Some years ago I started Ranger Assessment and Selection Program (RASP), the gateway into the special operations group 75th Ranger Regiment. After a few months of infantry school and learning how to jump out of airplanes I was ready to start on the path to becoming part of this great organization. What I did not know, nor did I appreciate at first, was that the Discovery Channel was going to be following a select few individuals through the course. I thought “suckers”, who would want a camera in their face during this painful ordeal, no thanks. Just about that time the cadre yelled, “SPC Porter, get up here… you’re going to be in the Hollywood platoon”!
So there I was, a few months of pain and engineered failure all while being followed by several crews from the Discovery Channel capturing it all (See picture to the right). At the conclusion of the course, I was taken aside after we donned our tan berets and slapped our newly minted 75th Ranger Regiment unit patched on our sleeve pocket. With a grin on my face, the reporter asked one final question, “What advice would you give to others in finding success where others did not”?
It is this question that I have fumbled over in my mind for years and one that I feel I did not answer as robustly as I should, and could have at the time. This question I was asked by the reporter at Discovery Channel led me to the son of a Jewish baker born in Hungry in 1902 by the name of Abraham Wald. Wald studied at the University of Vienna under brilliants like Karl Menger and had a mind that looked for the go-around in the way he approached problem solving. In 1938 he immigrated to the United States to escape an ever increasing oppressive German Regime, (all but one of Wald’s brothers were killed in Auschwitz). Shortly after Wald arrived to the United States, he was recruited to the Applied Mathematics Panel, a group of math-warriors at Columbia University that secretly worked on some of the toughest war issues facing the United States and its allies. In the group were some of the greatest minds in applied mathematics, probability theory, geometry, and science.
At this time in the war one of the issues that operational commanders were having was the rate of bombers that were not making it home. One could flip a coin to get the probability of a plane successfully making it back to base during this time in the war. Naturally, the engineers knew that they needed to add armor to the planes. To allow the planes to be light enough to take off they needed to be sparing on where they increased the weight of the armor. Enter the math soldiers of the Applied Mathematics Panel. One of the many task these number crunching warriors were given was to figure out where to apply the armor. So the military brought in planes and pictures of planes that would show the damage that they were receiving while flying through the hornets nest of gunfire. The damage was concentrated on the wings, tail, and body so naturally the commanders wanted to increase the protection with more armor on those areas. The most visible damage should get the armor. Wrong!
Wald looked at the ideas coming from the group and military commanders and concluded that it would be a mistake to follow that logic. You see, the planes that received fire in those areas actually made it back to base. What Wald was concentrating on were the planes that did not make it back. The planes that were not there, the ones that were shot down, they were not present to assess the damage they could take. Wald proposed that the planes needed armor to be added to the spots on the planes that had the least amount of visible damage since those were the areas that if hit, were not making it back to the base. Wald did the calculations to show the military commanders the flaw in their thinking and armor was added to the areas with the least amount of damage.
Survivorship bias, the term that was derived from these findings, is a cognitive error of solely focusing on those that survived and inadvertently overlooking those that are no longer visible. Focusing on the survivors, winners, or the living is only half of the story and distorts one’s view of the true probability of what it takes to succeed.
Focusing overwhelmingly on winners or success alone is at the cost of valuable insight from failure, which is often much more valuable. We forget that nine out of ten restaurants fail (Concordia, 2012) in the first year. However, we typically focus on the one restaurant we know in the area that does so well and then naturally think we would likely succeed if we, or someone, opened one up another restaurant somewhere in the same area.
While in my MBA program, some of the required reading included, From Good to Great by Jim Collins and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey. Both good books, but ones that are fraught with survivorship bias. These books, and many others like it, don’t take into effect all those who followed the advice exactly and yet still failed.
We all, to some degree, want to unpack the route to success and so we study the habits of those that found success. We try to see the secret art to a better body through workout and diet regimes. Some even take the advice on how dropping out of college could make you a billionaire.
Nassim Taleb, in his bestselling book The Black Swan, gives robust examples of how individuals are obsessed with creating a narrative that will support the ideas and directions they want to go. When we take the habits and lifestyle choices of the successful as a road-map to similar success we are playing a dangerous game. If we believe that the most successful entrepreneurs drink bat guano in their tea, then you will see a market pop up for bat-crap tea.
But the value we forget is not so much what to do, but what not to do. Very rarely will you see a business book or a cover of a magazine on “How I Totally Failed in Business”, because it doesn’t sell. When we focus on some traits or common decisions of the successful or winners, we need to be careful not to confuse correlation with causation.
Focusing overwhelmingly on winners or success alone is at the cost of valuable insight from failure…
When I graduated from Ranger Assessment and Selection the Speaker at the ceremony echoed the sentiments that ‘these Rangers here today represent hard work, a willingness to never give up, dedication to doing what other did not want to do…’. But as I looked around I said to myself, that guy and that guy didn’t work all that hard in fact, every time the cadre looked the other way they were doing as little as possible. I personally knew some of those that failed the course, and for a few it was just plain bad luck.
The truth is that we were all a little deficient compared to the accolades that were given to us that day. When I looked back on the experience the only advice that I could give to another would be the only truly and obvious recommendation, “don’t quit” because when you do it’s over. But if you are going to quit, do it fast to minimize the opportunity cost.
But if you really want to get a fuller understanding of how to succeed through RASP, triumph in business, or any ordeal? Try and find those planes that didn’t make it back, the individuals that failed along the way, and soak up as much information as you can. Or better yet, when you fail, be a learner instead of a non-learner and then refocus and re-attack. I don’t think failing your way to success is as simple as some make it, but you can definitely learn from it.
Collins, Jim J. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… And Others Don’t. London: Random House Buisness Books, 2001. Print.
Klein, Karen E. “How Survivorship Bias Tricks Entrepreneurs.” Bloomberg.com. Bloomberg, 11 Aug. 2014. Web. 25 Feb. 2017.
Concordia, St Paul. “Why do 90% of restaurants fail in the First year – Concordia university, st. Paul Online.” Business. Concordia University, St. Paul Online, 18 June 2012. Web. 25 Feb. 2017.