Success is less common than you think

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When someone’s successful in life it is magnified: it receives attention from friends, media, and the person likes talking about it. Failure gets much less attention: it’s hidden and boring, although sometimes failures create a media frenzy. As a result of these effects, we are exposed much more often to success than is representative for how often it really occurs. More formally written: the proportion of signals of success to signals of failure is larger than the proportion of actual success to actual failure. This generates a sort of selection bias where we infer the proportion of success to failure from the proportion of the signals to each other. The sample of signals is not representative of the population which is filled with many more failures than successes. A good representation is the figure below, where red dots are failures, and green dots are success (of course reality is much more fine-grained, with partial successes and partial failures).

An implication is something often talked about: a fear of failure. When you believe failure is uncommon, it’s much harder to stomach. I would say that it is not irrational to have a fear of failure. After all, some failures are pretty bad, such as injury, death, or the loss of a loved one. There are good evolutionary reasons to be more sensitive to losses than to gains. But most failures aren’t as bad as we feel they are going to be. Currently our fear of failure is excessive: it’s a phobia. Realizing that failure is common, even ubiquitous, is a good antidote to this phobia.

Why is this important? Because an excessive fear of failure is harmful to ourselves and to society. An effective way to reduce failure is to try less, and when we as a society try less, we create less, we improve we world less, and we help each other less. So let’s not forget that failure is a normal part of trying to achieve anything.

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