What Are Success Stories Really Good For?

Some cultural critics believe business war stories aren't instructive. What can we learn from that?

While they didn't have Hacker News or leadership RSS feeds a hundred years ago, people were still evidently inundated by stories with "How I Became Successful" narratives.

English essayist G.K. Chesterton, who was a skewer-wielding cultural critic in the Christopher Hitchens mold years earlier, had little use for such studies of success.

"That a thing is successful merely means that it is; a millionaire is successful in being a millionaire and a donkey in being a donkey," he wrote in All Things Considered, published in 1915 and resurfaced on Kottke. And yet books abound with stories about how builders can become better builders, stockbrokers better brokers, and maybe even turn a grocer into a yachtsman. More recently, if learn how Richard Branson lost his Virginity, then so can you.

To Chesterton, business war stories aren't instructive--they're unnecessary.


It is perfectly obvious that in any decent occupation (such as bricklaying or writing books), there are only two ways (in any special sense) of succeeding. One is by doing very good work, the other is by cheating. Both are much too simple to require any literary explanation. If you are in for the high jump, either jump higher than any one else, or manage somehow to pretend that you have done so. If you want to succeed at whist, either be a good whist player or play with marked cards. You may want a book about jumping; you may want a book about whist; you may want a book about cheating at whist. But you cannot want a book about success. Especially you cannot want a book about Success such as those which you can now find scattered by the hundred around the book market. You may want to jump or to play cards; but you do not want to read wandering statements to the effect that jumping is jumping, or that games are won by winners.

Why we fall for the fallacy

That we invest so much in stories of success, Chesterton would argue, is a fallacy. The narrative fallacy to be exact. What's that? Glad you asked. Berkeley statistician David Aldous supplies this excellent account:

When we write the details of some interesting past episode--a three-hour football match or a three-day battle or a three-year war or a 30-year career or a 300-year rise and fall of an empire--we select and recount events sequentially, and within this "narrative" a reader is inclined to assume that one event was caused by the previously described events. Sometimes the writer is explicit about causation (I bet no historian ever wrote "war broke out on the date . . ." without attempting to say why!) and sometimes the writer isn't; but our mental processes tend to lead us unconsciously toward the post hoc, ergo propter hoc assumption (This happened after that, so that caused this). The main point is that even if one can identify proximate causes of particular events within a larger Episode correctly, after the fact, this doesn't contradict the hypothesis that the way the Episode as a whole developed was unpredictable. Seeing the historical details makes us forget it might have just been chance; the Frog might not have been a Prince after all.

In other words, the causes that bring together a successful career or venture are so varied, complex, and mysterious that to capture them in a feel-good memoir is pretty damn difficult. Which was partly why Outliers was such a successful book: Malcolm Gladwell traced the different causes of success that we often overlook--for instance, that instead of hockey players succeeding due to superior skills, they benefited from being born in a certain month.

Okay, so why do we read these things?

This is a big question, but it's probably so that we can become better--at work, love, life. But first we probably have to admit, as geek icon Nate Silver would encourage us to do, that the career game is more like poker than it is like chess: The information we're working with is incomplete, imperfect, and dynamic--meaning that success is a probabilistic kinda thing.

One way to cooperate with that serendipity is with "step-by-step" optionality, a strategy termed by productivity czar Bob Pozen. The idea is this: Instead of mapping out our careers along a straight line, we head off onto multiple branches. The key, he would say, would be to train in in-demand transferable skills, such as management---or, increasingly, critical thinking.

But the most obvious strategy, to fold back to Chesterton, is to train. You become a successful high jumper by jumping higher.

So how do you and I--largely not actual high jumpers-- train? As Cal Newport and Karen Cheng have shown us, this comes in a couple of ways: deliberate practice and doing it every damn day.

[Image: Flickr user Frédéric BISSON]

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3 Comments

  • Cedricj

    The common fallacy of success stories is that, at least in the USA, one can be anything they want to be and do anything they set their mind on. Now while intention and focus are important for goal achievement the story is a little more than those factors.

    1. If you are born to privilege you are more likely to get the breaks.
    2. If you were fortunate to have sponsors you can climb career ladders
    3. And what are the criteria for success anyway? Being or doing? Contribution or exploitation?
    4. Sometimes our greatest failures set the stage for the deeper lessons of life to be learned.

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    Inspiring leaders to inspire others

  • Cari Turley

    What about for inspiration? Or instruction? Some jobs are complicated, and it's not immediately obvious what constitutes "good work." Success stories can give us some possible answers. And other jobs come without any guarantee of success, even with hard work--any career in the arts, for example. Reminding ourselves that others have struggled and succeeded can give us the inspiration we need to keep trying.

  • tonywatkins

    Chesterton certainly was skewer-wielding, but hardly in the Hitchens mould: Chesterton was a man of deep Christian faith, while Hitchens was an equally committed atheist. It's a shame they weren't contemporaries as the idea of a debate between the two of them is wonderful. It would have been quite a skewer-wielding duel!