#199: Why You Should Study More Failures and Struggles in 2020

I love a great success story. You probably do too.

But in our culture, we don’t spend nearly as much time studying failures and massive struggles.

I’m talking about the people, businesses, organizations and movements that never “made it,” despite massive effort and sacrifice.

We don’t take the time to understand what they did, why they did it and why it didn’t work.

We never discover how they dealt with the failure. And what they learned from it.

The problem with this omission is that it contributes to survivor bias. It leads us to make false conclusions about what it will take for us to succeed.

In this episode, I’m going to delve into this topic of survivor bias — and how we can use the study of failures and struggles to avoid it and gain deeper insights.

The notes that follow are a very basic, unedited summary of the show. There’s a lot more detail in the audio version. You can listen to the show using the audio player below. Or you can subscribe in iTunes to get this show delivered straight to the Podcasts app on your smart phone, tablet or iPod.

Survivorship Bias (or Survival Bias)

Survivorship bias is the logical error of concentrating on the people or things that “made it” and overlooking those that did not. Which can lead to false conclusions.

I found a great example in an article in Scientific American.

In the book Good to Great, Jim Collins found 11 companies that beat the stock market over a 40-year period. He analyzed what they did well and drew some great lessons from it.

But this hindsight doesn’t mean we have a predictable formula for finding winners over the next 40-year period. (In fact, from 2001 to 2012, the stock of these 11 companies did worse than the overall stock market!)

Hindsight doesn’t provide a predictable formula for what will succeed in the future.

This approach of continually doing post hoc analysis is fundamentally flawed. It leads us to believe that if we replicate exactly what a successful person did 20 years ago, we’ll get the same results.

Not true. What they did was a product of their unique circumstances. The same
“lessons” may not apply today.

The Problem With Success Stories

I’m spending more time studying failures for another good reason: I’ve gotten a bit jaded with success stories.

Social media probably has something to do with this. It paints a distorted reality and invites dangerous comparisons. They distill complex, multifaceted journeys into simple rags-to-riches stories.

Does that mean we can’t learn from successful people? No, of course not.

But we can learn just as much (if not more) from the stories of people and businesses that failed.

We can learn just as much (if not more) from the stories of people that failed than people that succeeded.

Your Challenge for 2020

That’s why I challenge you to seek out and learn from stories of struggle, disappointment, failure and loss in the coming year.

Here are three great places to start:

Not only will you learn a ton from these stories, you’ll also be inspired. And I think you’ll have a newfound respect for what it takes to achieve big and audacious goals in business and in life.

In the meantime, have a very happy New Year! I wish you great health, happiness and prosperity in 2020.

And may you start looking at your failures as blessings — tools to make you better, stronger and smarter.


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