Survivor Bias and the Unassailable Mountain

You should be skeptical about trusting the story of how someone achieved their success.

They always make it sound so easy; summarizing everything in frameworks and formulas.

“Success is a simple three step formula.”

Simply take a chance on your dreams, work hard, and make sure you do this one thing… and voila!


This is the epitome of survivor bias. Instead of the truth, you are sold the sizzle.

Scale is sacrificed for simplicity. Bullet points replace stories. Emotion is completely scrubbed from the equation.

“Entrepreneurship is great! Take it from me, owner of a 5-time Inc 5000 awarded company!”

Success is in peril, a mountain unassailable

If you followed all of the three-step formulas in the world, your business would look a lot like Frankenstein’s monster. Or my fantasy football roster.

Concepts that sound good on the pages of a best seller? An endless source of frustration when put to practice.

Business books are the Cliff’s notes of entrepreneurship. All of the “facts” but none of the struggles.

Because struggle doesn’t sell as many copies.

Building a business is trauma

The truth is that building a business is hard, and the hard part doesn’t make it into most stories.

There’s no room for blood, sweat and tears. There’s nothing to gain by admitting weakness.

The hard parts are bleached, the frowns turned into emojis.

So let’s try something a little different.

My name is Jeff, and my company was a 5-time Inc. 5000 award winner

That’s a line from my bio. A badge of honor, a stake in the ground that I use to establish credibility. Every year, 5,000 of us make that same credibility grab. The 2017 list was just announced this week.

Read between the bio lines, and you’ll hear a completely different story. Twenty-thousand hours went into that back-story. And some of them were enjoyable!

But what that bio doesn’t tell you is that every single day of those award winning years was filled with uncertainty and doubt. Doubt about the business. Doubt about employees. Doubt about clients.

Even while growing exponentially, I worried that we weren’t diversified enough in revenue. I worried that one client leaving could send us into a tailspin. About office leases. About keeping up with technology. About the future, and if there would be one.

Worried about employees leaving on bad terms? Apply for the best places to work award (and yes, we won this award several years in a row!)

Worried I’m not qualified to lead a company? Apply for individual recognition (like my CIO of the Year award).

The bio line summarizes the result. The magic formula.

Hidden from view is the 8 years of uncertainty. That feeling of being repeatedly punched in the stomach by doubt with each passing day.

Awards exist for a reason, and it’s not just about egos

Those who are insecure seek validation. It’s no different with businesses. We summarize our work with awards, successes and praise because it makes the struggle feel a little more worthwhile.

We leave out the details of getting there, because we don’t want to revisit the trauma. History is written by the winners, and business advice is written by those who survived.

Successful people over-simplifying their success.

Don’t fall for it.

Seek out the struggles. The unexpected. The uncertainty.

There was no master plan. There were no guarantees. Hard work is given far too much credit. Luck played a greater role than admitted.

Business books are written by the survivors, and hero’s journey is their narrative.

Articles of inspiration, videos of action

I write these weekly articles to summarize the topics on my mind in a nice little package.

But if you want to dive even deeper, there’s nothing quite like following along on video. Last year I introduced the Agency Jumpstart Course to share a long-form version of entrepreneurship. To guide business owners away from making the same mistakes I made along the way.

Each lesson was designed with a single person in mind: myself in the year 2005. That blissfully ignorant 24 year old who thought he knew everything, and had the world at his fingertips.

The 44 videos are a roadmap for young Jeff to deal with the trials and tribulations he will face. Instead of merely surviving, the focus is on thriving. How he can achieve more success and experience less struggle.

Many of you have found these lessons valuable for growing your own business. Others are skeptical about the hefty price tag involved with committing to business growth. Just give me a ring when you are ready. (But seriously, don’t even think about calling me on the phone). 

Seek out the struggles

Last week’s article struck a chord with many of you. I received many emails where you shared your breakthroughs, your inspiration, your struggles.

I have no doubt that if you stick with your business, you will achieve. Maybe you’ll even over-simplify the steps in a business book. 

But don’t forget about the struggles. And don’t be afraid to share them with others.

They are going to need them to climb the unassailable mountain.


  1. Ryan T

    Great post Jeff. Couldn’t agree and relate more.
    Reminds me a lot of the Prologue to Ryan Holiday’s Ego Is The Enemy. If you haven’t read that book, give it a look. It’s incredible.

  2. Pravin Singh

    Loved the honesty, Jeff!

    Amazing post. Yes, the struggles is massively not spoken of – thank you for talking about it! 🙂

  3. Steve Hendricks

    Great post. Being in business is like a mad rollercoaster ride. We have all seen great business success stories rise to the top only to come crashing down at some later date. I think luck and endurance, in equal amounts have as much to do with success as anything else.

  4. Pingback: What do you want to be in business? | Agency Sage by Jeff Sauer

  5. Pingback: Execute and Iterate | Agency Sage by Jeff Sauer

Comments are closed.