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November 13, 2006

History is Written by the Winners

I didn't make that quote up, of course, but I was thinking about it the other day. We were discussing a guy name Eliyahu Goldratt, who wrote a book called The Goal. It's a novel that is really a business book about the Theory of Constraints, a previous Goldratt invention (and previous Goldratt book). And it may or may not be autobiographical. But the story goes that Goldratt was working at some software company and invented this theory, and decided it was a better idea than the software he was working on. So he made the bold decision to jettison his company and go out on his own as an author and consultant. Needless to say he is now richer and happier than ever before.

The lesson here is clear. If you have a dream, you need to abandon your current well-paying job and pursue the dream. There will be risk, but there is no doubt that in the end you will be rich and happy, just like Goldratt. Right?

Well, it depends. The problem is you are only getting one side of the story. You don't hear about the people who have a dream and drop everything to go after it and wind up poor and miserable, wishing they had just stayed put. This is because nobody writes books called I Tried to Go After My Dream But I Messed Up and Now I'm a Loser. I doubt anybody would want to write such a book, and in any case they wouldn't wind up telling their story on Oprah. I'm sure such people exist, you just don't hear about them.

The same half-message is one of the factors leading to helicopter parenting. You hear about the kid who wins the Olympic gold medal, who explains how her parents nudged her to devote herself to her sport, how it took her a while to come to enjoy it, but now all her hard work has paid off. What you don't hear about is the other kids, the ones who made 99% of the sacrifices but received 0% of the rewards, who may now resent their parents and pine for a lost childhood.

And you see this same effect elsewhere, especially on the non-fiction bestseller list. Generals who win their battles, heirs to the original title quote; but also stock market pickers who get it right; actresses who hit the big time; politicians who win their election; bloggers who hit the A-List. Heck, this even happen at Microsoft: a team will ship their software on time, and whatever they did will become the accepted wisdom for a few years. Is it true genius, or just temporary luck? You hear about the success stories, and it's fine to celebrate success. The message they inevitably promulgate, that if you do what they did you will have the results they did, is an easy one to believe, but it may be a hard one to justify.

Posted by AdamBa at November 13, 2006 09:52 PM

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You might wanna read Fooled By Randomness, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It talks about the same thing you describe here, albeit from a probabilistic perspective.

Posted by: sunder at November 13, 2006 11:33 PM

It reminds me of a more-or-less well-known stock market scam. You send a newletter to 1024 people, half of them suggesting they buy a stock in the XYZZY Corp because it is poised to rise and half suggesting that they sell it short because it is aout to go down the tubes. Assuming it doesn't just stagnate, half of your recipients will see that you were right and to those you send similar predictions six months later. Six months after that you write to the 256 people who have seen two correct predictions from you and try to get them to subscribe to your tip sheet for only $1000 a year.

Posted by: marble chair at November 14, 2006 05:54 AM