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Advice and Survivorship

Published 9/19/2018

There are some huge glaring problems when we only look at successful people and try to emulate them. That's what we're going to talk about today, advice from successful people and what to question.

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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
You've heard advice even on the show to listen to successful people, to read books, buy those successful people to understand how to succeed. We kind of have the intuition to look at the people who have succeeded before us. If we rewind in our primal brains, this may be connected to the idea that if someone else has survived, then perhaps we should do what they did. This intuition isn't totally wrong. In fact, in some ways, it is rational. If we're able to observe someone successfully escape a predator as our caveman brain was able to do, then if we emulate their escape methods, perhaps we can escape a predator too. But there are some huge glaring problems with only looking at successful people and listening to their advice. We're going to talk about those problems in today's episode. My name is Jonathan Cutrell and you're listening to Developer Tea. My goal on the show is to help driven developers like you connect to your career purpose and do better work so you can have a positive influence on the people around you. A lot of the things that we talk about on the show are pieces of advice, things that we can draw out and try to apply as Developer To our careers and to our personal lives for that matter. But there's a problem with only listening to successful people. Let's say you take a trip to the bookstore and you go to the business section and you grab a book and that book is detailing how to run a successful startup. And so you start flipping through the pages and perhaps the advice that you're given is that you don't have to focus on education and you can make a lot of mistakes. You can adopt that mantra, which Facebook has rejected now, but the mantra of moving fast and breaking things. And you go through this book and you write down your notes of what it means to run a successful startup. And remember, the person who wrote this book in order to even get into a bookstore, they had to be moderately successful. And so again, our intuition takes over and says, okay, if this person is successful, then they know the path to success. And the reality is that this is an incomplete picture of what it requires to become successful. Why is that? Well, the first proof of this idea is that if you were to grab another book from the same shelf even, there's likely competing advice, perhaps even directly opposite advice from another successful developer or successful startup founder. In these pieces of advice, they clash. And so if one produces success and the other one produces success, then who is right? Are both of them right? Which one should I listen to? How should I act? What should I do when I have competing models of success? This is confusing. And very often what we try to do is we subscribe to one or the other. We allow our brains to discredit the one methodology and to credit the other methodology. And usually this is an irrational process. And here's the reality. Both of these books could be completely wrong. We're going to talk about why that is. Right after we talk about today's sponsor, Linode. Today's episode is sponsored by Linode. Linode is back for another round of support for Developer Tealisteners. And they're going to give you $20 worth of credit, which is equivalent to four free months by the way on their $5 month plan. Just for being a Developer Tealistener, they have 10 data centers worldwide. They have high memory plans that start at 16 gigabytes. By the way, $5 a month gets you a gigabyte of RAM on an SSD server. They have 24 or 7 friendly support and they also have a monthly cap on all of their plans and add on services. This includes things like backups, which hopefully you're backing up your servers, node balancers. If you have multiple servers and you want to balance the traffic to the servers and also long view. This is a way to look back at your server performance over time. All of these things have a monthly cap. Linode is build as you use it. On top of this, Linode has a seven day money back guarantee. We're going to be talking about more things that Linode offers to developers like for example, their API and their beta manager that has recently been released. We're going to talk about those in future episodes. But for now, you can get that $20 worth of credit when you use the code Developer Tea2018. That's all one word Developer Tea 2018 or just go to linode.com slash Developer Teato get started today. Thank you again to Linode for sponsoring today's episode of Developer Tea. When you go to a new city, when you're looking for a place to go eat, there's a variety of methods you might choose to pick a location. One of those methods maybe to look at something like Yelp or Google reviews to see. Generally, how do people feel about this restaurant or about this grocery store? Imagine that you find a restaurant that has great reviews across the board. And you go to this restaurant and you sit down and the server takes 20 minutes to even get to your table. They take your order for drinks and then they bring out the wrong drinks and the appetizer that you ordered isn't terrible, but it's mediocre. The food comes out and the same kind of story continues. It's a little bit cold and maybe some of your food is undercooked, but not enough to cause serious issues. And some of this experience is a little disappointing, but you've had much worse. And so you leave the restaurant, you pay, you leave the restaurant and you go back your day and you try a new place next. Now what can explain this experience? What can explain you seeing these great reviews for this restaurant across the board, but you having a mediocre experience when you go? Our intuition wants to attach to one answer to this question, but the truth is this can happen in many different ways. Our fringe ideas, more conspiracy ideas would be if the restaurant paid people for these reviews. This would be kind of a manipulative thing to do and perhaps even against the terms of services of whatever the review system is because it gets people like you to come in with false expectations. So that's more of a conspiracy theory. It's probably not what you would think immediately. The second thing you may think is, well, maybe my experience just wasn't very good. And this is actually probably true. If your experience wasn't very good and it doesn't match up to the average review, then that's a reasonable theory that you just had kind of an off experience. The third possibility that is worth thinking about is that perhaps the people who had excellent experiences are the only ones who left reviews. This is particularly true if most of the time people have mediocre experiences. Perhaps really bad experiences would prompt equally bad reviews, but if the restaurant is mediocre and sometimes exceptional, then the reviews are probably going to reflect this. Of course, there are many more possibilities, perhaps your taste is different or your expectations are not based on something reasonable. These are obviously possibilities. But for the sake of today's episode, I want to focus on this idea that the information that you had, the reviews that you had didn't necessarily match up to reality. Not just your personal experience, but the average experience. And so this has everything to do with what we were talking about and listening to the successful people. As we mentioned previously, successful people are usually the only ones who make it to the bookshelves. And in fact, extraordinarily successful people are usually the only ones who make it to the bookshelves. And the problem with this is something called survivorship bias. And that is that the voices of the survivors are the ones that are seen and heard and therefore become the most prevalent. Now, the problem is it's very difficult for us to imagine the unseen, to imagine the unheard in thinking fast and slow. Daniel Coneman calls this phenomenon what you see is all there is. And the problem here is that we aren't taking into account the perhaps massive role that luck or chance or whatever you want to call randomness plays in the success of these individuals. Not only luck and randomness, but also situational realities, timing, for example. Being isn't necessarily luck or chance, but more positional realities. You may find all of the proper principles of running a successful skiing business, but if you live in a climate that doesn't have snow, your skiing business is probably going to fail. And so what we often do when we're trying to gain insight from someone else who is successful is we mimic them, we try to obtain their habits, their diet, perhaps even their philosophies. And this goes back to the kind of basic rational discussion about cause and effect. The overwhelming sense that we have as humans is that when we observe behavior and then we observe a reaction, we tie those things together. We have a very hard time separating them. And we also attempt to assign cause to any given effect. The problem with this is that very often cause and effect are separated. Sometimes they're separated by time, sometimes they're separated by luck or by some other factors that are immeasurable, difficult to understand. And so our understandings of cause and effect become very black and white. When in reality, they're almost entirely living in some great area. A very simple example of this is if you were to go and talk to someone who won the lottery and ask them how did you win the lottery. The advice they may give you could be, well, only by one ticket is very possible that this person won the lottery when they bought their first ticket. The advice they may give you is to buy from a particular gas station. Perhaps they bought from the same gas station every week. Maybe they would give you advice that is totally unrelated to the lottery at all. Perhaps the advice would be to exercise for at least 30 minutes every day. Now we can rationalize that none of these pieces of advice are necessarily going to have any effect on winning the lottery. And yet our irrational brains at the lowest level have some sort of connection between that person's ability to win the lottery and whatever actions they took. Now hopefully we can easily separate these rationally. But if we try to do the same for things that are less obvious, less obviously based on luck specifically, then we discount the role of chance and it's very easy to place a high value on the advice given. The survivorship bias happens all the time. The most popular example of this was the story about the planes that would return during World War II that had bullet holes in them. And so the story goes when these planes returned, the intuition is, well, we need to look at the locations on the plane where the bullet holes exist and armor those spots more. The problem with this is that these are the planes that actually survived. These are the planes that when they got shot, they actually didn't go down. The shots were proved to be non-catastrophic. This was theorized by a statistician named Abraham Walth and his recommendation was, instead we should armor the places where the bullet holes are not. These are the places that were likely shot more often and resulted in catastrophic failures. Another great example that I found while researching the topic on the internet was a friend that gave her friend a bowl of cherry jelly beans. So when the recipient of the jelly beans asked her friend, why did you give me a bowl of cherry jelly beans? The reason goes, well, I always see a bowl of cherry jelly beans on your desk. I've come to the conclusion that you must like cherry jelly beans and therefore I'm going to give you a gift. But the truth is that the reason that there's a bowl of cherry jelly beans is because all of the other ones were picked. The cherry jelly beans were separated. So how does this happen in our day-to-day work when we're starting a business or when we're just writing code? The advice that we receive is often based on code that has survived. But perhaps code that hasn't survived, businesses that haven't survived, they also would have recommended the same things. Perhaps they even took the same actions, had the same ideologies, the same philosophies, the same diet, the same actions, the same habits. And even with all of these things being the same, those people failed, those businesses failed, that code failed. Those efforts failed. So how can we know anything? How can we take any advice and work to make it actionable, apply it in a way that we can trust? Well, the first step is to recognize that survivorship bias exists. In other words, always be thinking about what isn't visible. Take a minute to slow down and think about this advice that I'm receiving. It's there a possibility that someone has received the same advice acted on it and then failed. Perhaps more importantly, are people who are taking this advice regularly, are they failing more often than they're succeeding? The second thing to remember is that success comes from a complex variety of factors. Any seldomly, does someone have the perfect cocktail to deliver success? And so some of the actions that a person takes may actually detract from their success, even if they are a successful individual. Maybe some of their actions are entirely decoupled from their effects. Perhaps their success is entirely related to luck. And so we shouldn't take the advice of successful people wholesale, even when some of that advice is absolutely solid. Finally, and hopefully this is intuitive at this point in this episode, study the failures. Study those who have failed. This becomes very difficult because very few failures publish books. But if you can study the people who failed, and then simultaneously, and this is kind of a bonus point, study the serial successful people, the people who are successful multiple times. If you can compare the people who have failed and understand why they failed, and by the way, when you're in school, a lot of the time your case studies are going to be about people who have failed for this very reason. If you can study people who have failed and understand the factors that led to their failure, you can start to build up a profile of factors that are contributing to success or contributing to failure, or perhaps are ambiguous. They contribute to success in some cases and contribute to failure in other cases. Now, keep in mind that even with people who are serially successful, those successes may kind of feed into each other. In other words, because of your first success, you may have a secondary success. And if the first success was based on luck, and the second success was based on something called the Halo Effect, which we've done an episode on before, then perhaps both of those successes are not really anything to do with the advice that you have, the habits that you've formed. As you begin to understand that the complexity of what is required for success is very difficult to calculate, then you realize that listening to any one successful individual is probably not a great idea. Instead, try to draw conclusions from both successes and failures and work to find a variety of opinions. Don't just listen to one person, don't just listen to one set of opinions, but work to find a variety of opinions. The closer that you can come to principled thinking, drawing out the kind of basic underlying continuous recurring principles from people who are successful, and testing those against those who have failed, this is a sustainable way to find advice worth taking. Thank you so much for listening to today's episode of Developer Tea. I realize this is a very difficult topic to really understand at an extremely practical level. So hopefully we can talk about this more, and if you have questions, you can send them in. You can always email me at developert. gmail.com. Thank you so much for listening. Thank you again to Lenoad for sponsoring today's episode. You can get $20 worth of credit on Lenoad's services, head over to Lenoad.com slash Developer Tea. Use the code Developer Tea2018 at checkout for that $20 worth of credit. If you haven't subscribed and you've enjoyed today's episode, then I encourage you to subscribe whenever podcasting app you're using right now. This is the best way to ensure that you don't miss out on future episodes like this one. Thank you so much for listening, and until next time, enjoy your tea.