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Be wary of fairy stories about business success

Jul 02, 2023 Success, Sunday Nation

I read this hilarious tweet a while back and bookmarked it. It is from Andrew Wilkinson, an entrepreneur, characterising entrepreneurs giving advice thus: “Here’s the number I used to win the lottery.” 

I’ve stopped laughing now, enough to think and write about that excellent sentence. 

Young folks lining up to listen to successful entrepreneurs talk about their success is a very common phenomenon. They take notes avidly, trying to spot the advice that they can absorb and make their own, the lessons they can put in motion, so that they, too, can ride into the sunset with a trailer of cash behind them. 

Yeah, right. 

As Mr Wilkinson suggests: business success is rarely replicable or transferable. It is, instead, peculiar and particular, and heavily dependent on huge doses of luck. So even if your favourite idol gives you their winning lottery number, it is of no use to you. 

Let’s unpack some of that story. What’s really so bad about people telling you how they succeeded? In one sense, nothing, really. Weak minds love to show off. It is part of their own validation, to feel needed and useful. Equally weak minds love to be told stuff—they need cheat sheets and shortcuts. It has always been thus. The problem comes when both sides—the gifter and giftee, so to speak—start to believe the story in full. 

Most stories of entrepreneurial success seem to have the same strands. They go something like this. Episode one: I was born poor, and I really struggled for a long time. Episode two: one day I was sitting there looking at a situation, and it hit me like a flash of lightning: there’s a better way to do this! Episode three: it was really hard to convince anyone, and struggled some more. Episode four: But I was dogged and persistent, and refused to give up. Episode five: after holding down day and night jobs and getting some savings together, I managed to convince some investors to back me. Episode six: after years of working day and night to build the business, we finally hit the jackpot and I became rich and famous. Episode seven (season finale): I am here to tell you the things I did that can work for you, because that’s me giving back. 

Anything wrong with that story? The first clue is to look out for what’s not being said. Who’s doing the talking? The one who succeeded, and is delighted to talk about it. What about the ninety-nine who may have followed the exact same formula, but didn’t make it? Who tells their stories? No one, because the graveyard of failed ventures is silent. And there’s yet another (small) hidden group: those who succeed but never need to talk about it. By listening only to those who come to talk, we are receiving a distorted version of reality. 

Even allowing for the skewed sample, what else is missing in the stories we hear? Lots of unspoken truths. Few entrepreneurs do talks about how privileged they were; how parents and connections opened doors for them; how government is their main customer and dubious contracts are their real secret of success; how many trampled bodies they leave in their wake; how they don’t have any special insights at all, just brute will. 

That doesn’t make for a great talk. 

But let’s be kind and assume there is in fact great truth in their story; that most of it is documentary rather than fantasy. Let’s assume the entrepreneur imparts some lessons that genuinely drove their success. Even so, the listener should be discerning and circumspect. What is worth knowing is already known—it is timeless and universal. 

I offered the real “secrets” of success on this page recently. To repeat: be unique in your offerings; be kind in your relationships; be prudent and careful with money; be resilient and anticipate change; and be lucky, very lucky. 

The flip-side: to fail fast, do the following: don’t attempt anything original, just follow the crowd; be a jerk and create enemies everywhere; slacken off, because work is for fools; stick to plan A forever; live fast and spend freely as soon as you have a bit of money. Oh, and when the opportunity of your life knocks, be asleep. 

None of that is particularly insightful. It’s just what we are. We succeed and fail in predictable and banal ways, but we think everything that happens to us is special. 

The problem with entrepreneurs’ stories: they are mostly nothing but the same old, same old; they hide as much as they reveal; and even when they’re sincere and interesting, they’re not transferable. 

That’s not to mock at the idea of learning from one another. That’s what we humans are great at doing. We watch, we learn, we record, we teach—all good. The problem happens when we remain all-too-willing to impart—and receive—fairy stories about the nature of success. The bottom line is this: what you need to do is pretty obvious; but whether doing it works for you depends on many things that are particular in your life. When we yearn for easy answers, we chase only shadows.

(Sunday Nation, 2 July 2023)

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