How to Teach Yourself

Bookmark and Share

Scenario: "Dude, I gotta study the freakin' success stories of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Jeff Bezos. I'll make billions. Yay!" Or, even better: study something else. 2-second quiz for ya: What teaches you more about rocking the world?

  1. Studying the successes of Gates, Jobs, and Bezos
  2. Studying their failures

If you chose ^2, you'd be right. Carne Asada.

"Wait, can't I learn more from someone's success?"

Not quite. Here's why: What made GJB successful probably won't make you successful. For instance, say you're still in college, and your badass is studying Steve Jobs. You learned that Steve Jobs succeeded because he dropped out of school, went to India to "discover" himself, then found the Woz to spearhead Apple. Now, since you're only focusing on his success, you drop out of college. You go to India to discover yourself. Then you start a company with the smartest programmer you know. Likely outcome five years later? You're still living in mama's basement. Uh-oh.

Why You're Not Steve Jobs

The reason:

  1. Steve Jobs determined his entrepreneurial path using by capitalizing on his personality and unique strengths.
  2. You're your own-unique-badass-self, so following someone else's path avoids playing to your unique strengths, personality, and environment.

Study the top 1000 success stories in the world's business history. What do you get? 1000 unique success stories. For instance:

  • "We lied to IBM to get to get our big break."
  • "We partnered with a game developer to create the first personal computer."
  • "We sold a series of generators that kept us in business."
  • "We accidentally created a weak adhesive that created a billion-dollar market."

The Fallacies of Studying Success Stories

When you study success stories only, what's the mindset you adopt?

  1. "Okay, I think I got it: I must lie to a Fortune 500, and get our products in the executives' hands."
  2. "Then, I need to find the smartest programmer I know and build products."
  3. "Then, I need to sell a series of items to have a steady cash flow."
  4. "Then I'll have to create things accidentally, and see what great million-dollar products I get."
  5. "I'll make billions! Yay!"

Remember: those people succeeded because they were stuck in the right environment, with the right personality, the right strengths, and the right people around them. Notes Duke Engineering Professor Henry Petroski:

What makes things work is often hard to express and harder to extract from the design as a whole. Things work because they work in a particular configuration, at a particular scale, and in a particular culture. Trying to reverse engineer and cannibalize a successful system sacrifices the synergy of success.

Whenever you're reading a success story from now until the end of time, keep in mind: Following the path of some freakishly successful person won't play to your absolute strengths. So what do you do?

Study the Failures of Others

Researchers Wendy Joung, Beryl Hesketh, and Andrew Neal conducted a study on how people learned best:


Fifty-nine experienced fire-fighters undergoing training for incident command participated in the study.


War stories were developed based on real events to illustrate successful and unsuccessful incident command decisions.

Group ^1

One group was trained using case studies that depicted incidents containing errors of management with severe consequences in fire-fighting outcomes (error-story training).

Group ^2

A second group was exposed to the same set of case studies except that the case studies depicted the incidents being managed without errors and their consequences (errorless-story training).

The result? Firefighters improved their judgement much better when exposed to the the errors of other firefighters.

Stories of Failures = Deliciously Good

No, we're not saying you can't learn from the success of others. You can. But, studying only success stories masks potential flaws of those successes. Says Petroski:

  1. Imagine that the Titanic had not struck the iceberg on her maiden voyage.
  2. The example of that 'unsinkable' ship would have emboldened success-based shipbuilders to model larger and larger ocean liners after her.
  3. Eventually the Titanic or one of those derivative vessels would probably have encountered an iceberg - with obvious consequences.
  4. Thus, the failure of the Titanic contributed much more to the design of safe ocean liners than would have her success.

Success stories suck. Study failures.


If you enjoyed How to Teach Yourself, get a complimentary subscription to our freshest articles through email or through your feed reader.

Posted on November 09

WTH is Trizle?

Trizle helps you rock ___ with your business.


Get a complimentary subscription to our freshest articles through email or through your feed reader.

Don't Miss Out!

Subscribe to Trizle through email or through your feed reader.