A contributor to a discussion list that I participate in recently pointed to a post, “Survivorship bias”, that David McRaney published last May on his blog, “You are not so smart: A celebration of self-delusion”. McRaney’s books include You Are Not So Smart and You Are Now Less Dumb, titles that are intended to help us “learn how you can use that knowledge to be more humble, better connected, and less dumb”.
The post is long (5,900 words), and McRaney summarizes its core argument at the outset:
The Misconception: You should focus on the successful if you wish to become successful.
The Truth: When failure becomes invisible, the difference between failure and success may also become invisible.
He offers several examples of survivorship bias, featuring one (efforts to protect planes from enemy fire during World War II) that clearly articulates the risks baked into studying only what persists.
The larger, lumbering bombers used during that war were prime targets for anti-aircraft fire. The odds against making it back from any given raid were not that good, and the odds of surviving a series of raids were even more daunting. In his post, McRaney invokes historian Kevin Wilson, who described these World War II airmen as “ghosts already”.
Flight-crew vulnerability gave a cohort of mathematicians more than enough reason to figure out how to bolster aircraft to withstand enemy fire. One of the mathematicians, Abraham Wald, realized that protecting the areas most heavily damaged on the planes that survived was exactly the wrong thing to do, as those were the parts of the plane that could sustain the assault and still work.
McRaney’s post is worth reading in full, particularly for those of us struggling to come up with new models in publishing. He argues effectively that understanding what works must consider ideas that ultimately did not work.
Book and periodical publishers work in an industry that has been pretty stable for a relatively long time. Perhaps as a consequence, we seldom make the time to figure out why something failed, except in terms that delineate shortcomings relative to the examples that prevailed.
Considering a change, we will almost always ask “Who else is doing this?”, applying lessons gained in hindsight. Failures are dismissed by citing the parts of the successful model we conclude they clearly lacked.
McRaney argues that truncated questions can blind us. I tend to agree. In an April post, “Disaggregating supply”, I briefly explored our tendency to dismiss outliers:
[W]hen I was in business school, one of my teachers gave us a piece of advice that sticks with me to this day: it’s easy to spot the differences in things; it’s much harder to see the similarities.
His point is an important one: as members of the book publishing community, we tend to see our situations as unique, distinct from the structure and trends of other content-driven businesses. But there are more similarities than differences, and understanding trends in those things that are similar can help us plan and prepare for changes down the road.
There’s a tension, not always healthy, between our ability to question prevailing business models and our willingness to challenge the mental models surrounding what drives publishing success. We often rely on consultants (like me) to offer a perspective on what works, or what will work.
There’s value in seeking outside counsel, but publishers need to challenge consultants as much as they should challenge themselves. McRaney says it best: “The advice business is a monopoly run by survivors”.