Lesson from Harry Potter

The world has just celebrated the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter. One can now spend hours going through thought-provoking analyses, insightful lists, and entertaining content created for the occasion. Yet, there is one aspect of this story that is essential for anybody who strives to create ideas, be it a writer, an artist, or an entrepreneur.

That part is soul-crushing, sleep-depriving, appetite-robbing rejection.

When it was first written, Harry Potter apparently got rejected by not one, not three, not five, but a dozen publishers. Even the person who eventually agreed to publish it reportedly did not jump on the idea and initially published only a thousand copies. Think about your experience with Harry Potter over the past two decades and ask yourself: how is that possible? This has got to be one of the most interesting aspects of this groundbreaking saga, and it is both upsetting and great news for the rest of us.

Was Harry Potter a bad idea right before it was great?

Given the size of Harry Potter’s eventual success, one would expect that publishers, filmmakers and agents from all over the world would be racing to sign Rowling the minute she finished writing the first book and started to show it around. One would imagine that the experts in the business, who stood to make millions in terms of money and prestige during decades to come, would have seen Harry Potter light up as a bright blip in their radars long before it became a smash hit.

But the opposite occurred. When Rowling approached publishers, they weren’t impressed. All the incentives, experience and expertise in the world did not help them identify Harry Potter as an opportunity. So, right before Harry Potter became an extraordinary success story, it was an ordinary failure.

It’s easy to write glorifying stories of why something became successful after the fact. When I ask my students — some of whom are executives — why Harry Potter is so successful, they always offer some concrete reasons:

“It’s about an underprivileged boy who becomes the unlikely hero.”

“It’s beautifully written, easy to read.”

“It takes place in an amazing world.”

All true, yet they were also true while the book was being rejected. And these features are also presumably true for other books that were rejected and never heard of again. Luckily, Rowling persevered until someone finally gave it a shot. Yet this is upsetting news for those of us who are creating new things, be it a book, a film or an enterprise. Would most of us be that patient? How many times would you get rejected before giving up?

How many times have you been rejected recently?

In the complex, connected and chaotic world we live in, even Harry Potter can get summarily rejected by those minding the gates. This means that nobody — including the experts or even the creators themselves — know much about the true potential of new ideas. Harry Potter is one of many recent (positive) Black Swans: a highly improbable event with an unprecedented and wide-ranging impact.

In domains where predictability is low and the number of creators is high, expertise and rejections don’t really matter. Anyone who works hard and tries relentlessly has the capacity to create value that eventually grows beyond their wildest dreams. While the probability of success of one trial or one particular project is undoubtedly minuscule, with enough ideas and perseverance, the impact a creative person can make is demonstrably huge.

How many times have you been rejected during the past three months? If it’s not at least a dozen, you are not “alive.”

Wishing you (occasional) bad luck

In a commencement speech he gave during his son’s graduation ceremony last month, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. wished his audience bad luck, betrayal, loneliness, failure, pain and unfair treatment, among other misfortunes. He explained that he would want the new graduates to personally experience these on occasion to ensure that they learn the value of good luck, loyalty, friendship, sportsmanship, fairness and compassion.

Here’s that part of his speech:

This is a wise perspective on how people should not take for granted the advantages and privileges they enjoy. The advice also makes sense from a point of view of human learning and decision making. Our research and that of other cognitive psychologists suggest that we are masters at learning from personal experience. The downside, however, is that we often fail to truly understand things that lie beyond it. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman calls this syndrome “what you see is all there is.”

The curse of personal experience

Society venerates experience. We want leaders with outstanding track records, government officials who have worked in relevant departments, and veteran football coaches. Experience is deemed a sine qua non for an accurate understanding of the world. The process of learning through experience comes so naturally to us that we often feel confident and at ease with experience-based decisions that require little explicit thought.

Yet this innate ability comes at a cost. Experience can be filtered or distorted in a wide variety of ways. We may be missing crucial evidence or be exposed to irrelevant information, which inevitably cloud our judgment. Stereotypes and misperceptions subsequently can get reinforced and calcify. Biased experience leads to biased intuition about reality.

There’s really nothing to match the experience gathered by having personally observed or lived through a certain situation. We immediately get attuned to a problem if we suffer from it ourselves. For instance, many influential people found or fund organizations that help solve a pertinent issue, often because they or people close to them are personally affected by it.

Learning from non-occurrences

Unfortunately, personal experience is limited. Things that we don’t experience personally are bound to be discounted or ignored to a certain degree. For example, not being disabled and not being able to encounter many people with a disability during one’s daily life leads to an underestimation of their prevalence, concerns and issues.

Can we then learn from others’ experience to avoid the difficulties of learning by doing? Internet is full of helpful advice on how we should take advantage of others’ misfortunes and knowledge to save time and effort. While research suggests that this is indeed possible, there may be a caveat. If we perceive ourselves to be better than others, we may be tempted to believe that we won’t fail as others would. Hence, others’ misfortunes can actually lead us to become overconfident about our own chances of success.

We thus need to find a way to correctly take into account the wide variety of unwanted experiences that are thankfully beyond our own. In a previous post, we wrote about the late cognitive psychologist Hillel Einhorn, who called these events “non-occurrences:” things that we don’t have that we would not want to have. Bad luck, betrayal, loneliness, loss, pain and unfair treatment often enter into this category. Until we develop this ability, however, we can only hope that our loved ones, next generations and future leaders personally experience them on rare occasions and in a way that drives them to prevent these from happening to others.

Originally published at Psychology Today on July 13, 2017

Einhorn’s 2×2

How to improve the way we think about happiness?

There are many theories out there. I’m currently reading about a counterintuitive one: The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman. It offers a much-needed counterbalance to the endless advice for positive thinking. Ironically, chasing frantically after happiness can make someone miserable.

My own research on experience took me to another related notion. Hillel Einhorn, the late psychologist from University of Chicago, argued that when we think about happiness we mainly consider three categories:

Things that

  • we want that we have (make us happy)
  • we don’t want that we have (make us unhappy)
  • we want that we don’t have (make us unhappy)

Yet we rarely take into account a fourth category: things that we don’t want that we don’t have (make us happy).

And he says, because this last category is huge, “we are actually a lot happier than we think we are.”

We recently wrote more on this on Psychology Today. And here’s Einhorn, explaining the idea:

Wicked experience

According to Robin M. Hogarth’s book Educating Intuition, there are two types of experience: Kind and wicked.

The kind version, as the name suggests, is nice. The feedback on your actions is unbiased. A tennis player is endowed with kind experience. She receives immediate and accurate news on what happens when she hits the ball in a certain way.

The wicked version is cunning. It shows you only part of the story and gives feedback on some of the outcomes. An emergency room doctor mostly lives in a wicked environment. He does not receive immediate and accurate feedback on his patients.

Consider another example.

You are walking. You drop a coin on the ground. You stop and look back to locate it. Think about how that coin traveled as it fell. Did it move forward or backward? Or maybe it just fell straight down?

Most people say it traveled straight or backward, although it actually moved forward along a curve. It just fell behind due to gravity pulling it down at the same time.

Because people always locate the coin behind, they tend to assume that its movement could not have been forward. Their experience and subsequent observation confuses their logic. It is wicked.

Consider other wicked environments, such as massively populated online social networks.

Everybody in these virtual spaces is good-looking and socially responsible. Through many connections, one is exposed to a constant stream of interesting news, cool photographs, fun anecdotes. I suspect this kind of biased experience would push someone to be depressed about her/his own life.

Here is an article that suggests this might be the case.


How does the stock market work? Is it predictable? Which new firms will succeed next year? Which ones will fail? Which products will be popular? Why exactly? Will you lead a healthy life? How much control do you have over it?

More importantly… How much of all these will depend on chance? What is the weight of randomness in all of this?

Somehow, the understanding of randomness does not come naturally to us. And by us, I mean humans.

Is an outcome considered random because we do not know how it was generated? Or was it really randomly conceived? A bit of both maybe?

How does one characterize or even recognize chance events?

The problem is that, possibly, we are not yet equipped with the innate statistical sophistication that is needed to understand such issues intuitively. Humans have been living on earth for a very… very long time. The probability theory that deals with the understanding of randomness is only a few centuries old.

The first discussions about such concepts are found in the letters that went back and forth between Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat. Both brilliant men, their primary concern was to decipher and possibly better perform in gambles. The letters date back to 1650s.

Hence, given the relative recency of our adventure with randomness, it might be that we will need several centuries more to evolve and fully grasp its nature and consequences.

We are still primitive in the face of randomness.