Giorgio Delgado

Survivorship Bias and Other Cool Stuff

February 4, 2014

I got into a discussion with a family member about the usefulness of university and whether it's a worthwhile investment. This family member's argument was that some of the most successful people out there dropped out of university, thus providing this person with what he thought was evidence for disproving a university education's effectiveness. However, one must look beneath the surface and realize two concepts: Survivorship Bias, and the 10,000 hour rule, which, in combination, dispel my family member's hypothesis.

Survivorship Bias

This is a common statistical human misjudgement. We often assume that because something (a company) or someone (in this case Bill Gates) succeeded in an extraordinary fashion, then the case must be so every time. What we fail to realize is all the sunken ships that didn't make it to the light of day, and as such are not publicized. Think of how many people were naive enough to believe that they could become successful without first attaining a bachelors or a diploma and leave what is essentially a hub for innovation and networking. Not only are those that drop out without credentials, they are competing against people with significantly more experience than they have in a highly competitive market.

The 10,000 Hour Rule

In one of my favourite books, Outliers , Malcolm Gladwell goes on to speak in one of the chapters about the 10,000 hour rule. He essentially proves that throughout history, people have always begun with the same level of skill. The reason that some become accomplished in different endeavours is because of the incredible amount of time they devote towards a specific task.

Very rarely do you have true prodigies that are born with an innate talent that permits them to skip practice or to have a solid grasp of a subject prior to formally being introduced to it.

If we look back at Bill Gates; his abilities were by no means innate. Both his mother and father were highly educated and had access to all the resources that Bill required to succeed from the get-go, thus putting the soon-to-be tech magnate at a significant advantage. Then he was placed at a prep school that allowed him to skip math class in order to play around with one of the only available computers in the nation. At which point, his fascination grew alongside his network of techies (of which some were introduced to Bill within Harvard prior to his flunking out), leading into the culmination of the great blue chip now known as Microsoft.

So next time you're thinking about dropping out, think about these logical flaws before making what may probably end up being a large regret.