Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Beware selection bias

Robin Hanson isn't going to take it anymore:
Listening to my son’s high school graduation ceremony last night, I was struck by how completely implausible were many speaker claims, such as:
  1. Never let anyone tell you there is something you can’t do.
  2. You’ll have setbacks, but never let them discourage you.
  3. If I can succeed, so can you.
  4. We’ll always treasure our memories of high school.
  5. We students are so thankful to have such a friendly principal.
I was embarrassed to be associated with such transparent falsehoods, but apparently I’m in a minority. What obvious lies have you heard at commencement, and why do you think such lies were told?
Indeed. Whenever you hear successful people offering you banalities like "if you just follow your dreams and believe in yourself, you'll go far," you should be very skeptical. Perhaps in their case it worked out, but to extrapolate from their experience is to fall victim to the simplest form of selection bias. Luck is an important component of success, and it's only natural that successful people will have been disproportionately lucky, having achieved their goals against often overwhelming odds.

I like to keep this principle in mind when thinking about how I might become successful (not that I know enough to have an inkling about what "success" might be). Generally speaking, it's a bad idea to rely on others' path to success as a model for your own. You can assimilate their useful lessons, of course, but all too often their "big break" will have been the result of dumb luck, and it's tempting to sit back and wait for such bursts of fortune to come to you. Not everyone is lucky, and you should make plans based on the actual distribution of luck, rather than the skewed one you see among prominent people.

Maybe this sounds hopelessly pessimistic, but that's not how I see it. I'm not against chasing your dreams; I just think that you should chase them in the most effective way, and that means being aware that your idols aren't a very representative sample.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

well said

Billy said...

When I was a kid my step-father would take me with him when he went arrowhead hunting. He seemed unnaturally talented at this because he always came back with a good score. One day, I decided to follow his tracks, thinking that he just knew where they all were. He stopped me and said "Don't follow my tracks. I'm pretty good at this and also pretty lucky. If you keep following me you are never going to find anything. Use what I taught you but make your own path."

It was pretty good advice but I never found an arrowhead.

michael webster said...

So franchise systems don't have proven business models?

Who knew: http://bizop.ca/blog1/the_franchise_news/2009/03/6-dangerous-myths-about-franch.html

Hanson is amusing, but none of the sentences are declaratives so don't admit of a truth value on way or another.

Anonymous said...

Edison said Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. My view is that he noticed the perspiration and not the inspiration, because the inspiration just came to him effortlessly. I'm inclined to vote for a LOT of endowment effects in success. dave.s.