Jamie's Blog

Lessons from a life of startups, coding, countryside, and kids

Get Shit Done, Survivorship Bias and Being Wealthy

Get Shit Done front cover

I’m reading Niall Harbison’s book ‘Get Sh*t Done’ and while I can’t give a full review (I’m only on Chapter 2), I needed to call out this argument which I’ve seen made too often:

Twitter founder Evan Williams, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, Ralph Lauren, John Lennon, Lady Gaga and Tom Hanks are just a few of those who have not done too badly for themselves but who decided that their time might be better spent elsewhere than in a classroom being told what to do by others. It can also make sense in financial terms to drop out of college as at the time of writing there are thirty billionaires in the world who are college dropouts.

This is classic survivorship bias. For every one of those famous people who never finished college are 10,000 people (I’d estimate) who are struggling on benefits, working menial jobs and with limited options in their life. Just because you can name a few famous people who succeeded by doing X, doesn’t mean anything unless you look at the total “success rate” of the whole group of people who did X. “There are thirty billionaires in the world who are college dropouts” and how many millions aren’t?

I think most of these famous people would have succeeded even if they completed their education. Their lack of education did not cause their success. I do think it’s important to reassure young people that their success (or failure) at their exams will not define the rest of their life. But, equally, it’s important to promote education as a means of opening doors, possibilities and avenues for our young people. Vastly more people can benefit from education than are held back it.

And, as a tangent, are famous people really the best model of success? I think they’re largely famous because of their media profile which is typically very one-sided. Sure, they’ve made lots of movies but are they good parents? Are they socially responsible or do they drink & drive? What would their friends say about them? How do they treat their colleagues? Are they happy? I’d prefer to pick people closer to home, that I can relate to and really be inspired by on many different levels.

Education as Wealth

But, back to education. I strongly believe that being wealthy is not about how much money you have in the bank but about how much you can generate. This is the real meaning of wealth. Someone rich in money, is not as comfortable as someone who can generate money. Someone rich in connections isn’t better than someone who can make new connections. Some uneducated sports celebrity probably has less options than the well-rounded graduate who plays in her spare time. You get the idea. Education is one of those things which undeniably opens many more doors than it closes. It makes you wealthier in opportunities.

I understand that Niall did not have a good time at school and admits that he’d probably be diagnosed with ADHD. There are many children like him for which the traditional school structures just don’t fit their learning style. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water: education is better for the majority of people and more (and more enthusiastic!) education should be encouraged.