Why success stories are just propaganda

Martin Weigel (@mweigel)

November 13, 2017

From martinweigel.org

The most tedious stories we ever tell are success stories. From the podium at Cannes Lions, TED talks, conference keynote presentations, the pages of the Harvard Business Review and The McKinsey Quarterly, the pronouncements of rockstar marketers, the breezy empowering wisdom of those who've made it to the top of their chosen greasy pole, and pretty much every business book ever written… the narrative — implicit or explicit — is always the same:

I succeeded. I succeeded because I did this. And I am really good at this. You are not doing this. But if you do this you and you are good at it you can succeed too.


Looking at historic data, we've analysed what made these people / businesses / brands successful and there's a pattern. It's [insert magic ingredient]. If you copy what they did in the past, you can create your future success.

So we get flim flam like this:

You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life… You've got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don't settle… Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

Or narcissistic, delusional drivel like this:

I'm 41 and I'm just getting started. It doesn't matter who you are, where you're from or what you did before now. Each day is an opportunity to deploy your time and energy toward your dream. Think about what you want, reverse engineer that, and then execute.

Or grandiose promises of success like this:

Just about anyone can be a key protagonist in building an extraordinary business institution. The lessons of these companies can be learned and applied by the vast majority of managers at all levels. You can learn them. You can apply them. You can build a visionary company.

We love this stuff. Perhaps we are lazy and want somebody else to take on the trial and error and figure it all out for us. Perhaps we just need some inspiration and motivation to keep us going. Perhaps we need to be given a belief system. Perhaps we really do think there's a silver bullet out there. Perhaps it's our innate appetite for satisfying patterns. Perhaps we need these stories to feel that progress is actually possible. Perhaps our brains are simply adapted to to copy the behaviours off the most successful. Perhaps we — no longer buoyed by faith — still seek our gods.

Whatever the reason, for the most part these stories (Steve Jobs' included) have nothing to teach us. Painting false realities, creating the illusion that success is far easier than it actually is, and laying claim to universal wisdom, they enslave us in the fictions, fantasies and ideologies of others. Comforting though it might be, they stop us thinking for ourselves.


The problem with success stories is that they are not stories about failure. And thus by their very nature, they are distortions. At this point briefly retelling a familiar story about World War II is obligatory.

The story goes that during World War II, the statistician Abraham Wald was tasked with helping the Allies reduce the number of bombers lost to enemy anti-aircraft fire. The Allies wanted to understand how much additional protection was needed. The challenge was not straightforward. Armour would make the bombers heavier, less manoeuvrable, and less fuel-efficient. But armouring the bombers too little would leave them vulnerable. Examining the bombers that did make it back, the Allies had noted that that the damage wasn't uniformly distributed across the aircraft. Since there were more bullet holes in the fuselage than in the engine, the Allies concluded that this is where they should concentrate the armour. The question they had for Wald was how much armour.

Wald did not answer their question. Instead he argued that the armour shouldn't go where the bullet holes were — it should go where the bullet holes were not, namely on the engines. This argued Wald, was where the bombers were most vulnerable and where the planes that didn't make it back had been hit. Returning planes with damage to the fuselage simply showed that this damage could be survived. From this insight, Wald then calculated how much damage each individual part of an airplane could take before it was destroyed and how likely it was that the average plane would get shot in those places in any given bombing run depending on the amount of resistance it faced.

Wald's achievement lay in the fact that unlike his superiors, he did not focus exclusively on the survivors. He avoided what we call "survivorship bias" and instead found a way of seeing the bombers that did not make it back and the bullet holes that were missing. The lesson of this story of course is that focusing exclusively on survivors creates a very distorted reality. As advertisers have long known, focusing exclusively on say, the successful lottery winner or the successful weight loser not only obscures quite how hard success really is to achieve, but all too easily oversimplifies or misrepresents the real reasons behind success.

Take the consultants Collins and Porras authors of the bestselling book Good To Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don't. To get to their recipe for success, Collins and Porras identified 200 leading companies then narrowed them down to include the best and most durable and successful. This was achieved by identifying the twenty organizations most frequently mentioned in a survey of CEOs. Companies founded after 1950 were eliminated and the list culled down to eighteen "visionary" companies (alarm bells should already be ringing at this point). They then looked at the common traits of these companies and compared them with companies that were just "good". Lo and behold their research revealed that the great companies had a strong core ideology, built a strong corporate culture, set audacious goals, developed people and promoted from within, created a spirit of experimentation and risk taking, and drove for excellence.

"Just about anyone can be a key protagonist in building an extraordinary business institution" Collins and Porras promised, "the lessons of these companies can be learned and applied by the vast majority of managers at all levels. You can learn them. You can apply them. You can build a visionary company." But in truth their analysis tells us nothing. Other than we are suckers for good story.

After all, as Phil Rosenzweig notes in his wonderful take down of business delusions The Halo Effect, it would be remarkable if great companies were not described in these terms — and if good companies in somewhat lesser terms. And because we know absolutely nothing about all the other companies that were neither Good nor Great, we have absolutely no way of knowing if these factors are the drivers of success, or merely ways of describing a successful company.

As Rosenzweig points out, picking a handful of companies precisely because they've done well for many years, and then looking back in time and "explaining" what happened tells us absolutely nothing about what makes for success. If they had concluded that having a blue logo was the key factor in their extraordinary performance or that the CEOs were all Virgos it would have had just as much plausibility.

There is then, nothing like a success story to obscure the real nature of success. The success story of Ryan Gosling renders us blind to every struggling or failed actor waiting on tables, just as the success story of Ryan Higer obscures the unsurfaced and unremarked content produced by a thousand YouTube creators, just as the success story of Chance the Rapper leads us to forget the legions of undiscovered performers toiling in the unknown loneliness of their bedroom. Their stories and accomplishments may well provide hope and comfort and inspiration for those who struggle. But they also misrepresent quite how hard success is to come by. And indeed how it is achieved. As David McRaney puts it:

Survivorship bias… flash-freezes your brain into a state of ignorance from which you believe success is more common than it truly is and therefore you leap to the conclusion that it also must be easier to obtain. You develop a completely inaccurate assessment of reality thanks to a prejudice that grants the tiny number of survivors the privilege of representing the much larger group to which they originally belonged.


In reducing their achievements down to a single factor, those who tell their stories of success invariably claim (or believe) to have had a monopoly of control of events and outcomes, and vastly exaggerate their agency. Yet no person, no organisation, no business functions in isolation from the environments and contexts they are located within. Any story of success is a story of a complex interaction of factors. Reducing that complexity to a single variable or a simple aphorism might make for good storytelling, but it is usually an exercise in nonsense.

Jim Stengel in his book Grow: How Ideals Power Growth and Profit at the World's Greatest Companies for example, wants us to believe that companies with an ideal at their heart see share price growth far in excess of those lacking such values.

This conclusion was arrived at by taking the 50 brands with the highest loyalty or bonding scores from Millward Brown's 50,000-strong database, searching for a link between them — a "Brand Ideal" — and then looking at the chosen brands' stock value growth between 2000 and 2011. Since these fifty brands had grown by 393% compared with a -7% loss for the S&P 500 benchmark — and ignoring the massively complex array of interrelated variables and dynamics that constitute a business — Stengel declared that having an ideal was the key to driving stratospheric business success.

One has to applaud the audacity of the argument. Yet for Stengel's argument to have a shred of credibility, one would have had to a) have eliminated all the other factors that might have impacted growth before aligning upon Brand Ideal and b) demonstrated that successful companies have brand ideals more often than unsuccessful ones. Stengel's analysis does neither.

But why should the burden of rigorous analysis get in the way of seductive story? People get away this kind of sloppy half-baked stuff because we'd rather hear a story about purpose than interrogate the assumptions made in the analysis or consider that Stengel's analysis looks at but 50 companies out of a database of 50,000. We're so dazzled by the mere presence of numbers that we gush about about the "scientist's rigour" of the author's analysis. Even Chairman of WPP Sir Martin Sorrell is not immune to a good yarn, declaring that Stengel had "the hard, clean numbers to bear his teachings out". As Professor Kahneman puts it:

The exaggerated faith in small samples is only one example of a more general illusion – we pay more attention to the content of messages than to information about their reliability, and as a result end up with a view of the world around us that is simpler and more coherent than the data justify. Jumping to conclusions is a safer sport in the world of our imagination than it is in reality.


In oversimplifying, success stories and storytellers invariably also fail to account for the role of sheer luck. But then survivors have always had the advantage that they get to tell the story how they want it. And hagiographers have always been able to rely on our appetite for exciting stories and lack of interest in critiquing their reliability.

Much for example, is made of the vision, intellect and intuition of Steve Jobs. But Jobs was also enormously lucky.

Lucky for a start that he was born in the US not, say, the Congo.

Lucky that he was born in San Francisco which within 20 years would be emerging as a technology hub.

Lucky that during the 1960s DARPA's funding of new computer science departments at US universities had expanded the number of researchers and accelerated technological change in this area.

Lucky that research already carried out in various public–private partnerships at labs including those at DARPA, AT&T Bell Labs, Xerox PARC, Shockley and Fairchild had revolutionized the semiconductor industry through the introduction of silicon.

Lucky that as the sole consumers of the first processing units based on this new circuit design, defence contracts had already helped fund the development of the microprocessor industry.

Lucky that touchscreen technology had already been invented by E. A. Johnson, while working at Royal Radar Establishment a British government agency in the 1960s.

Lucky that multi-touch scrolling and gestures had already been developed by Wayne Westerman and John Elias (funded by the State) at the University of Delaware in the 1990s.

Lucky that through the 1970s through the 1990s, DARPA had funded the development of TCP/IP.

Lucky that Tim Berners-Lee had developed the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), uniform resource locators (URL) and uniform Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) in the 1980s.

Lucky that GPS had been developed by the Department of Defence in the 1970s.

Lucky in other words, that all the major technologies that made the iPhone possible already existed, and lucky that public funding had enabled the military to take on the burden of capital-intensive risk in developing them.

It is all too easy for such details to get lost in the telling and re-telling of myth. As Marianne Mazzucato observes:

Individual genius, attention to design, a love for play, and foolishness were no doubt important characteristics. But without the massive amount of public investment behind the computer and Internet revolutions, such attributes might have led only to the invention of a new toy – not to cutting-edge revolutionary products

This is not to deny the skill of successful people and businesses. Chance is one thing, but spotting and capitalising on it is another thing altogether. But the idea of the Self Made Person (or brand or busisness) is an illusion and fiction. As Alexi Madrigal writing for the Atlantic puts it:

How many brilliant hardworking people were just in the wrong place at the wrong time? How many encountered a system that made it harder for them? How many people from uneducated families or inner cities, immigrants or the grandchildren of slaves never found themselves in a position to show their awesomeness? How many women were forced to act as mere appendages to their husbands… These were not conditions in which it was equally possible for all people to flourish. And yet we hand down these stories from generation to generation as if everyone had an equal shot at success.

By way of a side note in the hands of the ascendant class of neocons, kleptocrats and their evangelist bedfellows, the idea of the Self Made Person becomes a pernicious and cruel fiction. Rich people their logic goes, are rich purely because of their own virtue and hard work — ergo, poor people are poor simply because they do not work hard enough. So fuck 'em.

The ironing out of luck in success stories is not purely a case of conscious myth-making and spin. Human psychology and the phenomenon of the so-called "availability heuristic" can explain much of this telling of revisionist history. The availability heuristic is the phenomenon whereby vivid memories are the most easily recalled memory, will appear more numerous than commonplace incidents, and are accorded more significance than events that happen sporadically. It means that we tend to have an incomplete picture. And it means that we are unreliable autobiographers. As Robert Frank puts it:

Little wonder that when talented, hardworking people in developed countries strike it rich, they tend to ascribe their success to talent and hard work above all else. Most of them are vividly aware of how hard they've worked and how talented they are. They've been working hard and solving difficult problems every day for many years! In some abstract sense, they probably do know that they might not have performed as well in some other environment. Yet their day-to-day experience provides few reminders of how fortunate they were not to have been born in, say, war-torn Zimbabwe.

When we recognise the role of chance and circumstance and context we fast realise how absurd it is for the successful to make claims of universal wisdom and lessons based on their experience and accomplishments.

"Love what you do… Don't settle… Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish" advised Jobs. But as a recipe for success it is frankly bullshit. You can follow that advice all you want. You may even have his intellect and determination and instinct. But you will not encounter precisely the same set of circumstances with precisely the same set of variables, resources, opportunities, and chances. Because you are not Steve Jobs in 70s San Francisco. "Love what you do… Don't settle… Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish" may give us a warm fuzzy feeling, but a vastly incomplete account of personal success in the past is hardly the best and most reliable guide to future success for everybody else. The fact of the matter is that the successful are unreliable witnesses of their own achievements. And extrapolating patterns from an unreplicable past and presenting them as universal blueprints for future success hardly counts as helpful advice, let alone wisdom.


The ancient inclination to copy winners, the lionisation of business heroes, the reason-inhibiting power of celebrity status, the appetite for secrets, tips and formulas, the seductive power of stories of adversity and heroism, mean you will seek out and eat up the narrative arcs, breezy prose, anecdotes and reductionist advice of self-styled experts of all stripes and colours. You will pay for their books and line up for their "keynote" presentations. You will be seduced by their stories of adversity and persistence. You will be thrilled by the privileged insight into the secrets of their success. You will come away with inspirational soundbites, checklists, mantras, templates, and how to's.

And you will also swallow an inordinate amount of self-awareness-free bullshit, revisionist history, self-promotional fantasy and impractical advice. Because the successful are unreliable witnesses of their own success. Because their success was the result of a complex set of factors only some of which they controlled and only some (at best) of which will apply to you. Because consciously or unconsciously they will edit out the role of luck in their accounts of their success. Because their success was not an inevitability. Because they cannot know what will make you successful. Because they are survivors and thus are only half the story. And because book sales, professional reputation, conference ticket sales and the need for a good story mean that they will never tell you any of this.


So if you're on the receiving end of a Self Made success story exercise extreme caution. If you're being given universal wisdom based on individual experience or anecdote, feel free to ignore it. If somebody tells you that what made them successful in the past will make you successful in the future exercise caution — or call bullshit. If you're told winners all share one quality ignore the seductive story and ruthlessly interrogate the sample and the analysis structure. If all you do is consume the advice of the successful, spend just a little time examining all those who didn't make it back.

But above all accept the truth that you are alone. There are no heroes or gods who can tell us what to do. There is nobody who's figured it all, who can save us the hard work and the risk. Nobody has the keys to wisdom and certainty. Nobody has a universally applicable playbook for success. Nobody has a monopoly of insight or wisdom. Nobody has one template to rule them all. We are alone.

And liberated.

As Margaret Wheatley writes:

For too long, too many of us have been entranced by heroes. Perhaps it's our desire to be saved, to not have to do the hard work, to rely on someone else to figure things out. It's a seductive image, an enticing promise. And we keep believing it. Somewhere there's someone who will make it all better. Somewhere, there's someone who's visionary, inspiring, brilliant, trustworthy, and we'll all happily follow him or her. Somewhere… Well, it is time for all the heroes to go home, as the poet William Stafford wrote. It is time for us to give up these hopes and expectations that only breed dependency and passivity, and that do not give us solutions to the challenges we face.

Only by recognising that we are alone can we liberate ourselves from being enslaved by the subjective experiences, fictions, fantasies, dogmas, pseudo-science, false reporting and ideologies of others. All success stories are propaganda. We can and must make our own way.



Jim Collins, Jerry Porras, Good To Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don't Farnham Street, "3 Things You Should Know About the Availability Heuristic" Robert Frank, "Why Luck Matters More Than You Might Think", The Atlantic Text of the Commencement address delivered by Steve Jobs at Stanford University, June 12, 2005 Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow
David McRaney, Survivorship Bias Alex Maxriga, "And Now Let Us Praise, and Consider the Absurd Luck of, Famous Men", The Atlantic’ Marianne Mazzucato, The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths Phil Rosenzweig, The Halo Effect: … and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers Richard Shotton, "Truthiness in marketing: is the evidence behind brand purpose flawed?", The Drum Jim Stengel, Grow: How Ideals Power Growth and Profit at the World's Greatest Companies Richard Wiseman, "The Luck Factor" Mejia Zameena, "Steve Jobs almost prevented the Apple iPhone from being invented", CNBC