How selection in success fools us into thinking we understand how success was made.
More than once in my life have I heard people pose the J.K. Rowling counterfactual. It goes something like this: one remarks on some amazing part of the Harry Potter books, movies and honky-tonk merch. Then the conversation partners imagine being one of the 12 publishers who rejected the greatest children’s/YA story of our generation, often with ridicule and spite in their voice. “What were they thinking?”, the conversation concludes, and people shake their heads in disbelief.
JK’s is a perfect rags-to-riches story, of a single mother on welfare sitting on the best and most successful story of the early 2000s, but only if she could get the manuscript past the stubborn publishers who keep rejecting it. Can you imagine a world today without the Harry Potter story in it? Absurd.
Wow, they regret those decisions today; JK had the last laugh.
But of course, selection doesn’t work like that: Looking at the world through hindsight bias deceives more than it illuminates. If you select on the dependent variable, you get a narrow pyramid-shaped view of a cube-shaped world where everything was somehow meant to be, and where everyone along the way could have — should have! — been able to see the future.
I’ve noted in the past that the author Michael Lewis is a master at this:
Time moves forward, asymmetrically, which allows Lewis to write these big stories. In a sense, he’s cheating, like picking numbers for Tuesday’s lottery tickets on Wednesday; for every major event, there will always be somebody who said something reasonably close to a prediction, which lets him find them and interview them later. But for us to take predictions like that seriously, assign them any importance — either in hindsight or as events unfold — the forecaster must be right more than once and more often than random.
The publishers who rejected JK in the late-1990s had an avalanche of stories to filter through, only a small fraction of which they ultimately published. They believe themselves to be able to adequately make that sorting, but it’s doubtful they actually have any ability to. The same goes for Hollywood producers, who don’t predict well which film will flop and which will be a slam-dunks at the box office. Job interviewers and HR personnel don’t predict well who will thrive in a job (I don’t even believe they add value).
Nobody knows anything. But it’s a mistake to chalk that up to incompetence or ignorance: the world is complicated, and people put in these positions are asked to predict an unknowable future with tons of changing tastes, preferences, odd events and variables they didn’t know were at play. Hindsight is not quite 20/20 (historians still fight over what happened…), but judging the past while already knowing the outcome is a mistake.
Ridiculing people for what is revealed to be a mistake only in hindsight is pretty silly.
I recently read Jami Attenberg’s GRL PWR/you-do-you essay in The Guardian. It’s a very inspirational, very follow-your-dreams and stick-it-to-the-haters type story — especially if those haters are men and especially if there’s some sort of authority involved.
Jami Attenberg: 'Rejection gave me a fresh start, a new year'
hen I was 21, a man considered to be an authority on literature suggested I not become a writer. It was a few days…
She tells the story of her teacher in college, an established author in his own right, who asked about what Attenberg wanted to do after graduation. “Write”, she said, and he mostly smirked — probably with some kind of pained expression of pity mixed with admiration for how naïve this young college grad was. “You know, honey, not everyone makes it as a writer”. Attenberg reflects:
For years I have used this story as inspiration. He told me I couldn’t, and yet somehow I did anyway. He was an older man, negative and condescending. I’ll show him, I thought. But it is only recently that I realised that moment was actually radically freeing. I was probably not suited to be a writer in the way he thought was important. But that did not mean I was not suited to be a writer. In a way, he gave me a fresh start, a new year. The first of January of the rest of my life.
So, she showed him, at times determined to prove him wrong. That can be a good motivation. “Writing is holy”, she says, quoting her friend Patricia Lockwood:
It is true that it is hard to make it as a writer, or any kind of artist, for that matter. But if you love to write, you should write forever.
You should? As an art form or sanity check or making sense of your life, I don’t disagree — but professionally…?
When people like Attenberg tell their success stories in the face of hardships and defy their many doubters, others show respect and admiration before their stubbornness and their refusal to give up. It shows courage, and integrity, and a deeply fascinating amount of grit. See, they seem to say, if you work hard enough you can make it, even if those others don’t believed you. The world is for you — just work at your craft, on your calling.
I remember a story about athletes and a statistically inclined guy among them. He thought he could improve all their lives (this is probably a rumour, a hypothetical, a somehow made-up story, but still — bear with me).
These weren’t the famous elites, those drafted first-pick out of high school or who had won everything from the get-go— but also not bad enough to have dropped out long ago. The middling sort, let’s say, huffing about just below the top tiers, biding their time in the American Hockey League or the G League, waiting for their big break.
The guy suggested they pool their future earnings, in effect offering insurance against the financially damaging prospect that some of these athletes wouldn’t make it in the big leagues. If this bid for excellence doesn’t work out, you’ve gambled away your teens and your twenties, acquiring physically impressive skills but very few that pay your bills in the regular world.
Individually, the numbers clearly weren’t on their side: only a few people make the last plunge into the highest tiers of a ridiculously competitive sport. Not all of them were going to make it.
With this insurance arrangement, a few future success stories would pay handsomely for the ones who didn’t make it. Since nobody knew who those would be, this seems like a reasonable financial insurance against not making it — right?
Except nobody was interested. Why not?
Well, they all thought they would be the ones to make it. They all thought they were on the verge of their career’s breakthrough, about to hit it big—why would they give up some of that financial winnings? What the guy was suggesting was throwing money away for some losers who wouldn’t cut it. All were convinced they’d make it, eventually, and so why contract away some of their just spoils?
See, to become a top athlete — or super GM in chess — run a Fortune-500 company or whatever, it takes an extreme level of conviction. An unrealistic belief in yourself, and the disciplined hard work that that allows. You must believe in your own invincibility, to almost absurd lengths. If you hesitate even the slightest, if you let doubt creep in, your efforts are not going to cut it, and the middling sort is where you’ll peak.
What all of these stories have in common is that they illustrate the nefarious workings of selection. They show the problems of looking at the world as it unfolded backwards, with the result already in hand. Attenberg is a successful author, so of course that pompous man was wrong; J.K. Rowling is a great narrative hero to many of us, and so of course the publishers who rejected her manuscript were wrong.
Still, there’s something odd about having the winner of a steep selection process subjectively look back at her success and give advice to others. Like, no: Whatever happened to you is not representative of the group of you-like people who embarked on your journey some thirty odd years ago. Or the group of you-like youngsters who’re contemplating it now.
You have to look at all the others like them, drawn from the same cohorts and the same samples. Attenberg’s inspirational advice isn’t off — it’s just incomplete. For every Attenberg who made it, for every JK-like success story where the protagonist overcame the doubters and the hardships, there are dozens — probably hundreds — who also defied the advice yet never got anywhere. If negative advice to a young person has a ~99% hit rate, is it really that bad advice?
It would be more revealing if the Guardian ran a piece by some of the aspiring authors who did not make it (Attenberg’s and JK’s flailing peers). They could tell of their attempts and devotion, say inspirational stuff like “If you love to write, you should write forever”, tell of hardship when people didn’t believe in them — and ultimately how they threw in the towel proving said doubters right.
Of course, like my athletes above, nobody wants to hear that.
We like success stories, and happily suspend our disbelief in order to keep the hopes up. Yes, we can, we want to hear. And yes, I can.