As university students, one of the most useful habits you can develop is reading about or listening to each life story that others share with you.
Instinctively, you’d only want to listen to the ‘successful’ people: the artists with multi-million followers, the scholars who shift paradigms, or the rich entrepreneurs who started from nothing.
After all, we can only learn success from the successful, right?
At least, not only.
Because they survived.
The planes that did not return
Perhaps the most famous story about survivorship bias is the work of the Hungarian statistician Wald Ábrahám during WWII .
The Air Force commanders wanted to fortify their planes with armour platings. But there was a problem. They could not put the armour on all sections. It would make the planes too heavy for combat operations.
So they asked the pilots who returned from battles to record the areas of their planes that were hit by enemy fire. Most shots hit only particular sections (like the tail wings, or the midsection of the fuselage).
‘Excellent,’ the commanders said, ‘let’s put armour only on those sections. ‘
Wald stepped in, and asked about the other side of the story: ‘What about the planes that did not return?'.
He realised that you are more likely to survive if you were shot at those sections (the tail wings, the midsection of the fuselage). That’s why the returned pilots recorded most damages there.
On the other hand, the ones who were mostly shot at other critical sections of the planes, they are less likely to survive. That’s why they did not return.
So, the Air Force made the counterintuitive but correct decision: for future planes, instead of fortifying the most shot sections that were recorded, the engineers would plate the armour on the least shot sections.
Wald’s insight saved thousands of lives.
Every ‘successful’ story must be viewed contextually
What you learn here is the risk of only listening to success stories. It might distort your perception of reality, for example:
‘See? That guy quit university. Now he’s a billionaire, owning the operating system that runs most computers. This guy also dropped out. Now he owns the largest social media empire in history. And that guy didn’t even go to university, now he is a millionaire, making money from YouTube. So why should I take my study seriously? Studying at university is a waste of time.’
If your mind tells you that story, allow your heart to ask Waldian questions, such as:
‘What about those who did not survive? Those who didn’t take their study seriously, and now struggling financially. Those who quit university, but becomes no one and didn’t end up with gold and glory. What about their story?’
You may still decide not to go to university, or to quit and pursue something else. And it may be right for you . But you must make that decision without discounting the larger context, for example, that statistically, higher education more often leads to higher earnings .
Each story carries a lesson, including the ‘unsuccessful’ ones
Pay attention to the life stories of people around you, including those who are not popular on social media, who is not at the top of their career, or who decide not to make climbing the career ladder their main purpose in life.
They may not be ‘successful’ in the ordinary definition made by society. Yet they might be successful in other extraordinary ways that the ‘successful’ people will never experience.
When they share a story, the details of what happened may not be relevant to you. In fact, some of it might not even be accurate; we all misremember things when we tell stories.
But, at times, beneath the story, they reveal what truly matters to them in life, the mistakes they made, or the actions they failed to take because they were too afraid.
Those are the gems you are looking for.
And there are patterns to it too. I can tell you what some of those are (I learned them from stories others shared with me):
- Many wish they had spent more meaningful time with their children.
- Kindness makes your life brighter, but too much it can blind you.
- ‘Winning at any cost’ can make your life worse than if you lose.
Truth tends to manifest repeatedly. It affects us not because they are new. It affects us because they are true. They enter our heart, very often, because they are absorbed through life experiences that are sincerely shared — those moments when you catch yourself staring into the void when you read or hear them.
Your Personal Story
The point of reading or listening to those stories is not for you to copy them identically. The stories are simply a gentle pat on your cheek to remind you that you are writing yours, right here, right now.
People around you (your supervisors or bosses, your colleagues, people you follow online) will share ideas of how a ‘successful’ life looks like. And most of them do that because they genuinely care about you.
But their take on ‘success’ is inevitably coloured by their own perspectives of the world. In other words, they are suggesting their plots to your story.
To pursue your own ‘Personal Legend’, as Paulo Coelho calls it, you must accept or reject those suggestions on your own terms. To write a life story that is authentically yours, you must select your own plots.
Here are practical things that you can do daily to enrich your story:
- Record your story in your own words. Make a digital diary that is for your eyes only. Journal as frequently as you can. Don’t worry if it’s short, incoherent or grammatically messy. It’s not a writing practice. It’s a practice of self-reflection. It changes how you perceive your life.
- Read outside your discipline. If you are in the natural sciences, read the human sciences (religion, philosophy, history). If you are a historian, read fantasy literature. If you love fantasies, read scientific theories. They will remind you that there are other parallel lives out there that can be explored and enjoyed.
- Listen without judgement. Notice your egoic tendency to avoid listening to ‘unsuccessful’ people in the eyes of society. Overcome it. Remember, the truth beneath a story matters more.
Choose Your Price
Learn to trust your own voice. As you get older, you will find highly successful people who insist that you need to do this or that, and only then you will be successful. And they show you that one path of progression, with all the glory at the end.
Yet deep inside, you constantly feel, ‘Yes, that path works for them. But is this what I really want to do with my own life?’
If that happens, take it seriously. Never ignore that intuition. Do not lie to yourself.
Sometimes, you doubt yourself, ‘But those people are so successful. They are great at their job and their personal life (at least that’s how it looks like in their Stories and Feed). So who am I to reject their views?’
We don’t know. But whoever you are, you are not them.
Even if you get exactly what they have now, you may still not be at peace. Because you rarely see what’s behind the magic; you don’t know exactly what they have given up. It might very well be the type of sacrifices that you will never, ever want to make.
Every magic has its price. So choose yours, thoughtfully.
 Survivorship bias occurs when your evaluation is based on who (or what) survived the earlier selection (the few winners). You reach the wrong conclusion because your logic discounts those who did not survive (the many losers).
 For the mathematical explanation of Wald’s argument, see Mangel, M., & Samaniego, F. J. (1984). Abraham Wald’s work on aircraft survivability. Journal of the American Statistical Association, 79(386), 259-267. (full-text)
 I wrote in Malay about career decision that may be helpful.