Suvivorship Bias / Champions of the world Version 2

This post is a turn in last week’s article Champions of the World, where I examine the bias of success, and the role luck plays in the stories we tell ourselves of the wildly successful.

The stories we tell ourselves matter. Drugs, Money, and Sex don’t hold a candle to the power stories hold over humankind. Even our species, HomoSapiens, evolved past other species of humans, Neanderthals, because of our ability to tell and follow stories. Often the stories we tell ourselves about our lives shape us more than the events in our lives do. For example, we elect a new president, and half of us think the sky is falling while the other half praises the heavens. We hate our families for putting us through traumatic experiences as children, so we tell ourselves our parents are just as evil as Hitler until we get older and realize they were just people doing the best with the cards they were dealt. The canvas of events stays the same, but once our story changes, the pallets we paint our memories with start to brighten. 

In society, modern therapy to self-help books work on simply changing the story; you’re not a worthless loser, you’re just a loser who doesn’t know their worth yet. But, for a good reason, we can’t control the events; we can only control how we respond and form meaning from them. So this begs the question, if we can’t control the outcomes, what do we control? And how do we close the space between the stories we tell ourselves and the reality of our lives?

The story and events of our lives share one significant commonality; ourselves. Seasons and feelings change, but we stay in our lives like sand on a beach after a changing tide. Yet we all have dreams, from starting a business to becoming world-famous and everything in between, yet only a few of us ever see them come to fruition; why? What are the stories and events that lead to this?

One major cause is that as a culture, we are more inclined to listen to the ones who made it than the ones who failed, and learning from the stories of the successful causes a rose-colored tint to cloud our view of the black and white events that lead to their triumph. As a result, we credit their genius-level talent and overlook their luck. Looking back, we assume the story of massive success was inevitable; in reality, the events left the feeling of even a possible victory in high doubt. From Nick Saban to Bob Dylan, we assume it was written in the stars that they would come into this life and do great things, but in quiet moments before they blew up, they too had their doubts, fears, and insecurities. 

One prime example of this is the show “Seinfeld.” While his show is now regarded as one of the best TV shows ever, this success was far from certain. Jerry Seinfeld had been a touring and successful Comedian, appearing on Johnny Carson and David Letterman numerous times. Yet it was his agent George Shapiro mentioning on a note to NBC executive, “call me crazy, but someday Jerry Seinfeld will have a show on NBC.” After Jerry was given the green light, NBC only ordered a small number of episodes in the 1st season. The show was constantly in jeopardy of being canceled until the 4th season, when its timeslot was changed, and the rest is history. 

Looking back now, the story of Seinfeld is one of unparalleled success, yet the events played out much differently. In so many moments, it came close to being canceled or not even happening. Luck no doubt played an integral part in this. Yet, when it’s brought up in conversation, our main takeaway is to emulate the behavior and style of Jerry Seinfeld. While this applies to comedy and Television, consider how many other fields this bias rears its head, technology, and Steve Jobs, music and The Beatles, or business and Henry Ford. I ask you, the reader, to consider, what if Jerry Seinfeld never got his TV show? Would we still worship at the altar of Jerry Seinfeld’s advice for aspiring comedians and would be showrunners?

The story that transcends is that with hard work and consistent dedication, Seinfeld reached the top. Yet luck severely tipped the scales in his favor. So what does this mean? Is Seinfeld a hack comic who got lucky? 

No, far from it, but in reality, he was one of a million comics slaving away in clubs who got a gust of luck and took full advantage. Yet, we can look at someone like Shuggie Otis in music as an example who had all the talent and hard work but never got a magical gust of luck that changed his life path. Shuggie Otis wrote and performed Strawberry Letter 23 but The Brothers Johnson made it a classic. But, unfortunately, Shuggie would spend the rest of his career predominantly playing as a studio musician for other more established acts. 

Imagine you’re Shuggie Otis, standing right next to a Bob Dylan or Brothers Johnson, the event being the recording of your song, yet you’re a million miles away from being in the spotlight. The stories and flourishing people we idolize are not the only ones with something to offer. Wisdom and truth are universal, no matter the source. 

So if we can’t control the outcomes, what do we control?

While we don’t control the outcomes, we do control the inputs. One parallel between the stories of Jerry Seinfeld and Shuggie Otis is Dedication, hard work, and talent; the events were changed by luck. So in our lives, while we strive for success, we must not place our worth as people into it. 

But how do we close the space between the stories we tell ourselves and the reality of our lives? 

Hard work and talent will not go unnoticed. You may never be the champion of the world at what you do because of bad luck, but you will surely get a seat in the arena with dedication. Your wildest dreams may never come true, but you will change your reality with hard work and dedication. While Shuggie Otis never got the acclaim of his counterparts, he also never had to sit behind a desk working at a job he hates. That, to me, is a dream worth chasing.

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