3. How 'survivorship bias' can cause you to fail

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Sure, we love watching videos of people face planting and falling over, but we truly obsess over successful people. We want to learn from them, to copy them – the way they look, behave and act to try and understand and find similar success.

But trying to copy “successful people” can be dangerous. And that danger has a name: survivorship bias.

Pinning success on the wrong thing

Simply put, when we look at just the ‘survivors’ – the top percentage, the ones that outperformed the group etc – we draw conclusions based on the success stories without looking at the wider dataset.

Good problem solving means looking at the whole picture so you don’t draw dangerous conclusions.

As an example, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates didn’t finish university. Drawing on this fact without looking at the whole dataset of those who dropped out of tertiary studies means we glorify it. But guess what? There are so many more people who dropped out of university that haven’t found success like those two.

Essentially, dropping out of uni does not equal guaranteed success.

The most famous example of survivorship bias

During World War II, the American military asked mathematician Abraham Wald to study how best to protect aeroplanes from being shot down. At first, his research team looked at returned planes to see where they were shot the most. 

But Wald realised that this missed the bigger part of the picture: on the planes that didn’t return, where was the vulnerable part?

Contradicting the US military’s conclusions, Wald recommended adding extra armour to the least hit areas of the surviving planes. He reasoned that the bomber jets that returned to base were able to take bullets to those clearly damaged areas and still fly, unlike the lost aircraft.

The lesson?

Look at the whole picture to avoid being misled by survivorship bias.

We hear the stories of those that took big risks that paid off. It’s less likely to hear the stories of those who took big risks and failed.

Successful people don’t represent the whole picture. 🌏

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