Success is a lousy teacher

by Jonathan MacDonald founder of the Thought Expansion Network

Bill Gates once said: “Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.” I’ve learned the hard way that this statement is true. Of the many ventures I’ve founded over the years, three of which worked pretty well and four that were outrageously unsuccessful, the main learning and insight has come from what I did wrong rather than right.

One of the biggest problems I suffered from was past successes that, in my opinion at the time, almost guaranteed future gain. In reality, this delusion was dangerous as it caused a significant reduction of thought, and to paraphrase Lao Tzu, this is a major issue as our thoughts determine our destiny by becoming our words, actions and character.

Over time I’ve realised that the starting point of success is from our ability to expand the way we think. Figuratively, our thoughts can be prison guards, travel agents, defence attorneys or sports coaches. Our thoughts create our hopes and our fears. Our thoughts control our perception of everything that we call reality. Therefore, we can expand our chances of success in all walks of life by expanding the way we think.

In contrast, one of the most common issues is a lack of awareness of what is happening around us. This lack of consciousness is one of the primary culprits in failure. Humans are exceptionally bad at making rational decisions and even worse at being curious in the first place. It’s not our fault per se, our minds are wired with heuristics and biases that skew reasoning, and our lives are full of information that we have to filter on a constant basis. I believe this doesn’t mean we should switch off more, it means we should filter better.

So, what tends to happen is that we pre-determine what we view as pertinent and disregard the rest. We limit our curiosity as it takes up valuable time that we could use for comforting ourselves with familiar thinking. Paradoxically we limit our expansion of thought as a way of being efficient, despite the fact that limiting our expansion of thought will directly impact our ability to grow and succeed.

Not everyone falls into this trap. The winners in life and in business have a curiosity and flexibility that I find very alluring. And so, without wishing to argue against Bill Gates, it would seem that success can sometimes be a lousy teacher, but ultimately it is down to whether we personally choose to expand our thinking and unlock potential.

So far so good. Let’s assume that we’ve totally accepted that our thinking drives our success, the question should then be: “How can I ensure I’m thinking expansively enough?”

Here’s a simple guide that you can follow and use in any circumstance, regardless of your business or Industry, to check one key element of your thought input and output process.

Step One: Make a list of your sources of validation.

Who do you ask to check what you’re assuming? Who do you turn to for advice? Who are you running things past in terms of strategy or execution? How to you ensure that your decisions make sense to anyone outside of your own head?

Step Two: Make a list of your sources of information.

Where do you source your data from? Which publications are you reading regularly? Which subjects do you tend to focus on? Who are the authors or editors you most believe? Which ‘thought leaders’ are influencing your thoughts?

Step Three: Force yourself to assume that the two lists are a maximum of 50% of your required validation and information.

How would you sense-check your thinking twice as much? How could you at least double your sources of information? How could you read twice as much? How could you filter more information more efficiently?

The output of these three simple steps is a very practical way of assessing your capability in thought expansion. You see, it’s not all about being imaginative and creative (others can speak profusely about that), it’s also about how you think, why you think and what you think. This determines what you do, why you do it and ultimately how you succeed.

Jonathan MacDonald is an international speaker on managing perpetual change and founder of the Thought Expansion Network ( His new book, Powered By Change, is out now from

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