Focus On What Is Unseen

Are you focusing on the success of others? If yes, then you are falling prey to one of the most insidious forms of bias.

“Beware of advice about successful people and their methods. For starters, no two situations are alike.” — Scott Adams

Stop fixating on the success of others.

Pay more attention to their failures, and you’ll avoid an insidious blind spot known as “survivorship bias.”

Survivorship bias results in conclusions based solely on what is seen. What is hidden or not seen is excluded. Focusing only on the successes of others and not their failures is one common variant.

There are significantly more failures than successes in this world, yet we tend to ignore those painful lessons in our own journeys. After all, no one is inspired by failure.

But you can learn much from failure, including what does not work and what is initially hidden. The most often cited example of survivorship bias is the story of American bomber planes damaged during WWII.

Air Force engineers could not reinforce an entire plane, because it would be too heavy to fly. Commanders initially decided to reinforce those areas that had taken damage from enemy fire.

Those planes that returned showed where planes were the strongest. A statistician named Abraham Wald cautioned commanders to consider planes lost in battle. Where were they hit?

The Air Force ultimately heeded Wald and decided to place armor in the places returning planes were NOT hit. If intelligent military commanders missed what now appears obvious, just imagine how this same form of bias could affect your own decision making.

The more you worship those who have great success, the larger your blind spot to reality and the true odds of such a success.

What is the difference between two bad decisions? One looks brilliant in retrospect when it leads to success. The other one looks just as bad when it leads to failure. Survivorship bias warps cause and effect, leading to poor decision making.

Guard yourself against survivorship bias by asking counterfactual questions. Start with the “what if” variety. Take in what is seen, but practice catching what is unseen. For therein lies the real secret to your success.