Brilliant: The Science of Smart

We Should Follow Those Who Finish Second, Not First

Success in business can actually be a poor indicator of skill.

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The success story is a staple of business books and magazines: the faces of top investors and executives smile at us from the covers, and inside their words invite us to emulate their actions. But research suggests we should be cautious in modeling ourselves after extraordinary performers or adopting their much-praised methods; these paragons may offer less wisdom than they promise. Greater value can be found, studies show, in less sexy but more substantial theories, and in the practices of those who are second best in the field.

In an article published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, Jerker Denrell of the University of Oxford and Chengwei Liu of the University of Warwick reported on experiments that modeled the results of a game played in many rounds. Over time, the most skilled players came to inhabit a second tier of reliable competence. Those who succeeded spectacularly — who took their places in the first tier — were often not the most skilled, but rather were those who got some lucky breaks early on or took big risks that happened to pay off. Emulating these top performers would probably lead to disappointment, since imitators would be unlikely to replicate their good fortune. Because luck and risk play a dominant role in extraordinary outcomes, Denrell and Liu write, “extreme success or failure are, at best, only weak signals of skill,” and top performers “should not be imitated or praised.” Better, they advise, to learn from individuals “with high, but not exceptional, performance” — those whose success can be attributed to solid skill and not to a rare lightning strike.

(MORE: Can You Learn Everything “On the Job”?)

Focusing on “the best” can even lead entire industries astray. In an article in The American Journal of Sociology, researchers David Strang and Michael Macy contend that “the centrality of the ‘success story’” helps generate business-world fads, in which innovations are rapidly adopted and just as quickly discarded (think “total quality management,” “matrix management,” “quality circles”). The problem is that while we’re told frequently and at great length about successes, we hear almost nothing about failures — a bias that skews our judgment about what’s likely to work. For example, the authors note, during the seven years when quality circles (a practice that American companies borrowed from Japanese industry) were most popular, there were plenty of articles published in the business media about the increases in savings and employee satisfaction they produced — but no stories about quality circle failures. Companies had to discover through their own experiences that quality circles just didn’t work. In order to make balanced decisions about which practices to adopt, Strang and Macy advise people to look “not only among the Intels and Microsofts, but also among the Wangs and Digitals.”

(MORE: Why Floundering Is Good)

Tellingly, the most genuinely useful innovations tend to emerge from companies’ on-the-ground responses to economic and social challenges — not from business advice books. So concluded researchers Danny Miller and Jon Hartwick in an article in the Harvard Business Review, for which they tracked the coverage of business trends in academic, professional, business and trade publications over a 17-year period. Evanescent fads, they found, are usually simple, one-size-fits-all solutions promoted by charismatic “gurus.” Approaches with real staying power are more complex and multifaceted, and demand deep organizational changes.

By analyzing the characteristics of theories currently in fashion, we may even be able to tell in advance which ones will turn out to be permanently useful additions, and which ones are here-today-gone-tomorrow trends. A paper published earlier this year in the journal Information and Organization applied just such an analysis, and concluded that “service-oriented architecture” — a buzzword in the information systems industry right now — is destined to be no more than a fad. Armed with critical thinking skills and a healthy dose of skepticism, we can learn to distinguish leaders and theories with the shiny look of success from those that offer the real thing.

MORE: How to Increase Your Powers of Observation

9 comments
jessicamiller758
jessicamiller758

Being successful is not measured when you finish first or second. What is important is  you achieve your target and be able to attain your goal.

Jessica Miller

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marioyohanes
marioyohanes

An article like this that make we have more followers than innovators. While it's true for most part, but then again, following  a loser always be much simpler and easier than following the winner.

Andre Samosir
Andre Samosir

Precisely. Not every single 7.000.000.000 head over this earth is winner. Winners are maybe just 2% of them all, and I am being optimistic. What about the other 90%-ish people and their kids who just want to walk their life quietly, have good afternoon chat with their family and friends, work their job without burden for a living, and so on? They win much, maybe more than those !exceptional! winners. Why make it harder? What's with this complicating life on earth?

Being an !exceptional! winner (usually measured just in term of money) is a fluke of universe, and therefore is overrated.

Merydith Willoughby
Merydith Willoughby

It seems to me that the tall poppy syndrome is alive and well. In most cases, people who are successful have worked very, very hard to achieve their success and do not give up under any circumstances. They are willing to put the thousands of hours in and give up many things that most of us take for granted. And they have a different attitude from most; they do not stop or whinge when things get tough.

It is easy for those to sit on the side lines and criticise successful people, rather than put the extra hard work necessary into their own lives to achieve their goals and aspirations.

In the excerpt below from my third book, Back from Hell - Chapter 6 Personal audit - I outline my thoughts on Olympic Athletes and how we can all emulate them.

Olympic Athlete

I have felt for a long time that I am in a much better position than an Olympic Athlete because there is only one winner in their race. They train for years to have the opportunity of competing with absolutely no guarantee they will succeed. They go without so much in their life that most of us take for granted and every minute of their day is planned - there is a reason for everything they do. And at the end of the day, it is brutal – no glory for those who come second, third or fourth.

I wonder whether anyone takes much time to think about the life of an Olympic Athlete or think that they just get up in the morning, laze around, eat whatever they want, put on their training gear, do little or no training and win gold. It would be most unlikely that anyone would be this naïve although most of us have absolutely no idea as to what they go through or without in the time they spend at this level of competition. The work; physical and mental, the years they devote to their area of expertise are unbelievable and most of us would cringe at the thought - we’d run the other way. Yet, these athletes know what is required if they want to have any chance of success and just how much is involved in every single area and aspect of their life.

The reality is they have very little chance of winning because they are competing with athletes who are just as committed as they are. It is largely determined by the natural gifts the athlete has, their commitment, the people and professionals on their team, the amount of money their country has to invest in their development and what they are willing to go without in order to even have the slightest chance of standing on the podium for their country with a gold medal proudly draped around their neck and the beautiful sound of their national anthem playing.

Technology has enabled the coaches of Olympic Athletes to monitor just about everything they do – it is big business and highly technical. Countries pride themselves on winning gold, as many as they can and their success changes the way they are viewed by the rest of the world.

I also know that my desire to be successful is only one tiny aspect of the accomplishment. If I sit on a chair and just want it I will be sitting for a very long time and achieve nothing. My success will not happen overnight; it will probably not happen in the timeframe I want but it will happen if I am willing to work hard and do what is required to achieve my desired outcomes. I am in a far better position than the Olympic Athlete because if I focus on what is important to me, take the time to conduct a regular personal audit, have the right people on my team, look after myself properly I will continue to achieve my gold.

MikeTime
MikeTime

What the article is saying is that although hard work and perseverence do help in becoming "successful" that alone is not a guarentee.  I know plenty of people who work their tails off at work, or try to start their own business.  They may be comfortable, but aren't filthy rich.  Have you read "Outliers"?  It talks about how your birthdate (something you can't control) is a key factor in becoming a pro hockey player (because of the league you get paired in), or how being born in an upper middle class family in the 1960's and having regular access to a computer (which most people didn't at the time) allowed you to become the Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.  And being an Ivy League grad has huge advantages because of the connections and networking you can do with already successful people.

So take all the "advice" of those billionaires with a grain of salt.

Christopher Kidwell
Christopher Kidwell

WRONG! From what I have seen, most people who are successful have NOT worked very hard in the slightest. They either have connections with rich people to start out with or 'succeed' by taking advantage of their workers by paying them underwhelming wages for their labor.

I've yet to see ONE rich person outside of Bill Gates (he actually stole the program that made him rich by not telling the people who were selling it to him everything) who actually earned their cash legitimately.

Diana Maras
Diana Maras

Hasn't it been argued previously that the most successful people in the world are also the biggest sociopaths?

Haim At Iqtell
Haim At Iqtell

That's one way to look at it,

Another is that they were extremely productive, worked harder than the competition, were smarter and eventually got better.Check out our productivity app http://iqtell.com/

Talendria
Talendria

This explains the public education debacle.  Teachers, principals, and lobbyists seem to bounce from one fad to the next with no regard for what actually works and why.  It's all about the latest buzzword.