How ‘Survivorship Bias’ Prevents You From Succeeding

Photo Source: Photo by Austin Neill on Unsplash

In World War II, many bombers flew over enemy territory in Europe, but few returned home. When the planes that survived came back, they were examined for bullet holes which would inform the areas that would most benefit from reinforcement. It was decided that areas exhibiting the most damage would receive additional steel reinforcement.

The problem was that these were the planes that survived. Military analysts, engineers, and scientists alike possessed only one slice of the data. The many bombers lying destroyed in fields or at the bottom of the ocean held the missing data, from which much more useful clues on reinforcement could be found. Adding extra thick steel plates to the body of the planes, wings, and gunner’s turret—all areas suffering the heaviest damage—would be redundant on the planes that actually survived and would, in fact, weigh them down, making them even more vulnerable to failure on missions.

Errors in judgment in the creative field often come from analogous circumstances and is known as “survivorship bias.” If Denzel Washington tells you he ate nothing but baked beans for the forty years prior to becoming an A-list Hollywood star, this anecdote would be missing the data of the thousands of actors who also exclusively ate baked beans for forty years and now work the midnight shift as shelf-stockers at the 99 cent store. (Or died of scurvy.) We need to know why this practice didn’t work for the majority, not just why it did work for the minority.

People are often surprised to hear that Rosario Dawson was given her first film role after being spotted by the director sitting on the steps of an apartment in New York. It is less surprising that millions of actors sit on steps around the world and are not discovered. Curiously, directors don’t mention the people they found sweeping KFC floors who turned out to have no talent after their first and only audition. That version of the story just isn’t sexy.

READ: Jack of All Trades, Master of None: Are New Skills Always Worth It?

Brad Pitt allegedly attended every class he could when starting out. Thousands of other actors also attend every class they can and still can’t land a co-star role, or even pay rent. The only part of Pitt’s story that helps us is his commitment, but even that is a common trait amongst a great many unemployed actors. The luck of being born genetically gifted as Pitt was played as much a part in his success as anything. Certainly not the only thing, but not insignificant.

Many actors are going broke paying for countless expensive and ineffectual acting services they’re told successful people need, when spending their money on a camera to record their own auditions to self-submit may, in fact, be the most cost-effective course of action for them. It’s no guarantee, but neither is paying thousands of dollars per year for classes of 20-30 people and never getting in front of the camera.

The advantage to making decisions based on the data that failure provides is that there is a never-ending supply of it. We are surrounded by failed ventures, marriages, careers, and decisions. Successful people are constantly grilled on how they succeeded, but nobody asks the failures why they failed.

We hear so much about the commonalities of successful people but it’s pretty much the same few things: dedication/vision, sacrifice/risk, surround yourself with other driven people. Every story we hear is ultimately a variation on these things. But why is it that all the other people who are just as dedicated, who sacrifice just as much, and who are still alive and kicking are not able to pay rent from their art? Why don’t we share the failure data?

If actors are consistently late to auditions and gigs, they will fail. One hundred percent. If actors never learn their lines, they will fail. For certain. If actors cannot have civil discourse with the crew and their fellow cast, they will not be re-hired. It’s true. If actors destroy themselves through alcohol and drug use, they will fail. It’s a fact. If actors can’t learn to be patient, both over the course of a gig and the course of their careers, they will fail. This is as a real as the rusting skeletons of bombers lying in fields in Europe.

You know all those stories we keep hearing about that new breed of actors who sit at home and directors track them down and find them to star in big budget Hollywood movies? No? Exactly.

In addition to being on time, learning lines, being a civil human being, and staying on top of vices, there are but two final common traits in all who succeed in their chosen field that stand them aside from those who failed. They never stop believing in themselves and they never quit. Ever. They evolve, they pivot, they zig and zag, they get knocked down and rise again, but they never stop believing and they never, ever quit.

Regardless of what they ate for forty years, which classes they attended every night or on which steps they happened to be sitting, you would never have heard of Denzel, Rosario or Brad if they stopped believing in themselves and quit.

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The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

Paul Barry
Paul Barry is an L.A.-based Australian acting teacher, author of “Choices,” and a Backstage Expert. Barry runs on-camera classes in Santa Monica as well as online worldwide and conducts a six-week program called Dreaming for a Living, coaching actors, writers, and filmmakers in how to generate online incomes to support their art.