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On Survivorship Bias and the Pursuit of Dreams

At this time 2 years ago, I was driving 7 hours to Columbia, Missouri. My mission was simple: meet with 3 professors in the Philosophy Department at the University of Missouri and persuade them to consider me for their PhD program, despite my lackluster academic record and credentials.

I Had a Dream

You see, I had this dream. I wanted to be a professor. I wanted to make my living in academia — head buried in books, taking breaks only to teach — and then back again to the ivory tower. But there was a problem.

I had made mistakes in my early 20s — bad ones. And my academic record showed that. I had gotten kicked out of graduate school due to my GPA, and had to fight to be reinstated and get my Master’s Degree. On paper, I was an academic mess. Getting into a halfway decent PhD program in philosophy would be extremely difficult.

But I had been indoctrinated with the rose-colored glasses of a dreamer. And a dream is what I was chasing.

Obstacles

Philosophy PhD programs are notoriously selective, and even if one were to get accepted into an esteemed PhD program, 2 things stood in their way. First, the attrition rate is about 50% — meaning that about half of the students who begin PhD studies actually finish. Second, the job market for philosophy PhDs in academia is terrible. Even getting a PhD means there is about a 40% chance of getting an actual full-time academic position, and less than that of getting tenure. Let’s not even talk about the salaries.

When I applied back in 2014, I already had a wife and a 6 moth-old child counting on me. I had a house with a mortgage that was way underwater. I had a HUGE student loan debt. Getting a PhD meant the following:

  • moving across the country with my wife and child with 4 months’ notice
  • selling our home at SEVERE loss
  • taking an 80% pay cut for at least 4 years by quitting my current job to do graduate work (including sacrificing health insurance)
  • likely moving across the country again with in 5 years for a job (when my child would be entering 1st grade).

And yet despite all of those things, my thought was “but I hear those stories of people who rose above adversity, beat the odds, and realized their wild dreams. That will be me!”

I still wanted to do it. I wanted to embrace the journey uphill and triumph over the improbable odds. After all, I had a dream, and I was willing to risk it all.

A Hint of the Odds

Then I began receiving the rejections. School after school on the top of my list said “no”. The 2 schools that didn’t reject me were at the very bottom of the list. One additional school made an offer because someone else withdrew at the last minute. My optimism was damaged, but still standing.

At this point my wife stepped in and asked me some questions. Specifically, she asked for the numbers. Not numbers reflecting how good I thought I was, or what professors had told me about my work.

She wanted the base rates — how likely is it for any given person to get a PhD in four years, and then land in a secure and sustainable position shortly after that.

That number was not good. It was terrible.

That led me to begin looking at the tales of those who didn’t make it. They were super-excited and optimistic at the outset, and talented — just like I was — but they didn’t finish PhD study. Or they got their PhD, only to go years without a steady job. Some were still floating from part-time gig to part-time gig — no security or benefits to speak of — living a nomadic lifestyle. Essentially poor and disappointed.

Survivorship Bias

That changed my mind radically. I realized that I had been falling prey to the Survivorship Bias. It’s that bias that we have which makes us pay more attention to the wild success stories — the ones that involve overcoming the obstacles and persevering against the tide of challenges and overwhelming odds. In doing that, we neglect to see the more numerous cases of failure. We neglect to account for and feel the impact of just how many failures there are, and how they can affect us. In cases like mine, many more people failed in their quest, and only a select few made it to a prosperous career.

So many of us fall victim to this — either in our estimation of our own odds or of others’. We believe that despite the terrible odds of moving from urban poverty to thriving wealth, it’s a real possibility for most people. It isn’t. We also believe that if we just read the right book, take the right course, and adopt the right habits, we can become successful entrepreneurs and really make it. Those odds are not good, either.

2 Ways to Avoid Falling Prey to the Survivorship Bias

Optimism is a great trait to have. But like any benefit, too much of it can be an impediment. When we’re acting under the survivorship bias, we fail to pay attention to the many ways that we can be derailed. Our confidence turns into a blind hubris — pride before the fall. We can avoid this by sprinkling a little pragmatism into our optimism, in two main ways.

  • Seek Out and Understand the Base Rate. For any journey you’re looking to take, others have undoubtedly tried. No matter how unique and hungry you think you are, you would be a fool to not even glance at the data on how many of your predecessors succeeded vs. how many failed. Especially in this age of ubiquitous data, you have no excuse not to understand the probability of success that you have. Any risk worth taking is worth understanding well. You can’t understand a risk without understanding the success and failure rates of those who have taken similar ones.
  • Adjust Your Desired Outcome. With base rates, we’re talking about large sample-size probabilities — how probable a desired outcome is for a certain group. So when you make the choice of what your desired outcome is, and what you will risk to chase after it, it would make sense to ask yourself two questions:
  1. Is there another outcome that I would enjoy as well that has a better base rate?
  2. Is there a way to chase my desired outcome that involves considerably less risk?

Let me be clear here. Chasing you dreams can be a very fulfilling way to live, but you can’t live that way and be fulfilled unless you fully realize how probable failure is. It’s a disservice to all of those who have failed before you to say “they just didn’t have my moxy, I’ll make it!”. Don’t be an ass. You’re not the first person to be excited, driven, and passionate about your goal.

Like any journey, it is perfectly fine to be bold and go for the high summit, but you need to understand the odds you face, and accept them. When you do that, you can decide whether the level of risk involved is one you’re willing to live with. If it isn’t — if failing would drive an existential nail in your coffin— I beg you to reconsider your approach. Is there a slightly different goal that is also exciting to you, but less risky? Alternatively, is there a different path toward the same goal — perhaps a longer, winding one — that involves less risk to you, where you can fail and still get up and keep going?

Far be it from me to be a downer, but I think there are enough articles that encourage blind dream-chasing. I absolutely cheer on those chasing a dream — especially those boldly doing it. But refusing to understand and accept the odds you face isn’t bold; it’s downright foolish. Don’t fall prey to the survivorship bias. Ironically, it might be what keeps you from (metaphorically) surviving.

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