My LinkedIn feed is full of very successful people.
Updates and reflections from top lawyers, business executives, and thought leaders fill my screen as I complete my daily scroll. The veritable cream of the crop that has risen to the top!
Now, this is not at all surprising - indeed I have and continue to intentionally seek out and connect with outstanding individuals. And, while inspiring, continually drinking from the global firehose of success is not without its problems.
One of these problems has to do with Survivorship Bias.
To those of you who don't know (and I stumbled across this concept myself only yesterday)
Survivorship bias or survival bias is the logical error of concentrating on the people or things that made it past some selection process and overlooking those that did not, typically because of their lack of visibility.
An Example from World War II
One of the most interesting examples of survivorship bias can be found within the pages of the Second World War. Where, and on the question of how to minimize bomber fire losses, the US military concluded that the most-hit areas of returning planes required fortification. At first glance, this might appear quite sensible.
The picture below shows those sections of returning bombers that took the most damage.
Does it not then make sense to reinforce these areas?
To explain, the statistician Abraham Ward (taking survivorship bias into account) argued that the US military was only taking into account the aircraft that survived (i.e., returned to the airfield); any bombers that had been shot down during the mission were naturally unavailable for assessment. If we consider that available information is limited to "survivors" we see that the bullet holes represent areas where the plan can take damage but still fly. Using this information we reach the conclusion that is in fact the undamaged areas (and not the most damaged areas) that require fortification.
So what? (and where exactly does LinkedIn fit in?)
Interesting sure - but what does this have to do with my wonderfully curated list of all-star contacts?
Well, the problem (for me at least) applies to three main areas:
(1) When planning what to do next with my career - when one sees how others have successfully pivoted careers, moved companies, or relocated abroad survivorship bias might distort the true factors which have led to their success. Unless you have access to data from those who have failed one might conclude (looking at LinkedIn only) that similar moves are fairly frequent and easy to obtain when in reality they are rare, exceptional, and somewhat out of the ordinary.
(2) When evaluating my relative success - While it has been said that "comparison is the thief of all joy" it is really only the comparison to more successful people that leaves one with feelings of inferiority. If my pool of data is gathered only from the most successful individuals in my field, does this lead to any meaningful comparison?. If my feed was full of those individuals trying to get ahead but failing, might my relative success markers not appear more slightly measured (at least to me)?
(3) When implementing strategy - I am a big fan of authoritative texts! When faced with a new challenge, one where I have no personal experience, my inclination is to read everything I can. Following which I then interview people within my immediate circle; people who are intimately involved or have extensive experience carrying out the task at hand. Something that has always struck me is the not uncommon disconnect between recommended "best practices" and what appears to occur "in the real world". It is, however, only when considering the effects of survivorship bias (i.e., that I have no access to those who have tried and failed) that one can accurately conclude whether "best practice" should be so readily ignored. Or whether the process advocated within authoritative texts are themselves the byproduct of survivorship bias.
How to Prevent Survivorship Bias - The Tail of Forgotten Failures
“Consider the thousands of writers now completely vanished from consciousness: their record did not enter analyses. We do not see the tons of rejected manuscripts because these have never been published, or the profile of actors who never won an audition — therefore cannot analyze their attributes.” — Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan
In order to avoid falling victim to survivorship bias, we must rigorously test the veracity of our data sets.
Try this - next time you are thinking of a career change, moving countries, or starting a new business remember to look beyond the successful ventures of others.
It may just be that the answer you are looking for lies not within the widely advertised successes of your contemporaries but rather within the unpublished tales of forgotten failures.