Are Success Stories Really Legends Or Meaningless Stories?

business, success stories, legends, narrative fallacyWhat does Trump U, Jim Collins’ book, Good To Great, this list of unorthodox success tips and these successful businesses have in common? There seems to be this mindset that if you just get the right habits, the right strategies or the right kind of derring-do, you will be successful in business. It is as if you could be legendary if you just did the same things as the protagonists in success stories.

Could these stories really be the hero (and heroine) legends of our times?

We’ve all grown up with a series of legends. Some of them are handed down to us from stories told by our grandparents while others are stories we discovered in books. Whether they are tales of heroes facing a monster or heroines going into battle to defend her land and people, these stories captured the imagination and inspired people to strive to live well and/or feel pride.

Our archetypes may have changed over the years from the traditional ones of self-sacrificing hero, guardian of secrets or clever child. Perhaps the twenty-first century archetypes are the rags-to-riches character or the visionary entrepreneur.

So, what could possibly go wrong if we believe these stories to hold possibility and value for us?

There are other factors in play. Some of them are based in geography, social class, access to wealth and social norms. Where and how we are born also plays a role in how we can live these stories. It is likely that an entrepreneur from a developed country will have a smoother path. We forget sometimes that these other factors can be seen as privileges, earned and unearned. Plus, they are oversimplified explanations of how someone like Richard Branson, Steve Jobs or Dhirbubhai Ambani rose to prominence. It is easy to overlook that every day our business heroes and heroines had to do something that kept them on their upward trajectory.

But there may be another perspective that could lower the meaning of any business success story. In an intriguing post, Drake Baer asks, “What Are Success Stories Really Good For?” and answers that we put so much meaning into these stories because of the narrative fallacy.

Narrative fallacy

This cognitive bias was made famous in the book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. In a nutshell, it is how people create explanations for extraordinary and unpredictable events. Taking the narrative fallacy into consideration, business success stories may not reflect truth at all. Baer writes, “the causes that bring together a successful career or venture are so varied, complex, and mysterious that to capture them in a feel-good memoir is pretty damn difficult.”

The value of these “legends”

The value of these legends might be the biggest question of all. If the people writing these business success stories are trying to make meaning of how someone went from having an dream to it becoming reality, what are they leaving out? Humans follow stories which have an arc of characters facing adversity and coming to a successful conclusion. We are mystified at times why one person rises up to become the leader of a multimillion (or billion) dollar company while others remain in obscurity. Like the ancient legends, there must be something educational, inspirational or cautionary in these tales. Or maybe, like Baer said in his post, we are trying to learn how to cooperate with serendipity or simply train for mastery.

Join us this Friday, October 18, 2013 at 5pm GMT/12pm ET/9am PT on the Twitter chat, #KaizenBiz to discuss “Are Success Stories Really Legends Or Meaningless Stories?

What makes one entrepreneurial success story more engaging or powerful than another?

There are so many examples online. Why do we look for more stories about business success?

What do we really learn from reading stories about successful businesses?

What, if any similarities, do these success stories bear to the ancient legends of heroes and heroines?

What if these legends are nothing more than stories about particular people who proscribed meaning to behaviors and events that are not connected?

Who inspires you?