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