Survivorship Bias or Why ‘Follow Your Heart’ is Sometimes Terrible Advice

How many times have you heard this phrase yelled at you to beat you into submission, “Follow your heart” and “Do what your heart desires and you will never have to work a day in life.”

If you’re like me or any other socially connected human on the planet, you must have heard the phrase once or twice. Every Single Day. Most of the times, the phrase is a quote from someone very famous in their industry. It’s frankly infuriating how people believe that following their heart will solve all the problems in the world.

Every year thousands of people who are better-than-mediocre at acting leave their hometowns to go pursue their dreams of becoming world famous actors and actresses. All of them believe that they have what it takes to “make it large”, that it’s only a matter of time before they reach or even surpass the fame of their favorite actors, that once they catch the eye of someone more famous than they are or give their first hit album/play/movie, the entire nation will orchestrate a standing ovation for them.

Hardly any of them reach their dreams. But this doesn’t stop the next batch of thousands to descend upon the city of dreams for their shot at fame. Why is this?

Most of the drug dealers live with their mothers

Drug dealing has the reputation of being one of the most lucrative professions in this world. So why is it, that despite seemingly being one of the richest people in the world, most of the drug dealers live with their mothers?

In the fascinating book Freakonomics, the authors present the case of drug dealers of Chicago and why most of them live with their mothers. The answer is counter-intuitive (as most of the answers in the book are) — the drug dealers are rich, sure, but not all of them are rich. From their study, it became apparent that there was a large variation in the salaries across ranks. The gang leader made $8500 per month and all the other employees combined got $9500. In their words,

So J. T. (the boss) paid his employees $9,500, a combined monthly salary that was only $1,000 more than his own official salary. J. T.’s hourly wage was $66. His three officers, meanwhile, each took home $700 a month, which works out to about $7 an hour. And the foot soldiers earned just $3.30 an hour, less than the minimum wage.

This information begs a different question now — if so many people are earning such low returns in drug dealing, why is it that thousands of people continue to enter into the trade?

The Case of Extremely Glamorous Professions

The profession of drug dealing is more similar to acting than you can imagine. Both of these professions are extremely lucrative and promise big returns if, and it is a very big if, you make it through the ranks and reach the top.

So if crack dealing is the most dangerous job in America, and if the salary is only $3.30 an hour, why on earth would anyone take such a job? Well, for the same reason that a pretty Wisconsin farm girl moves to Hollywood. For the same reason that a high-school quarterback wakes up at 5 a.m. to lift weights. They all want to succeed in an extremely competitive field in which, if you reach the top, you are paid a fortune (to say nothing of the attendant glory and power). — Freakonomics

The same is the case with professional sports. In case of India, it’s cricket. Players are sold for astronomically high prices for a 2–3 months tournament called IPL (Indian Premier League). Some of these players are national level players from different countries but there are also relatively lower ranked players who take this as an opportunity to prove themselves and make it into the national team. And some of them are successful.

The few who are successful in cricket, in acting and in drug dealing, then take the opportunity, to school their face into a philosophical pose and tell the others, “I made it big. I reached my dreams. It’s because I followed my heart.” with an unspoken message to go along with it — You should do the same. Come on, follow in my footsteps.

Survivorship Bias

Survivorship bias refers to the tendency to look only at winners and follow in their footsteps while ignoring the people who tried the same techniques as the winners but failed.

“Behind every popular author you can find 100 other writers whose books will never sell. Behind them are another 100 who haven’t found publishers. Behind them are yet another 100 whose unfinished manuscripts gather dust in drawers. And behind each one of these are 100 people who dream of — one day — writing a book. You, however, hear of only the successful authors (these days, many of them self-published) and fail to recognize how unlikely literary success is. The same goes for photographers, entrepreneurs, artists, athletes, architects, Nobel Prize winners, television presenters and beauty queens. The media is not interested in digging around in the graveyards of the unsuccessful.” — Rolf Dobelli, The Art of Thinking Clearly

Because of survivorship bias, you look at the industry that you are currently in and see only the stories of people who made it to the top. You listen to their interviews where they preach the importance of following their heart. You think you would do the same and the world will reward you as it rewarded them.

That, my friend, is pure utter bullshit.

Go Follow Your Heart

Now, don’t throw that stone at me. Contrary to what you might think after reading this article, I am not a heartless bitch.

I understand the allure of following our heart’s desire. I have followed my heart more times than I can count and have only sometimes regretted it. And you have my permission to go follow your heart, not that you need it, of course.

What I am saying is that don’t always listen to the winners, don’t only listen to winners when you “follow your heart”. In case of most glam professions, the chances of making it to the top are very slim. Understand that. Think of the probabilities, think of the odds and make smart decisions while providing for the survivorship bias.

As James Clear mentioned in his article on survivorship bias,

When the winners are remembered and the losers are forgotten, it becomes very difficult to say if a particular strategy leads to success.

So go follow your heart but understand that the same techniques that lead to success may also lead to failure. Be confident that where you are going is somewhere you actually want to go. Enjoy the journey irrespective of the destination. Yada, yada. You know what to do. Go follow your heart.


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