I was reading Steve Salerno’s “anti-SHAM” blog as he was commenting on Hillary’s speech at the DNC last night. He didn’t think much of her story. She told a story of her success, he said, that may have been a tad… biased.

That got me thinking about how much our own stories do and don’t have anything to do with actual events. Certainly the book “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)” by Carol Tavris, Elliot Aronson documents thoroughly how we distort our own memories to tell a story consistent with how we’d rather view ourselves.

This is my response to Steve:

Check out “The Halo Effect” by Phil Rosenzweig. In it, he basically discredits 99% of popular business books and research by pointing out that after-the-fact explanations where the outcome is known always come out the same, regardless of actual circumstances. The “halo” of known success (or failure) causes all the players to remember the past in a very specific way.

For example, ask people why XYZ Co. was successful and they’ll always talk about a visionary leader, good teamwork, flexibility, etc. You can predict those explanations with such certainty, apparently, that any research based on after-the-fact explanations is virtually worthless. (Because if you can predict in advance what people will say, then it obviously can’t be based on the actual situation.)

To avoid the halo effect, you would have to approach people in companies before success is known. Then ask them to describe the current environment. Then 10 years later (or whenever), see if their in-the-moment descriptions correlated with later business performance.

Though Rosenzweig limits his discussion to company success, I believe we also have a halo effect with successful people. We love the rags-to-riches, hard-work-and-skill-wins stories. No matter the truth of a situation, those are the stories we use to explain known success.

(Why is Bill Gates so extraordinarily successful? You’ll hear about strategy, ruthlessness, etc., etc. All the standard after-the-fact explanations. But that misses the point. There are lots of strategically brilliant, ruthless people who didn’t dominate the computer industry. In Bill’s case, mommy was on a board with the chairman of IBM, the head of Digital Research missed the chance to produce DOS so Bill was the 2nd choice, and IBM was stupid enough to let Gates keep all the rights to the software. Without those factors, all outside his control, he might have been just another 2-bit software developer. But that isn’t a story that we like to tell.)

When I look as objectively as I can at my successes and those of my friends (and many of my Harvard MBA friends have been very successful), I notice that hard work and skill seem far, far less important than, say, choosing the right industry, negotiating a compensation structure based on someone else’s work (e.g. paid as percentage of someone else’s transaction), and being lucky in your timing. Finance and entrepreneurship fit the bill.

But no one likes the story, “I made $100 million because I was frickin lucky.” That raises the question of whether the person deserves it, etc., etc., etc. We don’t want to challenge whether Gates deserves it because deep in our hearts, we hope we can make it big and don’t want to question whether or not we deserve it.

I’m sure Hillary frames her life as hard work, ambition, etc. And I can’t blame her. I suspect anyone in that position would frame their life that way. In part because of the halo effect, and in part because saying, “our achievements owe as much to luck as to skill” isn’t something many of us are willing to admit to ourselves.

How we explain success may be different from what …

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