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It seems obvious that if you disassemble the story of a successful person or company and repeat the techniques that worked for them, then you will not get worse. But this is a delusion.
Unfortunately, books, training, and performances of successful people are almost useless. When we try to model our lives or businesses on the basis of other people’s rules, we make a “survivor’s mistake” – relying on the least important information and ignoring what is really critical. There is a theory – “the mistake of the survivors.” Her idea is that one cannot draw conclusions based on the experience of the winners. If you want to know the truth – ask the losers. This term belongs to the mathematician Abraham Wald. It was first used to damage Allied aircraft during World War II.
The losses of the planes were catastrophic – one successful hit could turn a combat vehicle into a pile of scrap. But you can’t overload the planes with armor – because they also need to carry bombs. Therefore it was necessary to choose. Observing the bombers returning to the airfields cut by bullets, the command decided that the parts of the hull that most resembled a colander should be strengthened: the wings, the lower part of the hull, and the tail – because it is obvious that they hit most often.
But Wald was the first to realize that this was a logical trap because planes with these injuries survived. And that the real threat was not the damage with which the planes returned home, but those that destroyed them – and which therefore could not be studied. If a plane can fly with a bullet hole in the wing – you need to look where there is no hole – perhaps because the crew was not able to get there alive.
What prevented the military from drawing this simple conclusion on its own? Everything was simple – the dead planes remained on the battlefield, and accordingly fell out of the analysis.
“The mistake of survivors” is a principle that can be applied to any sphere of life, and especially to business. “Survivors” are those who have achieved maximum success in their cause. They attract public attention, they want to listen or read. But they all returned to their airfields. Studying and copying their strengths is like studying surviving planes.
To succeed, it is very important for us to understand what actions and strategies did not work for the losers. Knowing and not repeating the mistakes that can lead to a catastrophe is much more important than blindly chasing leaders. The problem is that those who lose do not write memoirs and do not attract the attention of journalists. They are in a “blind spot”, and information will have to be collected in crumbs.
Does this mean that the experience of someone else’s success is completely useless? Rather no, you just need to formulate the task more clearly. We are all pleased when a doctor or financial advisor is successful and well-known in their field, and, of course, we strive to solve our problems with their help. But we get a concrete result from them, and we do not try to imitate them.
Although the principle of Abraham Wald has been known for over 70 years, we use it sadly little in our work – because it is much easier to keep an eye on the success of Apple or Facebook than to try to understand what went wrong with tens of thousands of their competitors. But true success comes when you begin to face the facts and learn from the failures of others.
Does this mean that you can now save time and money on training or business conferences? Not at all, because there are useful connections. In addition, any successful person needs constant motivation, and who but the leaders in their fields can give it. But trying to blindly copy someone else’s path is a non-working strategy. Everyone has their own way, and you will have to go through it on your own.