A statistical case for not listening to advice

20 mai 2021
Should you really try to replicate success?

It’s not everyday that someone contacts me for advice, probably because I’m not seen as “successful” enough (yet), but when it happens, what I always say in addition to the usual (and probably boring) “be ambitious”, “work hard”, “be patient”, and “don’t quit” is “don’t listen to advice”.

I like how meta it is. It’s an advice you’re forced to not follow if you want to follow it, because if you follow it, you don’t follow it. That said, I think if there’s only one advice you should follow, it’s that one.

Why is that? There are multiple explanations. I don’t know which one is the most correct, but the truth is probably a combination of all of them.

First of all, we are all different, we all have different companies, and what works for someone will not work for someone else. I recently read somewhere that asking someone how he succeeded is like asking yesterday’s winning lottery numbers. It’s useless.

Then, not everyone has the same definition of success. That’s why I used quotes when I wrote the word “successful” in the first paragraph. For some people, it will be about being rich, making money at all costs. For some others, it will be about social status, being important and/or famous. And for some others, it will be about freedom, not having to work too much (or not at all) to do whatever they want to do with their time. I won’t go too much into details here because I plan to write an article on success but this is a very important thing to keep in mind. For each person on earth, there’s one definition of success.

Also, successful people tend to exaggerate their own brilliance and downplay how luck had a big influence in their success. It’s so much more tempting to think that you made it because you’re a genius (and that you were unlucky if that’s not the case). It’s also linked to what is called the “survivorship bias”. Let’s say that 100 people have used the exact same method to build their company, but only 1 made it out of them. Would you use that method? Of course not. The thing is, we only know about the 1. The others are forgotten because they didn’t make it. When you listen to someone explaining you how he succeeded, don’t forget about the 99 you don’t know about and that did the same thing with a very different result.

Last but not least, even if a founder was successful with 3 different companies using the same method, the sample is statistically too small. You can flip a coin 3 times and it’s not extremely unlikely that you’ll get tails each time. It would give you the impression that flipping a coin will give you tails 100% of the time, which is obviously incorrect (the right answer is 50% if you were wondering). Now if you it flip 1000 times, you will get something like tails 50.7% of the time and heads 49.3% of the time, which is closer to reality. The same way you wouldn’t trust a poll that interviewed only 3 people, you shouldn’t trust the advice of someone who created only 3 companies. To be representative of the reality, you need a bigger sample. But obviously, nobody will ever be successful 1000 times, because life is short. So, if you still want to listen to external advice, take it from many different people and create something new out of that, something that works for you, because success can’t be replicated.

I hope that makes sense but don’t worry if it doesn’t because you should not follow any advice that has been given here anyway. Or should you?