Success actually isn’t a good teacher

Success Isn't A Good Teacher

If you were to line up a bunch of people in any industry, or job, or even family … and then you were to ask them, “Who do you learn from?” … I think most of the answers you’d get would be around either personal mentors of theirs (which is a bit awkward, because mentorship may be on the decline), family members (mom/dad/grandparents), and/or the holy trifecta of business people that always get quoted (which is some combination of Steve Jobs, Henry Ford, Jeff Bezos, Peter Drucker, Bill Gates, and others).

Interesting on Bill Gates, though: he once even said “success is a lousy teacher.” For context, he has more money than you do. If you value money as a source of success — you shouldn’t really, but you probably do — then he’s more successful than you. Heck, he’s more successful than anyone on the planet if money is your goalpost. So maybe we should listen to him.

Most people, heads down on their daily tasks, don’t understand this idea. If you want to be successful, shouldn’t you model success? Shouldn’t you do the whole iceberg thing — failure below the surface — and then be successful, and that’s the teacher? You’ve learned by doing, right?

No. That’s actually not how it should work.

I wrote a little bit about this once before: People always question failure (“Why did that happen?!?”) but rarely question success. Failure and success can both be entirely random. Market conditions shift, people get lucky, rollout timings work out serendipitously, etc. Life isn’t always tied to perfect strategy. For an example of that, consider: “This is how I met my spouse!” vs. “These are the different ways I tried to get a date before I met my spouse!” Strategy doesn’t always work the way you intended it to.

Here’s what I’d say, if you’ll allow me a second:

  • Start talking openly about failure: This can work. It’s very counterintuitive to a lot of people, but if we talk more about failure, we can contextualize success more. That’s important for how people grow in roles.
  • Stop viewing leadership as a destination: A lot of people I’ve worked with have this idea that becoming a leader — or a senior manager — is a destination, which implies it’s the place you were trying to get to. What do you do when you get to a desired destination? Snap a pic? Congratulate yourself? Get hyped? That’s life, and that happens with leadership all the time. “I’m a C-Suite guy now!” OK, does that mean you stop growing and learning? When you have a kid, do you say, “Well, that’s done!” No. Maybe for a second, but then you gotta raise it. Life is about growth and development and learning. It’s not about hitting a spot and staying stagnant.
  • Geniuses ask more questions: People throw out this riddle/parable sometimes: who asks more questions, the genius or the moron? People say “moron” because, well, that person would seem to be less smart. Nope. The genius asks more questions, because the genius always wants to learn. Morons/idiots/etc. usually are pretty comfortable knowing what they know and assuming it’s way more than it is. There are psychological constructs built around this whole idea.
  • CQ: I was talking about this with my friends this weekend on a ranch trip. The biggest disconnect in the world in my mind is this whole idea that you go to college, and you rack up all this debt, right? And the “promise” behind this debt is that you’re learning new things, and you’re also being told that learning is valuable. But then … you try to get a job, and the hiring manager/HR rep says to you, “No, we don’t care that you went to college or that you value learning … we want someone who knows how to do these specific 10-12 things on this job description!” This infuriates me. In short: the hiring process totally ignores the concept of learning. I wish we would spend more time thinking about CQ — how curious a person is, how they want to get better and move forward — but I also realize that legally that’s pretty hard.

What do you think? Are we thinking about success and failure properly?

Ted Bauer


  1. Great points all around. There are tons of insightful quotes about this idea that basically say similar things that you did. One of my faves is by Thomas Edison…“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

  2. Interesting points, particularly on not viewing leadership as the destination. It’s always easier to point out flaws and pretend we know what WOULD have made for success than it is to point out what made the successes. The funny thing is, though, that success shouldn’t always be defined as “what makes it big the first round.” Maybe what didn’t do what you want this time has actually made a breakthrough for something else. Kinda like your scribble drawing in this post.

  3. Hi Ted, you hit it on the head! With hindsight success often looks perfectly planned, the outcome of a great strategy… On closer inspection the same strategy lead to numerous failures somewhere else. Therefore it is always important to check out the reasons (or better the explanations given) for success and see if they are really the deciding points (starting a business in a garage does not necessarily make you a billionaire). However, in a corporate environment this is usually really tough to do – try to challenge the big hitters and you know what I am speaking about…

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