Survival bias and past success

How many times have you seen on internet that all the most successful people in the world read a lot of books every year? I have no clue if this is true in general, but I think that this idea can be a double edge sword. Let me explain what I mean:

I think of myself a kind of voracious reader. It do not know exactly which are the requirements to claim being voracious but I usually read around 3 or 4 books a month. I try to keep a 50-50 split in non-fiction and fiction, but I am afraid that there is some bias towards non-fiction, this happens because these are the books that I read to learn something (or at least, to try learn something). Personally, I find that books are the best mentors. This does not mean that 1 to 1 meetings with a mentor should be disregarded, it is just that buying a book is very easy, yet finding, contacting and meeting somebody may be difficult many times. On other hand, normally books are not very focused and give general advise.

So I am quite a fan of books. I find reading biographies a very nice way to learn from the experience of others. There is something special in being able to go back and open a book again to revisit topics and ideas that may resonate better the second time we read them. In fact, I would say that 99% of the ideas that I present in the blog come from people that knows more than me and have written or transmitted their ideas in some form (can be also recorded talks or presentation, but it is usually books), My goal is to be able to just create a 1% of all the rest of the ideas, and I think that I am still working on getting to that point.

In any case, I think that I have made the point that books are a great source of information. It is easy to learn from the mistakes and achievements of others, and look for a solutions that can be applied to our current situation. However, as I said before, this can be also used in a very dangerous way.

Books and history tell stories from the past, and the past is discrete, What happened, happened and there is no other way anymore. It is good that we can learn from that, but it is important that we are very careful if we try to replicate it or assume that some actions will always have the same result. Let me rephrase this: the issue with focusing in the past, is that we have to keep in mind that the past is discrete, but the present has multiple possibilities. And when we are developing business strategies, we need to forget about what happened and take a look at the other possible scenarios that did not happen.

Let me give you an example: the first killer app developed was called VisiCalc and was released for the Apple II computer. That application alone turned the microcomputer from a hobbyist thing to a serious business tool. And for 12 months, the only way to take advantage of the tool was to buy an Apple II computer. Therefore, Apple sold a ton of machines, making this a pivotal point for the company. Nobody can say that Apple wouldn’t have been successful in any case, we cannot know. However, we can say that without VisiCalc, Apple would probably be a very different company nowadays. This is not good or bad, is just how history happened.

And that’s what we should keep in mind when studying past events: multiple times, we just cannot know if what happened was due to a bold strategy or just plain luck, so our intent to replicate the success of others in the past may be doomed from the start. And if we put too many eggs in a simple basket just hoping on the same outcome than before, it may be that we are also dooming the whole company. This happens many times in finance, where any commodity always grows until it does not anymore and a lot of people starts to loose money and jobs.

This is just a matter of evaluating all the possible outcomes, there will be some that are very good for us, and probably several that are bad. Problems arise if there are some outcomes that, although unlikely, are also very, very bad for us or our company. I am of the opinion that strategies have to be made in a way that very good outcomes are possible, but also that very bad outcomes are prevented, even if that does not allow a quick success, grow, revenue, etc.

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