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What Successful People Hate About Feedback

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A horror story played out at a board of directors meeting this last week. A venture capital firm called Deep Knowledge appointed an algorithm to its board. The algorithm is engaged in picking the firm’s investments, which are largely in emerging drug companies that develop medicine for aging related diseases.

This sorry reliance on data gathered about past success and patterns of behavior (AKA feedback) to predict the future, was portrayed as “futuristic.” Of course, the algorithm’s appointment was largely a stunt to get our attention. Not positive attention, but attention nonetheless. It is a cautionary tale.

Consider this in your business or career. If all past events could be used to predict future ones, then the world would be a boring place. It would be ridiculously predictable, which of course the world is not. Not at all.

For example, at some point in primary school, you spelled some words wrong that you probably could get right today. In fact, you’ve likely come a long way from spelling even being an issue in your life.

As I recall, in third grade I spelled “stagecoach” wrong, because I was absent the day Mrs. Cooper assigned it among that week’s vocabulary words. No one thought to catch me up; in fact, in fifth grade the school district offered to take me off my parents’ hands and put me in college. So, there were no worries about my academic prowess from early on.

But, of course, being smart doesn’t have a whole lot to do with predictable success. Smart and lucky are a famously excellent set of conditions for success. Here is a nod to whomever defined luck as “opportunity meeting preparation.”

Successful people know that looking back to predict what will happen going forward is a fool’s game. It’s why by law, financial companies selling investments while touting a stellar record from a past time period must announce some version of: “past performance is not an indicator of future performance.”

Simply put: feedback does not equal feed-forward.

It is not just accidents, flukes, “100 year floods” that come twice over two years in a row, or a cleaning lady who is secretly a millionaire leaving her estate to you that stops the world and your life from being some version of Groundhog Day (the movie).

Successful people know that past data does not predict behavior.

“Just as looks can be deceiving, data can also be deceiving because they’re not the whole picture,” Tony Haile, the chief executive of Chartbeat, which provides real-time analytics for ESPN, CNN and The New York Times Company, opined in the New York Times on Sunday.

For every thousand data slaves armpit deep in analytics, there must be one futurist who is in charge of leading an organization, at various levels. You might be that individual. I hope so.

To rise above the past, means you have the career-enlivening characteristic of good decision-making now. It means you can ignite conversations about the nuances and the easy to believe but wrong-headed correlations that data would otherwise represent about you, or the industry and world around you.

If your personal brand includes problem solving and the ability to sift through data to find what is relevant and not relevant: we really need you in our organizations so you can lead them. Match these qualities with perseverance, resilience, humor, and compassion, and you are unstoppable.

Stay skeptical about your past, my friend. Search for bigger, deeper connections than those that come from simple, mechanical calculation. Make sure you are living with ideas about yourself that might be nonsense today, but could be the truth going forward.

Don’t let an algorithm or anything else steal your seat at the conference table. Mean more. And tell us exactly what your brand promise will mean to us.

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