A Note on Work, Success, and Survivorship Bias

Coincidentally I’m taking a break from working to write this, but I wanted to get this message down.

Essentially, we all have to work in life – well, at least those of us not born into the lucky sperm club – but, even then, there’s a certain brand of satisfaction that comes from working, from doing something you enjoy, that you can’t get anywhere else. Fuck all the noise about doing what you love – I mean by all means, it’s something to strive for – but the truth is, if you want to do what you love then you better work your ass off to do whatever that is – just don’t forget how satisfying working can be in the meantime. I’m not where I want to be yet, and some would call me crazy to know the journey I have been on, but I am getting there.

It’s easy to turn on the TV, or go on social media and see stories of people making a killing doing something they enjoy – and there are people who get paid to do just about anything you can imagine having fun doing, from yacht captains and travel guides, to exotic car dealers and artists. And that should be inspiring to you, but don’t let the television or the internet fool you into comparing yourself to anyone, because it’s easy to look around and feel like everyone is getting rich, or doing what they love. In the business world we call this Survivorship bias.

Survivorship bias is the fallacy of looking at all the visible successes, “the survivors”, and drawing a conclusion based on that evidence. The fallacy in this case arises from the fact that the parties who did not ‘make it’ aren’t visible, and thus, seemingly logical, yet highly erroneous conclusions are drawn based on poor incomplete evidence.

An obvious example (and one that I think most people are aware of) is Hollywood, because – as everyone knows – for every successful actor, there are literally thousands of people hitting their forties who just never made it (Remember that the next time the barista at CBTL fucks up your drink – he wanted to be the next Gerard Butler and all he got awarded was his dog in the divorce). But beyond ambitious waiters, there are numerous other instances in life where Survivorship bias clouts our estimations of what it means to make it and what it takes to become successful.

I don’t tell you this my dear reader to discourage you, but rather to help you figure out the differences between those who make it and those who do not – ironically, the biggest pitfall of Survivorship bias is that it causes people to fail because they falsely attribute success to the wrong factors.

I’m not saying that the friend of mine who is going to make a million dollars this year pod-casting got lucky – not at all, but those who do not recognize the inherent blind-spots posed by survivorship bias might think that [luck] is precisely the case. No, he ‘got lucky’ because he moved the needle from unlikely to likely, from improbable to probable. He picked up the phone when he was Joe Schmoe and called the biggest names, and asked to interview them – and he kept at it for months. There is no such thing as luck; you make your own luck, and every successful person I have ever known has put themselves in a position to succeed. They created something of value and then worked just as hard to get it in front of the people who could benefit from it.

I’m getting closer to being able to call myself a survivor, but I want to make it clear that I paid a price that few people would be willing to pay. I’ve got stories.

It’s the quote of: “Entrepreneurship is living a few years of your life like most people won’t to live the rest of your life like most people can’t”.

Work is going to have it’s ups and downs – just today I had a very terse phone call, which led to me saying some not nice, but ultimately very empowering things. A sign from the universe I suppose. But that’s neither here nor there – the point is that you have to have a big vision. You have to enjoy being on your path. You have to just laugh it off and get back to work.

I don’t know what kind of plans G-d has for you, but if you don’t have big plans for yourself and you aren’t sacrificing harder than the guy who is going to make it, I can’t help you.

And I don’t care what you do, I don’t care how much money you have, etc., etc., – but what I do care about for you my dear reader is that you are having a satisfying life. That means different things to different people, but to all of us it means being as well-equipped mentally and as psychologically bolstered as we can be to succeed at being a fucking human being.

There’s a lot of uncommon common sense out there, but no one wants to hear that you have to pick up the phone, that you have to live in a dump, that you have to work harder than everyone else. They just want to make their mind up about why everyone else made it and they didn’t.

“People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily.” – Zig Ziglar


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