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On the impossibility of overcoming survivorship bias

Imagine you’ve got dreams of becoming a fashion designer.

It seems natural to study others who have succeeded in the field, so you start searching and come across this video:

This guy is living the dream, and it sounds so simple!

You can do whatever you want to do in life, but just make sure you do it well, and you do it with passion.

Words to live by. Seems like all you need to do is get good at designing while retaining your passion. You got this!

Now imagine 20 years go by and you still haven’t realized the dream of having your own clothing line, a team of specialists working for you, and your own snappy sizzle reel with which to inspire others.

You’re confused and disappointed, so you retrace your steps. Was there something you missed when studying your idol?

There’s always more to the story

A bit of digging and … yup, there it is!

One factor that Wyatt didn’t mention in his video, but which may have had some bearing on his success, was that his dad is a billionaire. A guy so wealthy he literally built and owns his own town.

Maybe that helped. Maybe it helped even more than Wyatt’s undeniable passion.

Oops! Looks like you’ve fallen victim to survivorship bias.

That sucks. But don’t feel bad: It happens to all of us, all the time.

In fact, there is no way to overcome, avoid, or even adequately compensate for survivorship bias.

It’s a data problem

Imagine compiling the stories of every human who ever dreamt of becoming a fashion designer.

The hundreds of millions who promptly abandoned the goal to try something else. The tens of millions who spent some time and energy pursuing it before giving up. The millions who are actively striving for success right now.

Now imagine giving each of those stories the same amount of attention that I just forced you to give Wyatt Koch.

Even if you could collect all that data (and you can’t), it would take lifetimes to consume it.

So what can you do?

You can’t stop the endless flood of winning lottery numbers, but you can mitigate their impact in a few ways.

1. Ignore success stories

Or treat them like fiction, which they likely are.

One possible exception is a success story that comes tempered with multiple candid accounts of failure. (It’s the failure data that we need more of!)

But be careful. Even the Mikkelsen Twins will tell you how they were directionless and burnt out before they discovered the SEcreT TO suCcEss. That doesn’t make them credible sources.

2. Focus on skills

You may or may not need a particular mindset, morning ritual, or life philosophy to succeed, but you’re sure to need specific skills.

Bonus: You can easily tell when someone has a skill you need to develop, and whether studying them is helping you develop it. There’s no easy way to tell if your ardent vow to “do it with passion” is actually working.

3. Do something unintelligible

If you deliberately choose a life path with no clear analogues, you can’t fall into the trap of emulating a success story. Because there are no success stories—yet.

If your measure of success is nuanced, unique to you, there’s no telling who’s got the high score and no point wondering.

Right now, my goal in life is to spend my energy growing food and writing books. There are plenty of folks who can teach me about gardening, and a good many successful authors I can study. But figuring out how the two fit together is entirely up to me. There’s nobody out there trying to sell me a solution:

I’m still vulnerable to survivorship bias. Still following advice on mulching that may have just happened to work for the person who just happened to write a book I read on the topic. Still testing book marketing strategies that might only make sense for people with huge audiences. But at the whole-life level, there’s no one who’s done what I’m trying to do, and that’s a good thing.

What about you? If you’ve got a weirdly specific goal in life, or a suite of bespoke success metrics you monitor, I’d love to hear about them. Send me a message if you care to share.

    © 2024 Brian David Hall