Dobelli vs. Gladwell
In his informative book about mental illusions and why humans continuously make bad decisions, The Art of Thinking Clearly, Rolf Dobelli refers to what he calls the “swimmer’s body illusion”. Referencing the somewhat similar work of Nassim Taleb, Dobelli suggests that most people are prone to thinking that they can achieve the results of someone they admire (say, the chiselled physique of a professional swimmer) simply by doing what that person does (in this case, using competitive swimming to improve the look of one’s body). In reality, however, what has given the professional swimmer such a great physique is usually more to do with the natural shape of their body – professional swimmers tend to be naturally lean, tall, and muscular. Of course they become even more muscular through their training, but it is their basic body type that makes them relatively good in the first place. The same concept can also be applied to graduates of a top-ranked university, suggests Dobelli. Are Harvard or MIT graduates more successful because their respective alma mater has made them that way, or are these schools more likely to attract and recruit students who are already intelligent, driven, and well-connected in the first place?
The swimmer’s body illusion is, as far as I understand it, in stark contrast to Malcolm Gladwell’s well-known “10,000 hour” rule – the idea that what differentiates high achievers from the rest of us is simply their willingness to put in the practice time required to master their subject. For Gladwell, that practice time – intense practice time, mind you – needs to be around 10,000 hours before someone starts seeing results, be it as an intellectual, athlete, or leader. But Dobelli suggests just the opposite – that no matter how many hours a short, stocky person puts into competitive swimming, they will never transform their body into a tall, lean swimming machine. Even after 10,000 hours, they certainly might become a hell of a lot better at swimming than they were before, but they still won’t have changed the basic reality of their body type.
Personally I’m of two minds about what makes more sense here. Granted, Dobelli is not suggesting that a short, stocky person has nothing to gain from competitive swimming. Rather, he is just alerting us to the fact that there is a bias for most people about what actions lead to what conclusions or circumstances. Similarly, Gladwell isn’t arguing that genius or high performance is all learned, but rather that a high performing individual doesn’t just crawl out of the ground one day and begin succeeding right from the start. For an entrepreneur who is developing her own style of entrepreneurial leadership, there is an important lesson here that lies somewhere between these two models of success.
Harvard U vs. Trump U
From the perspective of the “swimmer’s body illusion”, my own experiences have suggested to me that Dobelli’s observations about universities are certainly true. At the first university I attended (an institution that was not widely known or respected for attracting the brightest minds in the country, and which had correspondingly low admissions standards), I found the teaching to be mediocre – it wasn’t exceptional, but it certainly didn’t seem designed to be digestible for the lowest common denominator. And yet, when I eventually transferred to a much more reputed and selective school, I was disappointed to find that, while the demographics and general ambitions of my average classmate had changed dramatically, the quality of teaching remained the exact same (in some cases it was actually worse). And yet a large number of my classmates from this second university went on to acclaimed graduate programs, or have enjoyed very successful careers in their chosen fields. Members of my cohort from the first school, on the other hand, were occasionally successful, but I would say that most of them have had fairly lacklustre careers in relation to what they could have done. The point is that there was clearly a gap there, despite the quality of education being basically identical. Like Dobelli, I’d probably suggest that those students who entered the better university were probably smarter, more ambitious, and better connected in the first place than the students at the more apparently mediocre school. It follows perhaps that a high achieving student at the better school was probably more valued (by hiring committees at big firms, by selection committees from top MBA or law programs) than a high achieving student at the mediocre school – in other words, that an ‘A’ from Harvard or Yale probably means more than an ‘A’ from the Northwestern Christian Arts University of Southwestern North Idaho, or whatever second or third tier school you can think of. It is also probable that students at the more reputable school met other students with equally impressive backgrounds and constitutions, and that these four years of networking made a massive difference in how their later adult lives unfolded. On the other hand, the networking that took place at the mediocre school probably meant relatively less in terms of the long-term success of graduates.
And yet, throwing a stone into this is the fact that some members of my cohort from the mediocre school were in fact wildly successful following university. In fact, it seems clear that, in retrospect, there was absolutely nothing stopping these students from achieving the exact same things that students from the better school achieved. Students from the mediocre school, for example, went on to very impressive graduate programs, or have had incredible careers as entrepreneurs, journalists, academics, business leaders, etc. These students, already at arguably a disadvantage because of the second-tier nature of their school, were simply willing to work hard, and to set their sights as high as they could. Gladwell might suggest that this was a case of “practice”, of tenacity and dedication, and in many cases this certainly was the case. But overall I think it had more to do with the fact that the successful students from the mediocre school just didn’t care that they were attending what many perceived as a second-rate institution. These students were concerned with achieving success in their chosen fields, and they were smart enough to understand that the quality of education they were receiving (and thus the quality of their training) was the same as they would have received anywhere, and that attending a more prestigious institution would have meant virtually nothing in terms of building a personal competitive advantage later in life. Put another way, they had firmly internalized that the weight of the world and of their futures was placed squarely on their own shoulders, and that their alma mater was only one minuscule element of developing their entire person.
The (Sort of ) Lesson for Entrepreneurs
This last observation leads me to determine that the lesson for entrepreneurial leadership that can be drawn here (at least the lesson that comes to mind most cogently) is the fact that success is made on several different levels, and that there is not one single path to higher achievement. No doubt there are similar elements to most success stories – from hard work to connections to intelligence to straight chutzpah – but the reality is that there are exceptions to every rule, and one person’s path to success is not necessarily the same as another’s (even if they both end on the same ground). For Dobelli, his “swimmer’s body illusion” sees the forest but misses the trees – he understands that, on a grand scale, there are important and inevitable truths at work that play a large part in dictating outcomes. But he fails to see the details that also factor into producing results – the fact that the short and stocky man who is trying to achieve a better body through competitive swimming might not become an Olympian, but he’ll certainly achieve results, and that these results might be exceptional on their own terms. Similarly, Gladwell’s “10,000 hour” rule sees the trees without viewing the forest. Gladwell views the work that goes into success as beyond the true measure and determinant of that success, which makes a lot of sense – I can’t think of many examples of high performers that haven’t worked hard to get there. But at the same time, it would be naive to ignore the fact that there are larger forces at play in almost everything in life, and achieving success is certainly not excluded from that. Dobelli is probably right that not everyone can become an Olympian athlete, no matter how many countless hours they dedicate to it. Gladwell’s assertion that some of the most successful people in the world have got there mostly by hard work and grit fails to acknowledge factors beyond the control of these individuals. There is no doubt that Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg are geniuses who have worked extremely hard, but it’s also important to consider that both of these individuals were provided with backgrounds that emphasized education and learning, and that they each possessed the apparently natural confidence to challenge established norms and push the limits of their industries. And it’s also worth asking if Musk or Zuckerberg would have achieved the same level of success if they had chosen to partner in creating a chain of movie rental stores (although I suppose their decision to enter their own respective business sectors is partially a sign of their business genius, so maybe this last point is not so valid). And finally, if we stretch this out to the world of athletics, chances are that Michael Jordan – known for his intensity of effort and commitment to practice – would never have become an NBA superstar if he had simply been given a physique and level of agility equivalent to a bag of hammers.
Success, then, relates to multiple angles, and comes from multiple sources. Knowing this doesn’t necessarily make things any easier for the entrepreneur or business leader in terms of mapping out a specific road to achievement, but it’s worthwhile considering that no matter who you are or what your natural abilities, practice and tenacity can never hurt, especially when tempered with the knowledge that the forest might not always be immediately visible when you’re standing deep beneath the trees.