Advice And Survivorship Bias

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I want you to think about video game adventures. There, one goes on a grand quest, and of course one often saves the game to record progress. If things go wrong, one reloads the last save and proceeds. We’re used to that, even if “die and come back or start over” has become more popular over the decade, and the save game mechanic has been mocked in certain other games like Undertale.

Now imagine if you made a movie from the point of view in the characters of these games. Unaware that they are being restored from saves, the character’s lives would be a series of perfect actions and lucky breaks, propelling them inevitably towards the end credits and post game content. Any lessons one might learn from this “movie” would be ones of best situations and optimal choices.

In short, an example of Survivorship bias or “survivor bias” as I’ve heard it shortened.

Now let’s look at all the success tips we seek in business, education, publishing, etc. How much of that is Survivorship Bias. I mean you can read the article I linked to, but I think you can imagine a few. How much advice do we see on careers, training, etc. reflects Survivorship Bias?

Someone gave career advice that sounds great . . . only they really got the job due to being the right age, gender, and timing.

Someone gave resume advice that sounds pristine and perfect . . . only we ignore the people that followed the same advice and didn’t get their dream jobs.

Someone got a book published and think it’s their writing . . . but maybe it was connections or persistent marketing as their writing is kinda “eh.”

Remember we only hear advice from people that made it. We don’t hear what all the people who didn’t make it did. By definition, the amount of people who haven’t succeeded at something is much larger than those that have.

We’re probably aware of this fact, at least unconsciously. I’m sure you, as well as I, evaluate advice carefully. We know we’re seeing a limited sample when someone gives us tips for game marketing. We know people succeed for reasons beyond merit.

But let’s turn this around – do we remember that when we give advice, that we’re survivors?

This is something I’ve been thinking of as I write, well, advice. I’ve seen some of it work, but also some of it seem irrelevant, and some of it age out. It’s made me evaluate what I’m doing and what I continue and how I can help. But it does sit in my mind uncomfortably.

My guess is if you’re an advice giver, you’ve either felt this way or I’ve suddenly made you feel bad. Sorry.

This is where we have to remember Survivorship Bias for our advice. We have to sort through our experiences, our lessons, our advice and ask what matters versus what’s just lucky, good looks, etc. That’s not easy, and trust me, it’s on my mind for my future books for rewrites – or even decommissioning when they’re just irrelevant.

As the same time, this can paralyze us. We can ask if everything we know is limited, irrelevant, inappropriate. We can question everything.

Which is good. We should question what we tell people might not apply, that Survivorship Bias plays a role. Then we can zero in on what really does help people, what is applicable, what matters. If we’re going to give advice, we should ask questions of ourselves.

I think, ultimately, there’s always some Survivorship Bias in giving advice, if only for the fact our lives are all unique. What we can do is to figure out what advice is more universal, what advice does pay off. We can research and compare, make models, and try to extract valuable lessons.

This is why I think most advice works best when it’s a mix of standalone ideas and synergies. Specific bite-sized pieces of advice can be evaluated for individual relevance. The way advice works together helps us understand how different instructions and ideas interact for results. Keeping both views in minds lets us give advice – and then people can customize their actions based on their situations.

No, it’s not easy. But if we want to help people, we need to understand what gives us something to say sometimes means figuring out what is only relevant to us and no one else.

Steven Savage

The False Intimacy Of Media

(This column is posted at and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

Earlier I posted on how there’s two different ways to connect to Media. I summed it up roughly as follows:

  • Known Connections: A fiction reaches us as it triggers existing associations, such as tropes.
  • Created Connections: A fiction makes us see things anew, creating new associations and ideas.

Today I’d like to focus on the Known Connections, those cases where a media gets us interested because it contains known content, common ideas, and so on. I believe these kinds of metal associations with the media we consume explains one reason people get so addicted and defensive about their comics, books, movies, etc.

Consider how it feels when something “pushes your buttons” (in a good way) when you consume media. It feels good, it feels right, it feels as if it’s “for you.” Connection to a piece of media is an intimate experience.

Now, consider how media can throw Known Connections at you. That kind of story you can’t put down. That kind of character you always like. That obvious twist you still crave. The right media can pile on things you’ve seen before – and still get you to consume it because it’s the right pile of things.

Or in short, we all know that we will read the biggest mass of repetitive, unoriginal, done-it-all-before stuff if it hits the right spots. We might not want to admit it, but we will.

That explains, in part, why some people get so defensive of certain media that are, bluntly, pandering. It’s all the stuff they like, in a mass, wrapped up in a bow. They might not even be aware of how they’re pandered to, as that piece of media feels so right.

(And no, you’re not immune to this. I know I’m not.)

But there’s something else going on here. I think this love of media that pushes our buttons also leads to a sense of intimacy with the creator(s) and the people involved.

When we discover a piece of media that hits all the right spots (even if those spots have been hit a lot before), we also feel a sense of connection. Someone got all our focuses and loves right. Someone gave us what we wanted, even if we sort of have had it all before.

When you have that feeling, it’s a feeling of intimacy, of connection. It’s too easy to assume that this intimate feeling is, well, real. You probably don’t know the author. The media you chose, bluntly, is not that original (or is just pandering). Still, that connection feels right.

Looking this over, I think I understand why some people get obsessively protective of some media, authors, and actors. It does everything they like in the way they like. It feels intimate, it may even feel like it’s just for you.

It’s not, of course. But perhaps this explanation can help us navigating having discussions with people so attached to a piece of media.

Steven Savage

Connecting To Fiction

(This column is posted at and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

While thinking over fiction writing, it struck me that fiction is something that we feel a deep connection to. We read a story or a book, and some of the concepts strike us, the associations come together, and we feel the story – we experience a Connection (with a deliberate capital). These Connections exist in fiction no matter its quality – we can be intimate with something awful or we can connect with something sublime.

Think of how you see an idea that just seems right in a story or right to you. Think of how something just viscerally strikes your gut and you get it. Those are the connections fiction creates. Those are what we want as authors.

Then I realized that we connect with fiction in two ways:

Known Connections: A fiction reaches us as it triggers existing associations, familiar things. Familiar and beloved tropes are prime examples.

Created Connections: A fiction makes us see things anew, creating new associations and ideas. This is the experience of seeing something new or experiencing an idea in a different way.

These are simple, perhaps overly simple, classifications, but useful ones. Fiction evokes previous Connections of ideas or builds a new one. These experiences may be negative – one may experience a painful realization – but let’s focus on the positive and analyze it.

Or, perhaps the seemingly positive. Stick with me here. With this useful tool to classify fiction, let’s examine my ideas deeper.

Known Connections

Known Connections occur when a story or movie or whatever contains familiar elements. We like these because they are familiar, and often they run very deep in our minds. We all have some character or archetype or genre trope that just gets our attention.

These come from existing cultural infrastructure. Look at how people will instantly take to a familiar superhero or a genre trope – even if they’re overdone and tired. If you’ve ever wondered why some people prefer the familiar, it’s because it is familiar.

These Known Connections we experience in our fictional media are also powerful as they’re shared. How many people will bond happily over yet another remake of the same thing, or sigh together over a fictional heartthrob? Familiarity also has a social component.

I don’t wish to lionize these Known Connections. They’re often overdone in mainstream media and can be used in exploitative ways. At the same time, I don’t wish to discount them – humans like familiarity and common ground.

However, I will note they can get stale and lead one to unoriginality. Pursuing media with only Known Connections can leave one dissatisfied, empty, lacking a kind of “mental nutrition” – as we all need Created Connections.

Created Connections

Created Connections are what we experience when fiction gives us something new, and concepts knit together in a way we’ve not seen before. It’s that flash of insight, the realization of a new truth in an intimate way, the just plain cool idea we obsess about. We’ve all had that story or movie where we go wow and just feel we’ve experienced life a bit differently.

Fiction that builds connections is something we’d probably call “original,” though I’m not sure there’s a one-to-one-mapping here.

Note that Created Connections of ideas have to build upon familiar, Known Connections. Without having something already in your mind to build on, there’s no way for you to process or relate to new ideas. Created Connections literally rely on old, perhaps even stale, concepts and ideas to help you experience them.

Created Connections are vital for us to really experience fiction – and life. We need new ideas, diverse experiences, and so on for our well-being. To only experience the same thing over and over again limits us, stagnates us, and drags us down.

Why Is This Important?

So with this theory, what did I learn? Well, beyond the fact I’ll probably keep exploring this, I think I got some crucial insights on fiction and what it means for people. Let me share what this theory helped me think through.

First, this model helps me understand why people consume trope-heavy or outright pandering media. It’s known, and a good author can push all the right buttons with the skill of a conductor or surgeon. If it’s what you want and/or someone uses Known Connections right, you’ll get an audience.

Secondly, I understand why people who want something new get deep into some things. Those Created Connections hit hard, burrowing into our minds and building upon existing Known Connections while making something new. I get why people must experience the new.

Third, it’s a reminder to balance your introduction of familiar and new. You need to play on Known Connections to get attention and have Created Connection to get the rush of the new. It’s your balance of these elements that will determine how people connect with the innovation you’re working on.

Clearly, I’ll explore this more. I just had a Created Connection I need to process . . .

Steven Savage