Hindsight

Imagine I told you: “Elon Musk stood on his head and recited poetry in Latin every morning.” You might think, “wow, no wonder he’s successful – he’s truly different than most people. His weirdness is a sign of the type of intelligence and creativity that led to his success.” I know that’s the reaction most people have when they learn a weird fact about a successful person.

Now imagine I told you: “Ted Bundy stood on his head and recited poetry in Latin every morning.” Many people might have an understandable response: “Wow, what a weirdo. No wonder he killed people – with other strange behaviors like that, people should have seen it coming. The guy was obviously nuts.”

Okay, so standing on your head and reciting Latin poetry: which is it? Sign of genius and sign of mental instability?

In a vacuum, you’d have no idea. If I told you that “someone” did that, but didn’t tell you who, and then asked you to guess if they were more likely to be an eccentric genius or a serial killer, you wouldn’t have a clue. But boy do we love those stories!

(By the way – neither person actually did that, at least to my knowledge. But you never know, I guess.)

The lesson here is to be careful about what stories about someone’s past you take as having been obvious evidence about their future. If you hear that a famous NFL quarterback played with toy cars as a kid, that neither means that all famous quarterbacks probably played with toy cars, nor that all kids that play with toy cars will become famous quarterbacks. But there’s always someone who will craft such a story, with confident-sounding nonsense like “Well, it’s obvious he had a predilection for accuracy and leadership right from his youth, because he admired racing, which requires both accuracy and sharp decision-making,” etc. Utter hogwash, but someone always says it.

The fact is, you can take anyone’s current situation and then find random anecdotes about their past and decide those anecdotes are reasons for their current circumstances. But not all of them are. People aren’t forged by single data points, and it’s extremely rare that the world turns on them. Your life evolves due to consistent actions, over and over again. Patterns of behavior, not weird single incidences.

Remember that as you try to draw life lessons from the success stories of others. Success comes from putting the work in, not from intriguing stories. Those anecdotes are interesting to us because stories are fun and interesting, but they only make sense as part of a larger context of that person’s life. You can’t just take that story and drop it into your own life and expect that it will be some sort of magical formula for your own success. You are your own context, and the stories we someday tell about you will be unique.

So take those stories for what they are – interesting, thought-provoking maybe, entertaining often. But they’re not an instruction manual. You have to do the work.

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