Don’t listen to successful people

2 minute read

Survivorship bias is the logical error of concentrating on the people or things that “survived” some process and inadvertently overlooking those that did not, because of their lack of visibility.
Survivorship Bias on Wikipedia

In other words:

The Misconception:
You should focus on the successful if you wish to become successful.

The Truth:
When failure becomes invisible, the difference between failure and success may also become invisible.
— David McRaney (2013) Survivorship Bias

David writes a wonderful article there, and highlights the issue with a wonderful story about airplanes and World War II. At one point he highlights:

Those planes would have been armored in vain had it not been for the intervention of a man trained to spot human error.

That’s the key there. Survivorship bias exists due to the way our brain reinforces knowledge that’s built through repetition and visibility. It’s natural and passive, thus to avoid it we need training and an active critical thinking.

There are known knowns:
there are things we know that we know.

There are known unknowns:
that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know.

But there are also unknown unknowns:
there are things we do not know we don’t know.

— Rumsfeld D. (2002) Press Briefing

That’s precisely why you can’t just listen to successful people. Their perspective is biased by their own success. This doesn’t mean as I exaggerated in the title that successful people shouldn’t be listened, but that they need to be paired with the analysis of the failures.

Think about this: if I take a thousand people and I ask them to chose between a thousand doors the one to take, and only one of these actually opens, should we listen to the one that gets through how they did it? This situation isn’t that different from reality: if there’s one door that opens, someone will open it at some point, for whatever reason. That however doesn’t necessarily tell us something about the why, and any story told on this should be considered carefully against all the ones that failed.

Even more, successful people are often people that find “their way”, or in business terms, they are the ones that break new ground. That’s why even if their advice is sound, following them will not work, because you will be second.

Success is:

  1. multi-factorial: there are multiple ways to intend success
  2. contextual: the conditions (such as time and place) of an action are very relevant
  3. unique: repeating a successful action doesn’t necessarily land in another success
  4. non-deterministic: there’s no way to pre-determine it, that’s why trying over and over and pivoting are usually advices given about this.

As you can clearly see, all these factors are subject to the survivorship bias: the bias hides the factors, the context, the uniqueness and the determinism of the actions.

Consider also that advices of successful people might not be the reason of their success, but they might be enablers. This means that having it doesn’t make you successful, but not having it will surely make unsuccessful.

So, how to train to avoid this bias? There’s no silver bullet here, because as mentioned above it’s about the unknown unknowns. However, you can always try to get the bigger picture and look for the people that failed doing the same, in order to give you perspective more depth. Always ask yourself: were the same projects that failed doing the same?