How often do you idolize others?

Today is May 26 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you idolize others?” It would be difficult to find anyone who translated their dreams into reality who idolized someone. While navigating the chaos it often helps to have a role model, someone to inspire you, and a mentor. Spending your days, time, and money idolizing someone? That is a likely path to nowhere.

A research team led by Mariam Arain published their article "Maturation of the Adolescent Brain," in Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment in April 2013 and observed “the prefrontal cortex is one of the last regions of the brain to reach maturation, around 25 or 26 years of age, and can help explains why some adolescents exhibit behavioral immaturity. There are several executive functions of the human prefrontal cortex that remain under construction during adolescence such as focusing attention, forming strategies and planning, and impulse control and delaying gratification.”

When children idolize athletes, music stars, and in the case of today’s world, social media influencers one could offer up a developing prefrontal cortex as a possible explanation as to why. But what about adults? What can help explain why some adults obsess over athletes, musicians, actors, or other stars? Why would an adult follow their favorite band around the world or go to every concert? Why would someone take out a second mortgage on their house to go to a playoff game and see their favorite athlete?

Now look, everyone has free will. Do as you please. If you wish to spend all of your money idolizing someone and be driven into bankruptcy by all means, go ahead. You have that right. If you dropped out of college, gained too much weight, and severed relationships because you had to follow your idol around, congratulations. You are exercising your free will. But here is what you cannot do. You cannot idolize someone at the cost of you navigating the chaos or practicing the art of living well. You cannot blame the world for your troubles if you have spent your time obsessing over someone to the detriment of your own existence.

The great irony is when you idolize someone you are in fact helping them translate their dreams into reality. All the athlete, musician, actor, or social media influencer wants is to translate their dreams into reality. And you are helping them! But at what cost? One common trait among almost everyone who has every translated a dream into action is they never idolized anyone. They had no time! They were too busy working on their own dreams. If you are fully committed to navigating the chaos, you simply do everything you can to prevent yourself from falling prey to idolizing someone, also known as survivorship bias.

Survivorship bias is the logical error consisting of two elements: first, concentrating on the people or things that made it past some selection process and, second, overlooking those that did not, typically because of their lack of visibility. This type of thinking can often lead to false conclusions in several different ways. Survivorship bias can lead to overly optimistic beliefs because failures are ignored, such as when companies that no longer exist are excluded from analyses of financial performance or follow up analyses are never conducted to provide much needed additional perspective. Thus, people tend to idolize losers when they thought they were actually worshiping winners.

For example, evidence of this decline of relevant organizations once considered great was presented by Chris Bradley in his analysis of organizations listed in Tom Peters’ 1982 book In Search of Excellence, and Jim Collins’ 1994 Built to Last and 2001 Good to Great. Bradley disproved the ‘greatness’ label Peters and Collins affixed to companies and discovered:

  • Two well-performing companies were acquired (Amoco and Gillette, bought by BP and P&G).

  • Four low performers were swallowed up (Amdahl, Data General, DEC, and Raychem),

  • Three went bust (Kmart, Wang, and Circuit City).

  • Another five fell off the list including Kodak’s bankruptcy in 2013.

The survivor bias and idolizing of others is often found within the field of entrepreneurs. Businesses built upon the brilliant minds of Bill Gates or Steve Jobs are constantly idolized by many. Emulate what these two did and your business will have a market value of a billion over night. According to the survivor bias you do not even need a college degree to be a billionaire; the statistics would seem to suggest this is true since nearly a third (30%) of today’s billionaires do not have a bachelor’s degree. If Gate, Jobs and a few others dropped out of college, why not you?

But herein lies the question to ask yourself: how many people dropped out of college, started a company in their garage or home, and then never made a dime? The best estimate, according to David Cowan of Bessemer Venture Partners is venture capitalists hear 200 pitches for every one they fund, so perhaps 1 in 13 start-ups get VC, and still they face long odds from there. According the National Venture Capital Association approximately 1,300 start-ups get funded each year but only 13% as many achieved an initial public offering (81) or an acquisition large enough to warrant a public disclosure of the price (95). So, for every wealthy start-up founder, there are 100 other entrepreneurs who end up with only a cluttered garage.

Does this mean you should not find inspiration from others? Absolutely not. In fact, this entire Navigate the Chaos series involves a variety of backstories of people who navigated the chaos. But falling prey to survivorship bias and finding inspiration from others are two completely different strategies. Former professional basketball player Kobe Bryant provides a good example here.

When he was 12 years old, Bryant joined a summer basketball camp and never scored one point. On the verge of quitting the sport, Bryant came across Michael Jordan’s story and how he was cut from his high school basketball team. Bryant learned how Jordan used that as fuel to motivate him to outwork everyone around him and prove them wrong. This inspired Bryant to follow in Jordan’s footsteps. From that moment forward Bryant dedicated himself to hours of practice each day. He would put himself through 4 hours of intense workouts even on game days. He would practice without anyone else - or even a ball - to perfect his footwork. All of this because he had a hero who did the same.

If you want to idolize someone, or chase after them, consider the strategy actor Matthew McConaughey uses. In his acceptance speech for winning Best Actor for his performance in Dallas Buyers Club at the 86th Oscars® in 2014, McConaughey said his hero was who he would be ten years in the future. His future self is his hero. At 15 he chased after who he wanted to be at 25. At 25 he chased after who he wanted to be at 35. Such a strategy allows him to work towards his hero, his future self, who he will never become but will always strive to be.

As you navigate the chaos ask yourself if you have heroes inspiring you or if you are idolizing others? How much time are you spending with a mental model that falls prey to the survivorship bias? Are you obsessing over an athlete, musician, actor, or social media influencer to the detriment of your dreams? Are you so focused on the business survivors, the Steve Jobs of the world that you lose sight of who you are and who you want to be?