I remember reading my first self-help book and feeling like I had unlocked the cheat code to living. I also remember realising how little these books helped me in the grand scale of things.
Still, the desire to find the secret sauce never waned. Cut to the era of YouTube, and now, instead of books, I can access videos and podcasts on all things productivity.
The danger of that is it locks me into the same pattern of trying to find the silver bullet from these ‘authorities’.
And if there’s one thing I’ve learned about taking advice from successful people, it’s that survivorship bias exists.
We don’t know success
Think back to the best achievement in your life. Was it completing a marathon? Drafting your first novel? Closing that first sales call?
Now think of the reasons why you achieved it. Let’s take the marathon example. Did you complete the race because you trained really hard? Did you have a good coach? Or were you just lucky to have been born with legs?
That’s the thing about survivorship bias. We don’t know which elements truly played a role in your success. And while we could give praise to your rigorous training, we could also be overlooking your luck of the draw.
It’s the same in publication. We look at authors like JK Rowling or George Martin and assume that all they needed for their success was to write.
But who knows how many other factors came into play? It could be the country they were born in. Or their connections in show business.
And here we are, studying their plotting methods and writing tools, as if those are what will propel us to literary stardom.
(If you want to explore this topic further, you can check out Veritasium’s video on the success paradox.)
Don’t give up, though
You may think, then, that I’m encouraging you not to put in the work, since we can’t reliably emulate the greats. Not at all. In fact, I want you to ramp up your efforts instead, but only after you’ve found the pursuit that’s worthwhile to you.
Because while Murakami’s lifestyle of waking up at 4 a.m. may appeal to you, it could possibly hamper your writing instead. To him, the early mornings may be the reason for his high output. To you, it could be the reason why you hate life.
But! If you’re certain that waking up at ungodly hours is worthwhile to you, then by all means, go for it.
The Brandon Sanderson way
This is why I love Sanderson’s free lectures on YouTube. He doesn’t sugarcoat the presence of survivorship bias in publishing, and he admits that talent isn’t everything when it comes to acceptance.
Yet, he’d found his break by writing epic fantasy during the genre’s falling popularity. He’d accepted possible obscurity and found joy in the act of writing itself. Ironically enough, that’s one of the reasons why he became the renowned fantasy writer he is today.
But even that is subject to survivorship bias. Because we could reason that culling our expectations might lead to success. That if we write whatever we want, we’ll someday become the Sanderson of our genre.
I choose to see it as living in line with our values. As long as you go to bed happy each night, that’s all that matters. Who cares how other writers achieved their dreams, as long as you took the steps to achieve yours?
So what can you do?
Here are a few countermeasures you could apply when looking up to your heroes for advice.
First is to study the trait, not the person.
Let’s say you’re an aspiring musician, and your idol practises their scales every day. Do you blindly follow their six-hour practice, or do you ponder on what you really need?
Simply practising your scales isn’t going to turn you into a famous musician. You need to figure out what’s lacking in your journey, and you will have to determine which areas to grow in.
If scales are what you need, then so be it. But if you find yourself merely imitating other musicians in hopes of becoming them, then you may just be barking up the wrong tree.
For me, I can’t ‘just write’ and expect to find literary success. There are other gaps that I need to address, such as submitting, marketing, and networking. For you, it might be plotting. For someone else, it could be learning the nuances of self-publishing.
We’re all different. Know what you need.
Try it yourself
Second, always be a practitioner. It’s easy to read tips on how to submit your manuscripts and think you’re knowledgeable on the subject.
I personally can’t rely on the typical pitching tips since we don’t have agents in Malaysia. That means I need to do my own research and figure out what works in this region. And just because JK Rowling got rejected twelve times doesn’t mean we’re all fated to take the same path.
I’ve found other fruitful avenues specific to Malaysia that goes beyond cold approaching. And those are novel competitions as well as writer’s groups. And those channels won’t apply to you, even if I laid everything out step by step.
So scrutinise everything you learn, and judge the learnings based on your results, rather than relying on other people’s experiences.
Just be you
Lastly, be yourself. Trite, yes, but only you know what helps you sleep at night.
I myself can’t call a day well-lived if I don’t exercise, write, and improve the blog. You, on the other hand, will have your own set of expectations to fulfil.
If there’s one takeaway you leave with, I want it to be this: For every tip the greats put out, there could be ten other factors that contributed to their success, with luck being one of them.
Having said that, always choose to try, regardless of the outcome. Because that’s the only way you’ll get to a place to share your own tips, and your very own survivorship biases.
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