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Don’t follow your dreams, lead them

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By all means, let a motivational speaker convince you to follow your dreams. Quit that day job! Climb that mountain! That gold medal winning, mountain-climbing, obstacle-overcoming speaker followed their dreams and they’re here today to tell you, nay – SHOW you, that they are the embodiment of all the evidence you need that following your dreams will lead you down the path to the success you desire. Indeed, it is the only path.

This article is about a particular kind of bias but, first, I need to declare another bias of my own. I do sometimes tag myself as a #motivationalspeaker. Part of what I do in helping people change and develop themselves requires me to speak, and that speaking business existed way before I did. That business and its buyers have some labels that I need to adhere to in order to get found. I would prefer not to use ‘motivational speaker’ to describe myself. I do think I help others choose to change for the better. Two of my five books are heavily centered around leaders motivating others. But, I’m as prone to ‘imposter syndrome’ as anyone else. When I think of motivational speakers, I think of the big names with massive crowds. I’d name names but who knows in the near future how many famous names end up being people you don’t want to cite in an article or be photographed next to? It’s a new form of Russian Roulette. #NeverMetTheGuy

My point is that being motivational is like being tall: If someone has to tell you they’re tall, they’re not.

So, that’s my bias. The main bias I’m addressing in this article though is ‘Survivor Bias’.

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If you want to find out how successful businesses became succesful, you’d think it sensible to talk with and study businesses that are already successful. Do what they do and you’ll get what they get, right? This is literally what many business speakers say. Many others imply it. There’s bias in there that will stunt your findings and inject randomness into the results of your efforts following their advice. As usual, a big part of the answer is asking yourself and others more and better questions earlier. What about those same successful business people who left and did the same things yet failed? What about those same successful business people who did the same things previously yet failed? What about failed business people who were doing the same things at the same time? By all means, take some learning from the winners at winning time but factor in luck and hubris. Those learnings become optional tools in your potential success toolkit not a recipe for success.

There’s a great study looking at real life expert investment advisors compared to monkeys throwing darts at a list of investment options (ie random luck). Over time, who wins? Hey hey, it’s the monkeys. Focusing solely on winners at the point they’re winning leaves out a whole bunch of vital info you need to know if you still want to follow your dreams.

I first encountered the concept of survivor bias in a museum tour. We got to a preserved log cabin they’d transported from its original wild location. The guide initially praised it and said how it had survived 400+ years and how the ‘technology’ of its construction could be used today etc. Then, she pointed out how many people had died in exactly the same types of cabins. They had the only cabin that survived 400 years. 99 point whatever percent did not. Yet we’d be quite happy to base our opinions of log cabins on the one successful one we encountered.

It’s your life. Follow your dreams if you choose to. You’ll definitely regret it if you don’t try. Listen to that Oscar winner’s speech about leaving their small town and trudging to so many auditions, then getting a break and making it big. But maybe take a vacation to Hollywood first and talk to some waiting staff to balance out your info on the experience and your actual odds. Dreams are not real and making them real requires, beyond luck for a minority, being realistic. Get info. Make plan. Take action.

Those great actors did leave their towns. Those mountain climbers did risk their lives. The great inventors did whatever they did. And, society as a whole, moves forwards thanks to their followed, and luckily fulfilled, dreams. You are not society. You are one person. Roll your dice and take your chances but please do so knowingly, not with your eyes closed. By definition, you have to close your eyes to dream but to achieve those dreams, you need to open your eyes.

I’m not a Grinch (most days). I have dreams and I’m following, and have followed, some but not all of them. Got some but not all of them. Following your dreams is not the path to success. It is the second step on any one of a number of paths to success. The first step is having a bunch of dreams from which to choose, investigate and trial. Any speaker, motivational or otherwise, advising you to follow your dreams can do so with my blessing (not that they or you require it). But, they had better have a bunch of practical action steps after that or they are not just useless but dangerous.

Good luck and please feel under no obligation to thank me in your Oscar or Nobel speech. Or both.

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