Listening to my son’s high school graduation ceremony last night, I was struck by how completely implausible were many speaker claims, such as:
- Never let anyone tell you there is something you can’t do.
- You’ll have setbacks, but never let them discourage you.
- If I can succeed, so can you.
- We’ll always treasure our memories of high school.
- We students are so thankful to have such a friendly principal.
I was embarrassed to be associated with such transparent falsehoods, but apparently I’m in a minority. What obvious lies have you heard at commencement, and why do you think such lies were told?Indeed. Whenever you hear successful people offering you banalities like "if you just follow your dreams and believe in yourself, you'll go far," you should be very skeptical. Perhaps in their case it worked out, but to extrapolate from their experience is to fall victim to the simplest form of selection bias. Luck is an important component of success, and it's only natural that successful people will have been disproportionately lucky, having achieved their goals against often overwhelming odds.
I like to keep this principle in mind when thinking about how I might become successful (not that I know enough to have an inkling about what "success" might be). Generally speaking, it's a bad idea to rely on others' path to success as a model for your own. You can assimilate their useful lessons, of course, but all too often their "big break" will have been the result of dumb luck, and it's tempting to sit back and wait for such bursts of fortune to come to you. Not everyone is lucky, and you should make plans based on the actual distribution of luck, rather than the skewed one you see among prominent people.
Maybe this sounds hopelessly pessimistic, but that's not how I see it. I'm not against chasing your dreams; I just think that you should chase them in the most effective way, and that means being aware that your idols aren't a very representative sample.