Survivorship Bias: The Fantasy of Big Time

The Art of Thinking Clearly is a book by Rolf Dobelli.  It claims to be an international bestseller but I’d never seen it along art-of-thinking-clearlyside all the other self-improvement and management guff during my trawls through airport book shops over the years.  Which is unfortunate because it’s a really great book and a refreshing antidote to the positive thinking nonsense that props up much of the Neoconservative, Neoliberal bullshit world we live in.

Dobelli does not pull his punches and wades straight in with the powerful first chapter called “Why you should visit cemeteries”.  It does not turn out quite a morbid as I’d hoped for which would have been more along the lines of sending every politician and corporate alpha-jock to a graveyard and having some sorry looking soul in a stained shell suit yell at them in a thick accent, “Even youse’ll end up in here”, kind of like some of the smarter Roman Emperors did in order to keep their feet on the ground.

No, what Dobelli does is point out that the chances of most endeavours succeeding are way lower than we tend to imagine.  We’re hammered with images of successful musicians, actors, business tycoons and associated hangers-on. Our chances of joining this exclusive set are frighteningly low even if we actually got off our arses and made a go of it.  It’s hard to accept that even the best damn effort in the world is also hugely influenced by dumb luck.  In the book Accidental Empires, Robert X. Cringely (great name) details how one early Silicon Valley success was hinged on whether one single rather brilliant but OCD/ADHD engineer would get around to finishing a product design … once he was done with trying to measure the acoustic reflectivity of the ceiling tiles.  accidental-empires

Conclusion: despite having the idiotic “winner takes all” mentality drilled into us, you should not actually build a high probability of success business, community or nation on the remote chance that you hit it big time*.  You build it piece by piece on a strong foundation that is conducive to incremental progress with the possibility of a breakthrough.  But you do not rely on the breakthrough.  Like discovering unobtainium in them thar hills.  Or selling your soul so a dodgy flavour of the month hard nosed multinational will set up their tax loop hole factory in your backyard.  You make the lot of the average person a comfortable one and make it your priority because that’s exactly what most people are: average.  And there is nothing the hell wrong with that.  With the right leadership and support system average people are capable of incredible things and quite possible a modern, efficient, caring, healthy, highly educated, egalitarian society is the greatest achievement of mankind.

* Of course the modern tycoons and leaders also do not play the high risk, make or break game that they force on the rest of us.  They play a rigged game: lobbying, revolving doors between business and politics, being above the law, and tax payer bailouts.  True capitalism is left to the suckers.

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