Why studying the biographies of tech unicorn founders won’t do you much good

“Why Steve Jobs Drank Tea, And You Should Too.”

The internet is rife with content like this ^^^.

The obsession with little tips and hacks. We need to know what Jack Dorsey meditates about. Or the 7 things Elon Musk does before bed.

The problem is 95% of that content has no direct correlation to results.

Modeling these outlier billionaires hurts our progress more than it helps.

And I’ll explain why.

The computer that changed everything for Bill Gates

Ever heard of the Teletype Model 30 computer?

Of course you haven’t. In 1968, there were 300 million high school aged students in the world. But only 300 had access to this computer.

Bill Gates was one of them.

The odds of that happening?


Risk & Luck

I’ll share some excerpts from Morgan Housel’s awesome book “The Psychology of Money” to drive this important point home.

“Gates was 13 years old in 1968 when he met his classmate Paul Allen. Allen was also obsessed with the school’s computer, and the two hit it off. Lakeside’s computer wasn’t part of its general curriculum. It was an independent study program.”

Bill and Paul "could toy away with the thing at their leisure, letting the creativity run wild--after school, late into the night, on weekends."

"If there had been no Lakeside, there would have been no Microsoft," Gates openly admits.

"[Bill and Paul] quickly became computing experts. During one late-night session, Allen recalled Gates showing him a Fortune magazine and saying, 'What do you think it's like to run a Fortune 500 company?' 'Maybe we'll have our own computer company someday,' Gates said.
Bill Gates and Paul Allen became household names thanks to Microsoft's success."

And founded a company with now an almost $2T market cap.

The other guy you’ve never heard of

No one’s heard of Bill's other best friend in the eighth grade, Kent Evans.

"Evans was as skilled with computers as Gates and Allen... And unlike Allen, Kent shared Bill's business mind and endless ambition. 'We were always scheming about what we'd be doing five or six years in the future.'

'Kent always had a briefcase, like a lawyer's briefcase,' Gates recalls.
'Should we go be CEOs? What kind of impact could you have? Should we be generals? Should we go be ambassadors?'"

"Whatever it was, Bill and Kent knew they'd do it together. But it would never happen, Kent died in a mountaineering accident before he graduated high school."

"Every year there are around three dozen such deaths in the United States.

The odds of being killed on a mountain in high school are roughly one in a million. Bill Gates experienced one in a million luck by ending up at Lakeside.
Kent Evans experienced one in a million risk by never getting to finish what he and Gates set out to achieve."

The same force, the same magnitude, working in opposite directions."

Luck and risk are real

"Luck and risk are both the reality that every outcome in life is guided by forces other than individual effort.

...you can't believe in one without equally respecting the other.

Both are so hard to measure, and hard to accept, that they too often go overlooked. For every Bill Gates there is a Kent Evans who was just as skilled and driven but ended up on the other side of life roulette.

Gates is staggeringly smart, even more hardworking, and had a vision for computers… he also had a one in a million chance of going to Lakeside."

Entrepreneurs don’t like to talk about it

One more quick note from the book:

"Years ago I asked economist Robert Shiller, who won the Nobel Prize in economics, ‘What do you want to know about investing that we can't know?’

‘The exact role of luck in successful outcomes,’ he answered.

If I say, 'There are a billion investors in the world. By sheer chance, would you expect 10 of them to become billionaires predominantly off luck?'
You would reply, 'Of course.'

But if I asked you to name those investors-to their face-you will likely back down. When judging others, attributing success to luck makes you look jealous and mean, even if we know it exists.

And when judging yourself, attributing success to luck can be too demoralizing to accept."

The point

The point is that we can’t quantify how much luck plays a part in big outlier success.

When you dig into the stories of unicorn tech billionaires like Gates and Zuckerberg, etc. Most had a mix of smarts, work ethic and incredible good fortune.

Would Gates have been successful without the massive head start he had in computing? No doubt.

Would he have been a millionaire? Yes, probably. He had the smarts and work ethic.

Billionaire? Unclear.

The world's richest man? Almost certainly not.

The ‘What If’ Game

Elon Musk frequently talks about the future as a branching probability stream.

What if Bill had never gone to Lakeside High School? Would he have even opened an issue of Popular Electronic Magazine later on in 1975 and read about the Altair 8800 mini-computer?

Would he still have dropped out of Harvard within that year to start Microsoft?

Nick Huber sums it up well:

Success is 95% in your control. The rest is luck & risk.

It doesn’t matter if you become the next Gates or Jobs. More important questions to focus on would be:

  • Am I building something I enjoy and care about?
  • Am I moving toward controlling my financial destiny?
  • Am I giving myself a high probability of winning?

It may do you more good to study those who are a year ahead of you, maybe 3 years at most. They don’t have to be billionaires.

Charlie Munger has a quote I love:

“Spend each day trying to be a little wiser than you were when you woke up. Day by day, and at the end of the day-if you live long enough-like most people, you will get out of life what you deserve.”

Even if you do everything right, you can still end up in that small 0.1% that ends up like Kent Evans. That’s life. That’s the risk you live with. There are no guarantees for entrepreneurs.

All you can do is try and make good decisions and learn each day. There are no perfect answers, the guy or gal who starts a 6 figure business may be a much better person to learn from than some tech billionaire.

As I build my side business, I won't be spending much time on Bill Gates. But I will be searching for more relatable mentors.

I’ll be focusing on the fundamentals and learning everyday. Not on trying to become the next billionaire. I don’t see the need.

I’ll be sharing what I learn on Twitter, so you can follow me there as I continue to document my journey.

  1. 2

    I really liked this Veritasium video (that talks about the paradox of success):


    tell me what you think.

    1. 1

      Just you posting on this thread is massive luck. I would've never stumbled on that youtube video. And it wouldn't have sparked all these further ideas I'm now having on putting systems in place to improve my luck.

      1. 1

        I appreciate that it has helped you, I am glad that this awareness about luck is growing, I love a phrase that one of my favorite philosophical mentors says: "our world was built by losers (who died and we never even heard about them), but history only mentions winners" - Diego Ruzzarin (youtube)

    2. 1

      Wow that was so eye opening. Thank you for sharing.

      Drew Houston, the founder of Dropbox has a quote:

      “Don't worry about failure; you only have to be right once.”

      I think that's the best way to cope with this reality that luck plays a role.

      Also George Mack has a thread on the UFC heavyweight champ that basically had the worst luck imaginable but still succeeded.

      I think it means you just need to 2x, 5x, or 10x the amount of shots you take and not get discouraged by failure which is a superpower.

    3. 1

      For me, that bill gates had friends with the same intelligence and passion for computing (he found 2 in the same school!) Is already too lucky ... At my school, absolutely no one was interested in computing more than me ( at least not people around my age).

      1. 1

        I think 80% of the battle is just getting around people that have similar goals as you and really holding each other accountable. Increases odds of success massively.

        1. 2

          I think it's true, I would like to chat with you on any topic whenever you want, my slack: [email protected]

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