Using survivorship bias to our benefit

Everybody these days seems to have their mantra for success – ideal morning routines, the perfect breakfast, the best way to make money from cryptocurrency trading, the process to write, self-publish and market your own novel. Essentially, a tonne of motivational drivel with the following modus operandi:

  1. I have tried this and it has worked for me
  2. I am rich
  3. Let me show how it can work for you
  4. Give me your money

The survivorship bias has a good laugh at the expense of these pitches and the good folks who part with their monies.

Most ventures fail.  We only hear about the successful ones. And why they succeed is never clear. The reasons could be different from what their founders fervously believe. They could have been lucky.  Their formula might not work for people in different circumstances. And we all have different circumstances.

This comic from xkcd sums it up the best.

Survivorship Bias

Source: xkcd.com

I’ve seen quite a lot said about the survivorship bias, its drawbacks and its pitfalls. But what are its advantages?

We call some wisdom “timeless” – things that grow stronger and more prominent with the passage of time. It is telling how stoic philosophy from ancient Greece is prominent in the NFL and Silicon Valley today. The entire world has adopted yoga now.

These works are said to have stood the test of time. But what does that “test” entail? And what happens to works that fail this test?

The test of time ensures that works that are rife with survivorship bias do not make it to the next generation of readers. Nearly every generation since the invention of writing has had more stuff to read than the previous generation. The old is stamped out and replaced by the new. Nevertheless, timeless wisdom survives and grows stronger. It ages in reverse.

A work’s lifespan eliminates the noise associated with the survivorship bias. That motivational speaker who is an overnight success might sell books today. But he would most likely be gone in thirty years.

We can use the age of a particular work as a measure of its universality. In the words of Nicholas Taleb, if a book has been in print for forty years, I can expect it to be in print for another forty years.

This simple thumb rule encourages us to dig deeper into the past, to eliminate the noise that surrounds us in present times.

Further reading: The Lindy Effect

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