Past Performance, Future Results

by Daniel Jacobs

Three years ago, I had dinner with an investor in my company who led a prominent fund that had invested in dozens of early-stage startup companies. He’d seen some of those companies go from ideas to being worth billions of dollars.

I asked him a simple question: “Can you predict the big winners?”

He quickly responded, “It’s fairly easy to predict the good ones. They do things more or less as I’d expect. It’s nearly impossible to predict the great ones… the ones worth billions… the ones that profoundly change how business is done.”

I asked: “Why is it nearly impossible to predict the great ones?”

He smiled and shook his head. “Because they are bending the universe. They do little according to plan. Often, they break one thing after another. And investors like me shake our heads. Until one day they figure it out. And investors like me say we always knew…”

About ten years ago, a friend who felt he’d lived at an unhealthy weight most of his life – who’d often been told by doctors that if he didn’t lose weight he’d live a much shorter than average life – started to lose weight.

To some people who knew him, even close family, the first 20 pounds were no different from dozens of other attempted weight losses.

But the weight kept coming off. 40 pounds. 60, 80 pounds. Within a few years, through diet and exercise, he’d lost over 100 pounds and was at a weight that felt healthy for him. It’s been years now, and he’s stayed at a healthy weight.

The strange thing about his weight loss was how sudden it seemed. He’d talked with me and other friends for years about wanting to live a long life at a healthy weight. And I could always see the sparkle in his eyes – I knew he’d do it someday.

Yet despite fairly frequent yo-yo diets, nothing ever took. And then one day…

So I asked him, “What finally made the difference?”

“One day I was ready,” he said, “I don’t know why it was that day. But I know what helped me get there: I had a few friends who believed me. For years and years, my friends believed me. Even though you had no reason to believe…”

We are taught in business and in life that past performance is somehow indicative of future results. So we often learn, as leaders, to look for the high performers, to hang our hats on them, because they will show us to the future we desire.

But Toys-R-Us, K-Mart, Sears, Kodak, Blockbuster – high performers of my childhood – are all bankruptcy stories. And Microsoft, whose stock price stayed stagnant for 10 years, has seen its stock price improve 600% in the last 6 years.

At Avanoo, some of our highest performers weren’t high performers in their last jobs. Some of us weren’t even always high performers in our current jobs. Then one day, perhaps a day that looked like any other day, everything changed.

In my own experience, past performance has never been a strong predictor of future results. Past performance is simply a datapoint. It might be worth something. It might not.

In my own experience, the best predictors of future results are: who we are, what we believe in, how we hold ourselves and each other, how we learn and grow, and how willing we are to disrupt the status quo to create the future we believe in.

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