I want to discuss a term known as survivorship bias. This is an occurrence in which we focus on people or things that survive while overlooking those that don’t. In other words, we have a tendency to heed a success story while dismissing stories of failure. As humans we seek convenience and shortcuts as we are conditioned to relentlessly pursue answers and solutions. So when actors and singers give out motivational speeches we are more often inclined to believe and consider their somewhat subjective advice as we ignore the less fortunate. After all why would we want to listen to someone who failed? While renowned figures are eager to share how they become successful, they often neglect to refer to a crucial factor that lead to their level of success, that of luck. After all, someone like Chaning Tatum is not the only good looking decent actor that determinedly pursued an acting career. I am sure there were thousands of actors equally good looking and talented who attempted this endeavour only to fall short. I think it’s crucially important, in such a scenario, to consider that a great amount of luck must be recognized as a defining factor. So as role models zealously give us advice on “the steps to success” I find myself asking “what about the ones that did not make it? What about the thousands of Alicia Keys, Rihannas, Bill Gates´and Steve Jobs that never made it? The ones that perhaps worked harder and also had outstanding potential yet never had the opportunity to flourish in the same way. Where are their voices and advice? I am profoundly curious to know what did NOT work as oppose to hearing the redundancy of what did. While successful people typically overemphasize the need for hard work and perseverance they often naively understate the importance of their timing and placement, otherwise known as blind luck.
From my experience, people who plausibly earn a level of success tend to cringe at the idea that any sort of luck should be allocated to said success. Almost in the same way successful people from wealthy families may dislike being labeled as being born lucky. This is because when we associate success with luck we inadvertently suggest that a person has not earned his or her success. However, I believe this stems from a grave misconception of the word luck. Regardless of the general consensus that luck is something mystical, social science strongly suggest that, to some extent, we can manipulate luck.
Richard Wiseman, a reputable psychologist, conducted a ten-year experiment in which he observed 400 difference subjects with the hopes to discover what traits enabled the classification of lucky and unlucky people. Through this study he was able to generate certain behavioral profiles that attributed to people being lucky or the contrary. One illustrious experiment he did during this time was ask a group of people to determine how many pictures were in a particular newspaper during a minute countdown. Those who would counted successfully would get a $250 prize. However, he deliberately failed to mention that on the second page of the newspaper there was a bold writing that stated “STOP, there are 43 photographs in this newspaper.” As Wiseman predicted, those classified as being generally lucky were mostly the ones who stopped and saw the inconspicuous hint. Through his ten year experiment Wiseman was able to classify behavioral patterns as shown below.
- Narrowly focused
- Goal oriented
- Seek Security/control
- Prefer routines
- Open to new experiences
- Easily abandon routines
- Fail often
- Take chances
So here I am discussing the idea of luck in a contradictory manner. But I do so purposely to convey that luck can merely be manipulated, not controlled.
Timing and placement
A few years ago I used to work in a small supermarket. My responsibilities included compiling a specific group of candy brands beside the cash register. I later found out that these companies paid more for the privilege of having their brands placed more explicitly. What I noticed was that the smaller brands suffered as they were placed less strategically. As expected, customers came in and repeatedly picked out the known brands while the other brands collected dust. In an ideal world all the candy brands would be placed equally for the consumers to decide. But it is a business world and businesses know the importance of being able to manipulate tendencies and chance. So by placing the known brands in favourable positions they received wider recognition, more sales, thus manipulating a degree of luck. So just for giggles I imagined myself as an owner of great tasting candy brand and considered my chances of competing with the other well-established candy brands. Just for the sake of argument I imagined myself being incredibly hard working, having excellent taste in candies and having all the textbook knowledge on achieving brand success. I could have, in theory, pursued a life in marketing my candy and never realistically reach the success level of Starbursts, Skittles and MnM´s. Now honest self-reflection humbled me into knowing I did not have the will power, knowledge nor skills to even attempt such a frivolous task. But even if I did! My chances were extremely slim. My timing and placement would’ve had to be perfect along with my efforts. In other words, while I may have been able to manipulate my level of luck through adopting some of the behaviour patterns discussed earlier, I still would have needed an incredible amount of prominent luck.
What I am mostly trying to convey in this post is that we should be cautious of the advice we leave ourselves so open to receiving, especially the dangerous bias kind. We justifiably give more credibility to people who appear to know their craft but advice from said people is often biased. I say this not to discredit or undermine certain accomplishments. To reiterate, advice from people in favorable positions is often incomplete. There is a significant amount to learn from people´s mistakes and even more so from personal mistakes. While it is completely acceptable to glorify and admire successful people I also think we need to consider a slightly different way of looking at success in general. I am not merely speaking of celebrities or star athletes but also people in successful marriages as an example. Our grandparents stereotypically tell us about how relationships were more successful during their times but fail to mention the technicalities of why. In the same context, someone with little experience that gets hired for a top management position may fail to acknowledge that their qualifications were not entirely the basis that rendered their candidacy attractive. Now of course I may be cherry picking my examples in accordance with my point but I still maintain the notion that we need to be weary of survivorship bias due to the risk of receiving incomplete and subjective information.
We do not pursue success but rather we pursue the chance to become successful. Which is why success can never be guaranteed. We can only increase the likelihood through our attitudes. All this is not to say that we should not take chances or pursue dreams due to unfavorable odds but instead be weary of how we pursue dreams and how we perceive the concept of success. Because success stories are incomplete without the inclusion of fear, conflict, self-doubt, multiple failures and sometimes even malpractice. As the saying goes, if something appears too good to be true then it most often is. So next time you see a model with a six-pack on the front of a magazine with a header stating “5 exercises that will give you a six-pack like mine,” be sure to take the advice with a grain of salt.
Thank you for reading 😊