The survivorship bias (and how to make better decisions)

written by Philip Stefanov  |  MAY 18, 2021

My first encounter with the mental phenomenon occurred back during my teenage years. Like most 17-year-olds, I too wanted ripped abs and toned arms. I looked up to fitness models, actors, and athletes with the physique I aspired to have. I made countless Google searches along the lines of:

“Brad Pitt workout plan.” and “What’s Cristiano Ronaldo’s diet like?”

I was shooting myself in the foot back then. Only I didn’t realize that at the time. I diligently followed whatever diet plan or training program I could get my hands on. And I would stick with it for a good two or three weeks before giving up.

The survivorship bias refers to our tendency to only focus on the success stories and winners in a particular area. We try to emulate them and learn from them while completely ignoring the countless people who didn’t succeed. The internet is littered with these videos and news articles everywhere:

“The LeBron James off-season training.”

“The big booty workout you must follow for a luscious behind.”

“Follow the Usain Bolt training program to sprint like an Olympic gold medalist.”

… Sure I will.

Or, one of my favorite ones:

“Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Richard Branson all dropped out of school, and look at them now. They’re all billionaires and some of the best-known people on earth. This goes to prove you don’t need a formal education to be successful. You need to stop wasting your time in the classroom and take action.”

Sure. You could very well become a billionaire without much formal education. But do you think these people succeeded because they dropped out of school, or in spite of it?

For every Gates, Zuckerberg, and Branson, there are thousands of people who dropped out and failed miserably. For every LeBron James, there are thousands of teens and twenty-somethings who will never play in the NBA.

We remember the winners and forget the losers. Therefore, we can’t know for sure if something works just because a successful person attributes their achievements to it.

Thank you for reading! Until next week,



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