Survivorship Bias & Bad Advice

xkcd on survivorship bias

If there’s one thing that drives me crazy, it’s terrible advice from successful people.

If there’s another thing that drives me crazy, it’s magical thinking.

A lot of the advice thrown out there on podcasts and articles comes from successful people offering post hoc rationalizations for why they were successful.

And, believe me, as an avid consumer of online content, I often want to hear what successful people have to say about how they accomplished what they accomplished.

However – particularly in business and athletics – listening to the stories of those who have “made it” can give a pretty twisted perspective on why they were in fact successful.

The concept of “survivorship bias” is used when only those who have made it past some sort of threshold are considered – without taking into account the entire cohort of people who started a process.

So, for example, there are literally thousands and thousands of people who want to work hard in training, push themselves day in and day out in the gym, and make tremendous sacrifices to their personal life and their career in order to maximize their physical potential.

And a huge number of them will never qualify for anything.

So, when you hear elite athletes saying that they outwork everyone and they just “want it more” – they are not taking into account all of the other individuals who worked just as hard and wanted it just as badly who didn’t make it.

This can lead to a form of magical thinking, where the idea of pushing yourself and “wanting it” becomes the key variable that dictates success.

In reality, there are a few key things that probably make the difference between businesses and athletes who “achieve” – and other variables are either marginal or noisy.

And listening only to advice from those who made it without considering the others who didn’t is a recipe for confusion.

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