Insane Success Stories That Drive Me Crazy…But Shouldn’t

by Darwin on February 14, 2012

I was listening to Stern on the way in the other day and he had the graffiti artist David Choe who’s now worth an estimated $100-$200 MILLION because he spray-painted a wall at the Facebook headquarters and they’re going public.  His stories were insane.  The Facebook story isn’t his only compelling feat, the guy should really sell a movie about his life.  Let me summarize a few highlights about his success:

  • Becomes a degenerate gambler as a teenager and loses it all in Las Vegas in his early twenties.
  • Comes up with a new gambling method (to him.  We’ve all tried it and you still lose – but he was very lucky) and turns $500 into $1 Million over a few trips to Vegas.
  • Fast forward to graffiti gig for Facebook.  New company, some cash but not a ton.  They offer to pay him in stock or take $60,000.  As a degenerate gambler, he rolls the dice and takes the stock figuring it’s unlikely to pay off, but if it does, might be huge.  He didn’t know anything about Facebook at the time.
  • Fast forward a few years; Facebook files for IPO.  Stake will be worth north of $100 Million

Along the way, he had all kinds of other tales about being captured by police in Asia for graffiti, girls, crazy stuff.  Real colorful character.  But long story short, he’s got this crazy story and now he’s mega-rich!

Doesn’t It Just Drive You Crazy?

When you hear an in-depth interview like that and you hear how random and simple the success story is, it gets the creative juices flowing and you’re thinking “that could be me!”.  The same goes for inventors, business startups or just lucky people.  I have ideas all the time.  Most of them stink and I don’t execute.  But if just one big idea hit, I’d be wildly successful, right?  Well, the problem with this mentality, and I need to continue to remind myself of this is:

Survivorship Bias Clouds Your Mind

Survivorship Bias is the human tendency to form an opinion based on select anecdotes of “winners” or big events and ignore the more numerous (and likely) losing events.  For the most part, the only incredible stories like this that you hear are – the WINNERS!  You don’t hear about all the people who didn’t make it, it doesn’t make for a good story.  For Bill Gates and Steve Jobs the college dropouts, there are millions of American college dropouts each year who aren’t successful at all.  People tend to take a single anecdote of a celebrated success story and try to project that situation or prospect onto themselves or others.  There are all kinds of people in Silicon Valley touting how college is a waste and holding these icons up on a pedestal as how you don’t need a degree to become wildly rich.  To me, those data points are complete outliers – and useless.

Relating to David Chou, there are thousands of graffiti artists who don’t have a pot to piss in that probably now think they can be like him.  They won’t.  There will never be another story just like his.  That’s the irony – everyone chases the history of a celebrated survivor when that history will never be repeated.

Do You Find Yourself Dreaming Big When You Hear Success Stories?

Do You Have Similar Examples of Survivor Bias?

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Jeremy @ Modest Money February 14, 2012 at 10:08 pm

Yes that guy has quite an amazing story. I’m sure he never thought the payoff would be that huge.

Good point about the survivorship bias. To be wildly successful it is a big of a crapshoot. The occasional person will strike it rich, but yes most will just be average. People like to have big dreams though. They might really know those dreams are farfetched, but holding onto that possibility of huge success can act as a big source of motivation. It’s bound to be a lot tougher to motivate yourself if you are constantly reminded of all the people before you who have failed.


Darwin February 15, 2012 at 10:42 pm

I like the concept of survivorship bias and continue to try and remind myself that it exists so I’m not fooled.


krantcents February 14, 2012 at 10:39 pm

There are other people who take advantage of people or commit illegal activity that may bother me more. I try not to even think about them because it does nothing for me. It doesn’t change anything in my life good or bad.


Darwin February 15, 2012 at 10:43 pm

I didn’t follow his rise to stardom too closely; I suppose some of his work was illegal. But much of it was paid. Apparently he did a wall in a building and when they knocked the building down, they left his wall standing. I guess people really like his stuff!


Wayne @ Young Family Finance February 15, 2012 at 12:54 am

That’s the brilliance of the lottery. Everyday there is a winner and thus, repetition of the idea the people are winning millions all the time.


Darwin February 15, 2012 at 10:44 pm

So true! It irks me to no end the degree to which lotteries are publicized. My kid was just asking me what it’s all about. He’s 7!


Terry February 15, 2012 at 2:06 am

Especially since there are plenty of people who would be happy to tag – er, spray paint – Facebook’s walls for free.


Darwin February 15, 2012 at 10:44 pm

Totally, talk about name recognition and street cred!


CM February 15, 2012 at 2:17 pm

Chou story no different than winning the lottery and most of the “public” lose sight of how many of those people end up financially barren again. Check back with Mr Choe 10yrs from now and see where he is . . .then it will be an impressive story.

All I see is a misfit that will end up with a windfall and pi$$ it away like every event previous


Darwin February 15, 2012 at 10:45 pm

Apparently he’s got quite the gambling habit… but at least he earns a lot for his work. Seems like the type to live fast, work hard, play hard.


nada November 26, 2014 at 10:33 pm

Actually, it can’t possibly happen. He’ll always have stock money rolling in. Plus, he could easily sell some paintings for 6 figures if he really had too. Too bad people rarely speak of how David gives away thousands of dollars every so often, or how he became a successful artist by hanging paintings up at a posh ice cream parlor due to the fact that every gallery in LA wouldn’t give him the time of day. Sometimes you just have to give credit where credit is due. He was in fact homeless for a very long time until he decided to buck up and yank people into his world of art. Skill and luck are also a pretty big part of the hard work equation. 1 life to live so go for it—massive difference between being comfortable and happy. Don’t be jealous, be constructive.


retirebyforty February 15, 2012 at 7:33 pm

I love those crazy stories. It’s a lot of fun to read especially if the guy is colorful like Chou. Like you said, it’s not just his graffiti at Facebook. He has all kind of adventures all over the world. I think it’s being open to opportunities.


Darwin February 15, 2012 at 10:45 pm

His interview on Stern was awesome; real entertaining. I just have to remind myself he’s an outlier.


AverageJoe February 15, 2012 at 7:53 pm

You hit the nail on the head. As a recovering financial advisor, I’ll be the first to tell you that there are TONS of stories you’ll never hear about some of the most successful people.

The big thing here that gets me jazzed is this: he just kept throwing stuff against the wall. My experience has been that my most successful clients were the ones who kept throwing, long after everyone else had given up.


Darwin February 15, 2012 at 10:46 pm

Oh, so you must have seen a million times when someone is touting buying Apple at 5 bucks a share. But they forgot to mention they also bough at $100 before it went to zero.


Ryan @ Budgetable February 15, 2012 at 11:04 pm

Another thing to point out is that we also tend to forget about the numerous failures a lot of successful people experience before they reach success… Sure, some people (a very few) seem to rise to the top without first failing, but I would call this luck. Most successful people fail many times before they figure it out… In most cases it’s a matter of persistence.. those who keep trying will eventually succeed.


Jeff @ Sustainable Life Blog February 16, 2012 at 4:17 pm

I thought that his was a pretty awesome story, and I really love the IPO time for that – a whole bunch of people that would probably never become millionaires become them, like the google masseuse. Also, this guy was loaded before the IPO because of his art, from what I understand.


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