Survivorship Bias 3 – Application to Our Situation

If you have not figured out yet what “survivorship bias” is, go back and read one or both of the prior posts (“The Concept” and “Why It Matters).

When I was working in the computer industry, I knew folks who were awesome salespeople. Many were “naturals.” It seemed as natural to them as breathing. They learned some ways to improve, but they had started out great. Most could not really teach how they did it because they did not understand how they did it. They could teach only some of what to do and what to avoid. Others, who studied sales diligently and applied what they learned in order to become awesome, were great teachers. They understood what was behind their success and could share it with others.

I suggest to you that unless a guru has spent significant time studying it, they only THINK they can teach someone else to repeat their success. They tell you about their lemonade stand as a kid or their lawn-mowing business. They tell you about their first rehab on a shoestring.They teach you the processes they used, some of the knowledge they gained, and may even give you some things to avoid. They intentionally or unintentionally leave out some key information you will need in order to come close to replicating their success. Often they do not even realize what it is that they do differently from others that is making the difference.

We often attribute at least some of their success to “luck.” And when it does not go as well for us, we conclude our luck is not as good as theirs was. Amy Hempel said, “There is no such thing as luck. Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.” Oftentimes that preparation took hard work, and being in the right place at the right time for that opportunity took more hard work. That is all true, but it’s still only half of the story.

One of the lessons I learned several decades ago when I was a high school physics teacher was that the parade of motivational speakers hired every year by the administration traded on false hope. All that was required to hit the speaking circuit was some level of success and a big enough ego to go out and do it. (Of course, that’s true of most consultants, trainers and seminar gurus, too, I suppose. Maybe even bloggers.) By adding some good marketing, they could trade in their textbooks and classrooms for stages and much bigger paychecks. The techniques they preached to us on how to be successful merely fit their personality, skills, and experience in that specific situation at that particular time in that location with that outside support, etc. None of those conditions fit our situation, so attempts to replicate their success were futile.

Sadly, it applies to real estate investing or starting a business, too. The only gurus I pay much attention to these days are those whose success depends on their ability to make me successful. That is called “alignment of interest.” Even then what I have learned about the survivorship bias is going to change how I view and apply what they teach.

We need healthy doses of skepticism when confronted with yet another sales pitch, yet another seminar, yet another workshop. Yes, we can gain some new knowledge. But it will still take hard work, focus, and persistent discipline to convert that new knowledge into success. What are the chances the new approach has any greater probability of success than what we are currently doing or have tried before? What we really need could very easily be to just do what we are now doing, but do it smarter, harder, longer or all of the above

Next time we will look at the lessons about the survivorship bias that we can apply to have a better shot at the success to which we aspire. Don’t miss it!

Survivorship Bias 2 – Why It Matters

Last time I explained the concept of “survivorship bias.” That is the danger of focusing so much on what works that we fail to learn from what does not…since it is usually only the successful survivors that are around to query. We are then tempted to copy ALL that the survivors did as though their whole formula is key to why they were successful. More often than not we try, but cannot replicate what they did, so we get discouraged or disparaged, and we quit.

If we studied the factual data, we would discover that typically only about 1% or fewer excel at anything, a bunch more get adequate enough results to gain some recognition and keep plugging away, and the vast majority of us better have a good attitude…and other options. This is true in sports, business, music, art, finance and almost any other human endeavor you can name. It is certainly true about real estate investing.

Non-survivors—I hesitate to call them “failures”—rarely if ever get paid for their advice on what NOT to do. First, most disappear. They quit and you don’t see them again. If any keep plugging, we do not put much stock in what they could tell us. After all, they have not accomplished what we hope to accomplish. The proof of the value of their experiences is in their results, right? Not necessarily! Thomas Edison was quite open about having learned 10,000 things that would not work to make an electric light bulb. He did not view that knowledge as “failure.”

Similarly, much of what we have learned in life—as in business—has come from trying something that did not work or that ended badly. The next time we did not do it that way. You probably learned the same lesson I did as a young child about sassing my parents. In my investing I have learned painful and expensive lessons about trusting a partner too much, inadequate protection in contracts, poor legal advice, insufficient due diligence, the downside of being a landlord, and much more. I am sure you can supply a similar list from your experience.

The survivorship bias matters when it blinds us to valuable lessons we can learn from non-success, like what to avoid, what did not work, etc. It is the rough equivalent of trying to drive your car with half the spark plugs missing. You’ll be better off if they are all there.

Next time, in the final installment on the survivorship bias, we will summarize some key lessons on how to avoid the bias and some foundational keys to success that the gurus generally do not even realize about themselves. It turns out that these keys are key ingredients of the secret sauce behind most success. You can apply them to ANY guru’s teaching. Don’t miss it!