Survival of the...

November 29th 2013

Nothing like approaching the turn of a personal decade to make you ponder things like success. There are many ways of defining success. But that’s not exactly what I’m going to prattle on about right now. Instead, I’m going to ponder the study of success and how we talk about success to each other.

Motivational and inspirational writings for and by successful artists abound. On an emotional level, they are very beneficial and very inspiring as intended. But on a deeper, intellectual level, I wonder about survivorship bias in such writings and “studies” of successful artists. To put it bluntly, why does no one include in their study the people who stopped pursuing artistic careers? If we are interested in truly studying the viability and trajectory of artistic careers then why study and write about only the people who “survived”?

Put another way, only talking to or about the people you’ve heard of, your sample set is woefully inadequate and skewed by survivorship bias. It’s not a complete picture. You may be hiding the role of chance in success—as defined in conventional terms (commissions, awards, big fat royalty checks, press attention, etc.). There may even be other, hidden factors in addition to the fickle hand of fate in making and breaking of careers. Can we summon up the intellectual courage to broaden the sample set and look at an even bigger picture than we’re used to? Are we prepared for the results?

I am personally, however, too lazy to conduct such a laborious study. So it will have to remain a thought experiment until someone takes up the challenge.

The notion of survivorship bias is deeply troubling, once you spend enough time with it to finally get it. But once you do get it, you see it everywhere and the world begins to look different. History is written by the victors (a great example of survivorship bias), but attuning our ears to hear the forgotten voices of those who didn’t survive can tell us so much more about ourselves, our motivations and how we can and should define success. And we will also appreciate more Lady Fortune’s delicate counterpoint to the melody of our lives and loves.

For a deeper, book-length meditation on such things, I highly recommend Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness.

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