s/he chooses to leave out is as important as what s/he chooses to tell. For example, if the storyteller doesn’t mention that his brother-in-law is a politician, you’ll end up concluding that hard work is all that matters. Or, if the storyteller just talks about luck, you’ll wait around doing nothing and not put in the hard work necessary to actualize that luck.

What happened to the other people who did things similar to the storyteller?

If someone says they worked really hard to become successful, think about the people who worked hard but went nowhere.

Would you trade all aspects of your life with the storyteller?

The multidimensional aspect of success means that you need to be ready to re-live the story teller’s life in order to achieve the same sort of success. This is why when you, for example, get inspired by Elon Musk’s genius, you have to be mentally ready to be criticized and hated for all the things that Elon Musk is disliked for (divorced three times, rude to employees, disdain towards government). You cannot cherry pick factors that you like or are convenient to you. They’re all connected.

Dissecting success stories takes deliberate effort

All this sounds like a lot of work for each success story you listen to but that’s what’s required for you to not get swayed. Listening to stories critically is difficult because stories contain all sorts of cognitive biases, so if you aren’t willing or do not have the mental bandwidth, disbelieve the story entirely. (Storytelling by customers is also a major type of cognitive bias for product managers and designers).

Whenever you’re listening or reading a success story, it’s better to assume that success was a result of chance events and then derive generic principles and understanding of how the world works (i.e., things that even the storyteller wouldn’t be aware of).

Understanding a success story in all its nuances is similar to understanding how the world works, and doing that takes effort work. Half-understanding success is dangerous as you’ll waste time and energy looking at only a few sides of the multi-sided dice of success.

Is success worth it?

If success is so hard to stumble upon, is it worth it? Well, that totally depends on how you define success. Remember: just because someone is able to tell a good story about their success, it doesn’t mean it’s your success too.

My advice is to define success as a process over which you have control over vs an outcome where chance plays a big role. By process, I mean your values and how you choose to behave daily at work and home. All these things you have control over: being honest, working hard towards goals, learning, creating, speaking the truth, spending time with family, persevering. What you don’t have control over: winning Nobel Prize, making a million dollars, becoming a famous actor.

If you’re honest and put in a good effort, that’s success to me.

Understand that there’s a bias for billionaires to do chest-thumping, media to cover their chest-thumping while convincing you that anyone can be a billionaire and you to give up things you like for an unlikely, but possible, outcome of making a billion dollars.

If you want to be a martyr, chase outcomes. If you want to like fulfilled, chase being the best you can be. Maybe your chances of success are higher when you’re not trying too hard?

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