How focusing on don’ts is more important than dos in increasing the chances of success.
In 1998, two computer science students at Stanford University came up with a new way of searching information on the internet that was superior to AltaVista, the most popular search engine at the time. Within a few years, they approached AltaVista in 1998 to sell their startup, Google, for $1 million, and in 2002, to Yahoo for $5 billion, but in both instances, they disagreed with the buyer, who offered much less. Fast-forward and ask yourself what happened to AltaVista, Yahoo, and Google. This story demonstrates how luck plays a big role in the fate of the most successful companies and entrepreneurs.
Writers and coaches who cover the topic of success go off to study what successful entrepreneurs, startups, and companies did to become successful, so they look for clues to confirm their narrative. That’s what Daniel Kahneman calls “What You See Is All There Is” (WYSIATI) in his best-selling book Thinking Fast and Slow. This happens when people who deal with the limited information assume that it’s all there is to know. Accordingly, they construct the narrative with a catchy headline and argue their case on what leads to success with the limited information on hand. However, people fail to recognize that the more luck is involved, the less there is to be learned. In fact, it’s much easier to write a coherent but false story when there are fewer pieces to the puzzle.
In this article, I pulled together eight subtractive heuristics or rules that I adopted to change the course of my business from flat to growing exponentially. What’s interesting about these rules is that they focus on what not to do. I did save the best rule for last. But you need to read through the other seven rules to understand why this rule is the one to rule them all.
You may be asking, “Why subtractive?” The answer is in the first rule.
Rule #1: What You See Is Not All There Is “WYSINATI”
“He who knows all the answers has not been asked all the questions” — Confucius
WYSINATI happens to the smartest people and leaders and can happen to anyone. In his best-selling book, The Power of Noticing, Max Bazerman dedicates his entire book to WYSINATI, in which he draws on his three decades of teaching and research at Harvard University on how to notice and act on information that may not be immediately obvious. He attributes this to cognitive blind spots and argues that the failure to notice things leads to “poor personal decisions, organizational crises, and societal disasters.” This may be easier said than done, though, because Kahneman argues that people cannot help dealing with the limited information they have as if it were all they know. The main idea of this first rule is not to be fooled by attractive narratives and to recognize that there’s more to every story of success, and if luck was a factor, then take notice of the claims and arguments in the story before drawing a conclusion.
Rule #2: Don’t Leave Fate to Randomness and Luck
“Heroes are heroes because they are heroic in behavior, not because they won or lost” — Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Fooled by Randomness
Luck plays a massive role in everything around us. For example, our successes, failures, meeting the person we fall in love with, scientific discoveries, what country we’re born in, etc. — none of these occur without luck. Luck seems to be this mysterious and ethereal currency of success that flows throughout the universe.
Downplaying luck may seem counterintuitive, as discussed in Rule #1. However, it’s important only to acknowledge luck’s role in success after the fact. When people rely on luck, they’re less likely to work hard and focus time and energy on what they’re doing. That’s why it’s not wise to wait for luck; instead, efforts should be the compass that gets us to where we need to go. Then, when we finally arrived there, we could acknowledge how luck helped us directly and indirectly.
In his book, The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success, Albert-László Barabási, a physicist specializing in network theory, stresses that with consistent work and performance, we can achieve success at any time and any age. Sometimes we think that success must happen early in our careers, and if we’ve missed early success, we’ve missed our chance. But success may happen after we’ve built up our networks, gotten good at what we do, and developed multiple talents and interests.
Barabási makes a clear distinction between performance and success: the former is how well you do something, and the latter is how well the community responds to you. You may make an exceptional film, write a groundbreaking book, or develop a new method for DNA sequencing, but success in any of these innovations depends on how well the community discovers and recognizes our work. You can thus have a pedigree and be a top performer yet never catch a break in your life. To turn high performance into success, Barabási proposes to grow our network by connecting with more people. Developing those connections throughout our careers is just as important as being good at what we do. Success isn’t grown in a vacuum, and we can’t get ahead without other people’s approval.
This is congruent with the saying, “Success breeds success.” If the community has already recognized you or your performance, you are more likely to attain success. This may lead to work being recognized more due to its status than its quality.
I believe in this rule because I noticed that while successful people have caught a big break in their lives, some were also successful by catching a series of small breaks that compounded (exponentially) to become the equivalent of a big break over time. The key takeaway for me was that while the chance of a big break can be due to the luck factor, the chances of small breaks are more certain and influential than one single big break. So by increasing our exposure, we are, in a sense, compounding the effect of small breaks in our lives.
Rule #3: Don’t Miss Out on a Chance to Help Others
“We make a living by what we get. We make life by what we give” — Winston Churchill
Amidst the time we spend getting better at what we do and experimenting with new tasks and opportunities, it may be easy to become singularly focused on ourselves. It’s not always a bad thing to focus on ourselves and our goals; in fact, it’s necessary at times. But a good way to strike a balance is by going out of our way to help other people. We shouldn’t do the bare minimum; we should try to help others in whatever way we can. Every opportunity to help someone is an opportunity to give someone else a chance that we are also waiting for. Our help could be the break they’ve been waiting for.
We may be able to leverage our success, talent, and network to help someone develop theirs. Helping people can be seen as a cyclical process whereby the help we put out will likely come back to us at some point. Someone could significantly alter our success and network because we may have changed theirs. However, it’s important not to do it with the expectation that we might get something in return. Do it simply because you are a good person who enjoys helping others.
Rule #4: Don’t Give Up Too Quickly
“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time” — Tomas A. Edison
We are all under the illusion that the world is innovating at an unprecedented pace. But in reality, the main drivers of the breakthrough innovations are the information age and the network effect that led to an improved discovery process.
However, breakthrough innovations can occur even more frequently. To do so, we need to experiment more and ultimately fail more. Unfortunately, the process of trial and error is perceived to be risky by most people. An inherent property of human behavior is unintentionally deterring innovation.
Arguably, some of the most significant breakthrough innovations of our century include penicillin, vaccines, electricity, power, telecommunications, media broadcasting, cell phone, jet engine, nuclear energy and bombs, rocket technology, combustion engine vehicles, digital media, internet, smart-phones, electric cars, social media, etc.
Many so-called breakthroughs were discovered through trial and error at some point in time, but it wasn’t until much later that they became known as breakthroughs. The point here is that most of these innovations are not entirely new. They were already discovered but were abandoned and reignited years or decades later.
Some companies, particularly those whose business models rely on such experiments for growth, recognize this process as a key success factor and see consistent returns for their shareholders as a result. However, from startups to large corporations, many companies fail to recognize what innovation really is. The type of innovation required for today’s enterprise is based on repetitive and consistent experiments: a strategy that can lead to a substantial competitive advantage for any business. The same applies to life.
Don’t give up at the first sign of failure. In fact, chances are that you are much more likely to fail than not. But if you look at the pattern, most successes follow repeat failure, trial, and error.
Rule #5: Don’t Get Too Attached
“For a rational agent, the buying price (of a house) is irrelevant history — the current market value is all that matters. Not so for most humans in a down market for housing. Most owners face higher losses and set a higher price than the market on their dwelling.” — Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow
You may think that this contradicts the “Don’t Give Up Easily,” but not really. The idea here is not to get attached; it’s derived from the endowment effect. The endowment effect is an analog of what economics calls a “sunk-cost fallacy.” Once, I was waiting in line with my client for lunch. We were working in an office building where the downstairs restaurant was a taquería. If one leaves the building, however, they have the option of sandwich places, pizza, sushi, etc. On a cold day, we decided to wait for tacos. I wanted tacos; my client did not. Near the end of the line, I was ready to put in my order, and she was not. “I don’t want tacos,” she informed me, “but I waited this long.”
This, in a nutshell, is the sunk-cost fallacy. It’s explained as follows: Because you did something for four minutes (i.e., invested in waiting in line), you double down and spend money on something you don’t actually want, but you do so because you don’t want to feel the loss of the time you invested in getting it.
The endowment effect works similarly because we do not want to let go of what we have invested time, money, or effort in. In the case of the taquería, it is our time lost waiting in line. In more relevant work examples, it is letting go of something that has proven to fail repeatedly, and switching to something else could mean losing the time and money invested.
Knowing how to strike a balance between not giving up quickly and when to drop something and leave something behind is just as important. So strike the right balance.
Rule #6: Don’t Get Overspecialized
“In a wicked world, relying upon experience from a single domain is not only limiting, it can disastrous” — David Epstein, Range: Why Generalists Triumph is a Specialized World
Our world is becoming increasingly sub-specialized. Many people think that streamlining our interests and skills into one specific area is the best way to succeed. So they accumulate as many hours as possible working at one thing to exclude other activities and opportunities. But this may actually work against them. People who experiment with many interests and endeavors tend to have the edge over specialists. So, while focusing on what we’re good at, we should remember that there is still time to learn new things or split our focus between multiple projects.
Generalists tend to have more entrepreneurial proclivity as they have had to establish or develop many new ventures instead of getting comfortable in one. They can also be more creative and innovative due to the demands of their varying interests. When it comes to what we can offer an employer, generalists can be better systems thinkers because they have a wider collection of knowledge from different fields. Additionally, they can be particularly good at interacting with different people.
Rule #7: Don’t Be a Charlatan
“A single cockroach will completely wreck the appeal of a bowl of cherries, but a cherry will do nothing at all for a bowl of cockroaches” — Paul Rozin
In Q1–2022, speaking at Berkshire Hathaway’s annual shareholders’ meeting, Warren Buffett referred to Wall Street financial advisors as worse than “monkeys” who could provide better investment returns simply by throwing money at American companies. His exact words were, “You can have monkeys throwing darts at the page, and, you know, take away the management fees and everything; I’ll bet on the monkeys over the advisors.” He also added, “It’s amazing how hard people make what is a simple game, but of course, if they told everybody what a simple game it was, 90% of the income of the people that were speaking would disappear.”
There’s this fallacy among business professionals that complicated charts help us gain credibility as our analysis would be perceived that, if it’s complicated, it has to be right. While this assumption may be true to some extent and may work on some people, it backfires most of the time because it works on manipulation as opposed to ethics and truth. You may argue that being a charlatan still works to this very day. However, if I were to claim this strategy does not work, you can easily disprove my claim. All you need to consider is the year-on-year growth of the mergers and acquisitions transactions, which average $3–4 trillion transactions per year and is on a growth trend. Year after year, survey after survey, these mergers have led to lower combined value in two out of three, so why do we continue doing mergers? In 2021, a record year that hit $6 Trillion in M&As would also mean around $1 trillion in professional advisory fees. Moreover, many high-paid bankers on Wall Street and wealthy financial advisors who get paid top dollars would have been out of business by now, but Wall Street professionals are still thriving. It would be hard to imagine waking up one day and finding that portfolio managers, investment bankers, traders, etc., have decided to kill their own profession because they admit to their illusion of skill.
So why is it that I am against this? I have two reasons. The first is that it is immoral and unethical, to say the least. I know that many professionals have the “illusion of skill” bias, and they do it because they believe they’re adding value when in reality, they are not. But the importance is in recognizing this, which takes me to my second reason. Sooner or later, the customers and clients we’re serving will feel the negative impact of such advice. When this happens, we’re likely to find ourselves out of a job and with a ruined reputation that would reverse the incremental benefit of all rules combined.
Rule #8: Don’t Get Fixated on Only What You Should Do
“I am so proud of many of the things we haven’t done as the things we have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.” — Steve Jobs
This quote by Steve Jobs summarizes the essence of subtraction as a rule. The idea is simple and applies to many situations in life. In fact, we can use subtraction to improve decision-making, assess or process information, build an argument, select among different options, etc.
Let’s say our ultimate goal was to succeed at something. If we were to apply this rule, we would focus on what we should not be doing instead of the things we should be doing. In other words, we should be thinking about what success is not instead of what success is. Take the quote from Steve Jobs, who once advised his friend Mark Parker, newly appointed CEO of Nike, by saying, “Nike makes some of the best products in the world. Products that you lust after. But you also make a lot of crap. Get rid of the crappy stuff.”
The same strategy applies to how Apple designs products. You can notice how the simplicity of their product and packaging is based on subtracting extraneous features.
The subtraction rules carry over to many aspects of life, including how reducing distractions can increase productivity, for example. If your phone causes distractions, try enabling the “Do Not Disturb” mode for a day and only respond to emails and messages twice a day.
If you’ve heard of Marie Kondo, she’s a decluttering and tidying consultant who builds an empire on subtraction consulting.
From growing clutter in our dwellings to built-up complexity, evidence of the additive is all around us. Evidence of subtraction, however, is less so.
It’s counterintuitive to think in “subtractions” and “negatives,” but we can make it intuitive by having a rule of thumb based on not doing stuff instead of doing stuff. For example, I’m an introvert, and I am well aware of my weakness. It has not been easy to grow my network by being social at cocktail parties or major events when I am among people I don’t already know. I have to make an effort to meet new people in social settings, and working on becoming an extrovert is an impossible undertaking. But if I work on what I should not be doing, the transformation becomes a bit easier. So to grow my network, I find it easier to focus on moving away from becoming an introvert as much as I can. I do this by developing small habits and tiny achievable goals such as not limiting my social exposure, identifying a connection when I meet or talk to new people, etc. I can think of ways to expose myself better than simply setting one big goal or trying to be a person I am not.
If we focus on what not to do, we’re right most of the time. The core concept is to try and think in opposites. If we make sure we don’t do certain things, we can increase our chances for success.
Putting the Rules Together
I haven’t caught a big break in my life yet. However, my professional life isn’t over yet by a long shot. This may still happen, but should I be waiting and hoping to catch that big “lucky” break one day? No!
I’ve had my ups and downs, and in my life as an entrepreneur, I had lots more downs than ups. However, the compounded effect of “small” but guaranteed ups has gradually added to the equivalent of a sizable (not yet big) break. Had I known and applied these 8 rules earlier in my life, many of my downs could have been averted, and I would have accumulated a sizeable benefit much earlier in my life.