Survivorship Bias and Hungry, Hungry Hippos

When Tim Ferriss or Seth Godin (or insert name of successful person here) write and release a book in a new and different way, of course it’s going to do well. They’re Tim and Seth! They have massive audiences (which I’m happily part of), chomping at the bit to consume whatever they create.

Survivorship bias has nothing to do with the TV show, Survivor. It happens because we tend to focus on the people that have lived through or accomplished something, and conversely ignore the folks that didn’t (due to their lack of visibility).

PSST: Stop guessing when I publish new posts and get articles like this in your inbox every Sunday.

To put this another way, let’s look at cats falling out of windows (poor kitties). A study done in 1987 showed that cats who accidentally fell less than six stories sustained worse injuries than cats that fell from more than six stories. The study didn’t take into account the fact that if a cat accidentally fell from more than six stories and died, it wouldn’t be taken the vet for treatment, and therefore would be unaccounted for in the statistics of the final report.

This bias is the norm online—experts bestowing well-intentioned advice on winning at something, while failing to take into account that the reason they might have succeeded is due more to their visibility than whatever method/tactic they used.

What if the way Tim so successfully launched his book was simply due the insane size of his audience and the quality of the work he creates? What if Seth’s lessons learned from self-publishing are due to the audience he built through years of traditionally publishing amazing books that caught the attention of the entire marketing and self-starter audiences around the world?

How we can accommodate for this in our own lives is fairly simple (but difficult to do)—because it involves critical thought. Next time we read an article on how one person achieved something, we need to ask ourselves:

Survivorship bias pulls us towards experts, gurus, and generally successful folks doing successful things. Success is damn sexy. It’s unavoidable because those people all have something we want, and we can’t help but search for clues in what they say in order to get there ourselves.

“I have to chuckle whenever I read yet another description of American frontier log cabins as having been well crafted or sturdily or beautifully built. The much more likely truth is that 99% of frontier log cabins were horribly built—it’s just that all of those fell down. The few that have survived intact were the ones that were well made. That doesn’t mean all of them were.” Mike Johnston, The Online Photographer

This bias leads us to think that success can be easily obtained by following prescribed steps. When in reality, those people who achieved it and wrote about it didn’t follow any set path—they carved their own way, experimented with the unknown, and came up ahead.

The randomness and chaos of the world sometimes deals us a good hand and sometimes makes us wish we were playing Hungry, Hungry Hippos instead.

Never follow somebody else’s path; it doesn’t work the same way twice for anyone…the path follows you and rolls up behind you as you walk, forcing the next person to find their own way. J. Michael Straczynski

We need to be skeptical. Not as disheartening pessimists, but as critical thinkers who don’t blindly apply advice. Most of the time, doing well is a matter of guessing or experimentation. No one (not even those experts) know for sure if something will work out well in the end. All any of us can do is to figure out our own path and start walking.