Copying your Way to Success
My favourite book preamble is from Zero to One by Peter Thiel :
The next Bill Gates will not start an operating system. The next Larry Page won’t start a search engine. The next Mark Zuckerberg won’t start a social network company. If you are copying these people, you are not learning from them.
The last sentence resonates most with me: if you are copying from these people, you are not learning from them. If so, why then are we so obsessed with copying?
The internet is populated with articles and videos on routines of successful people, secrets of successful people, and — my personal favourite — how to think successful people do, whatever that means. These articles and videos state specific characteristics of successful people, such as when they wake up, their morning routines, how they smile, and even what they eat during the day. Somehow, people who consume these contents hope that by following these strategies, they will become like these people.
Never mind that none of these successful people have the same habits. I may be able to state few examples, and I understand we may have different definitions of success, so I’ll choose people from different backgrounds of success. It is said that Elon Musk wakes up by 7 am, Jeff Bezos by 6.45 am, Dwayne Johnson by 3.30 am, and J. K Rowling by 4 am. All of these people have one thing in common: they are extremely rich. So if my goal is to be rich, for example, who should I follow? Or should I just compute all the waking hours of rich people I admire and then apply the average?
The reason we make the mistake of trying to copy the lifestyle of successful people is that we miss a common psychological phenomenon called observation after the fact. Simply put, this means drawing conclusions from already portrayed evidence. Does waking up by 6.30 make Bezos successful, or he’s just a successful man that wakes up by 6.30? Understanding the difference is significant.
We see this copy-cat complex in everyday life. College freshmen and sophomores always meet the top senior students to ask them how they do it. They ask about how many hours they study, what they study, classes they attend, etc. At times like this, if you’re the one being asked, it is easier to make up a story that fits a classic “success story.” You might be tempted to talk about how you read 14 hours a day, even though this might not be true. The junior students try to create a simulacrum from the lifestyles of the seniors, which usually fails.
Another things that’s wrong about copying is that it fails to factor in the role statistical randomness plays in success stories. Microsoft was well positioned in its early days to dominate the software landscape, and that has made its founder incredibly rich. But Gates was also extremely lucky to have been born at this time; he was lucky to have played with computers at an early age; and he was lucky to have attended Harvard. This does not not undermine his hard work or ingenuity, but you could argue that there were many other 19-year olds that were as hard-working and smart. While I may follow Bill Gates exact routines, the chances of recreating his success are extremely low. However, I can recreate my own success.
This does not mean that we can’t learn from successful people we admire. There are secrets we can obviously learn from them, but are these really secrets? All of these people have worked extremely hard and smart, and have also had a sprinkling of luck. Nothing beats the old principle of working hard, working smart, and sometimes being lucky. For all you know, you could just become another billionaire who wakes up by 11 am, or another very successful student who reads only one hour a day.