Posts Tagged ‘David McRaney’

I came across a fascinating article by David McRaney on survivorship bias. The overall point, that accounting for failure is critical to success, is well made, and the author uses a series of pointed examples. Not incidentally, the post also lays out a new-to-me part of World War Two history that includes a cabal of geniuses, women mathematicians, and the Department of War Math (ok, that last bit wasn’t its real name, but it should have been).

In World War Two, for example, the U.S. military tracked damage to returning bombers and wanted to beef up the most frequently-hit areas. A statistician named Abraham Wald pointed out that the surviving planes made it back despite that damage. The spots where they were unscathed, the ones no one had thought to record, were in fact the most vulnerable; as McRaney sums up, “that’s where the planes that didn’t make it back were hit.”

I found the history interesting in its own right, and if you have ever been tempted by the (admittedly seductive) trap of thinking, “Well, my grandfather breakfasted on salt pork and hot gin for ninety years, so I can eat whatever I want and still live forever,” I recommend a read.

“You develop a completely inaccurate assessment of reality thanks to a prejudice that grants the tiny number of survivors the privilege of representing the much larger group to which they originally belonged.“

That same logic applies to evaluating advice from diet gurus, celebrity CEOs and millionaire app designers. Skill plays a part, of course, but it turns out that overall, what a lot of successful people have in common could be termed luck. That may be a bit discouraging, but the good news is that such luck can be courted if you’re willing to take a longer-term view.

“The lucky try more things, and fail more often, but when they fail they shrug it off and try something else. Occasionally, things work out.”

Instead of looking for that one big break, think of the world as a series of possibilities; the more options you try, the greater your chance of success. Resist tunnel vision, “wade into the sea of random chance,” and stay open to new ideas and situations. That sounds pretty good, actually.

If you’re interested in how survivorship bias applies to writers and writing careers, check out this post by Tobias Buckell and the related Writing Excuses podcast in glorious audio or text.

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