Graeme Newell

Survivorship Bias – Harrison

For David, video games were his life. He loved how the controller felt in his hands. He loved the camaraderie of staying up all night with his buddies, eking out a last-second victory.

Ten years ago, he met a famous game designer at a conference and David made the big decision that he wanted to be a video game designer as well. 

He asked me for some career advice. I told him he’d need to brush up on his coding, then learn graphic design. After I laid it all out, I was expecting he’d be aching to start, but he was crestfallen. 

He admitted he had never really liked computer programming and he had little graphic skill. Turns out his passion was PLAYING games, not CREATING games. 

David went to university and studied game design, but his dream never happened. He just didn’t have the skills. Unfortunately, his video game degree was not very usable in other fields and today he’s working in a call center.

Social media continually tells the story of the successful underdog who overcame the odds and ascended to glory. But for every success like this, there are a thousand stories like David’s. Problem is, you’ll never hear about them because of a cognitive bias called “Survivorship Bias.”

This is our brain’s tendency to believe winning stories are the norm because the losers are no longer around to provide contradictory evidence. No one blasts social media with their story of how they tried hard and failed miserably. We only hear about the big wins, and this gives us a badly distorted view of what it takes to actually succeed.

This is why universities are now spitting out zillions of graduates in long-shot professions such as fashion designer, video game creator and crime scene investigator. 

So next time someone gives you advice that your dream might be a long shot, remember the lesson that survivorship bias teaches us. There’s more than one dream for all of us and picking one that’s practical and attainable just might save you a lot of suffering and disappointment.