During the Internet bubble, I assisted with a large event for entrepreneurs by working the registration desk. It was busy until a few minutes after the speech began, a How I Did It presentation by an executive at a suddenly large dotcom.
One of the organizers said, “I can handle the late arrivals. Go in to hear the talk.”
“That’s okay,” I replied. “You go.”
“Don’t you want to hear it? He’s one of the founders!”
“Why would I want to hear him? All he can tell me is what he thinks is the reason it worked, but he doesn’t actually know. He got lucky but believes he’s a genius.”
Too many successful business people do not realize that being struck by lightning doesn’t make you an expert on electricity.
We all make thousands of decisions and take millions of actions. After assessing the results as a “failure” or a “success,” we attribute the outcome either to the choices that match our model of effectiveness or that seem to prove our model wrong, thereby creating a contrary version of the model. Either way, our analysis is usually so limited and subjective that it is useless for other people or our next project.
Rarely do you read about a successful entrepreneur humble enough to recognize this. Maybe because people don’t want to read about non-advice.
This interview with Elon Musk, founder of PayPal, is unusual for its modesty:
Knowledge@Wharton: Can you tell us about that experience? Did you learn anything that has stayed with you through your [entrepreneurial career]?
Musk: I would downplay that. My mother likes to talk about that…
Knowledge@Wharton: And were there any lessons you learned that sort of stayed with you or was it just the thrill of that [first sale]?
Musk: Wow. I haven’t really thought if there are any lessons there. I can’t think of any.
Knowledge@Wharton: again, what were some of the lessons that other entrepreneurs could learn from your experience?
Musk: I need to think more about what lessons can be drawn from my experiences.
See also, Misreading Business: The Halo Effect.