Why It’s Important To Study Losers As Well As Winners

Why It’s Important To Study Losers As Well As Winners
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We usually study people that are successful in order to improve, but understanding why people fail can be just as important. Learning why people fall short can offer just as many lessons that we can apply to our own journeys.

Picture: Pedro Ribeiro Simões/Flickr.

Author and Financial Times columnist Tim Hardford writes on his blog:

In 1943, the American statistician Abraham Wald was asked to advise the US air force on how to reinforce their planes. Only a limited weight of armour plating was feasible, and the proposal on the table was to reinforce the wings, the centre of the fuselage, and the tail. Why? Because bombers were returning from missions riddled with bullet holes in those areas.

Wald explained that this would be a mistake. What the air force had discovered was that when planes were hit in the wings, tail or central fuselage, they made it home. Where, asked Wald, were the planes that had been hit in other areas? They never returned. Wald suggested reinforcing the planes wherever the surviving planes had been unscathed instead.

It’s natural to look at life’s winners — often they become winners in the first place because they’re interesting to look at. That’s why Kickended gives us an important lesson. If we don’t look at life’s losers too, we may end up putting our time, money, attention or even armour plating in entirely the wrong place.

When we only study successes, this sample can only give advice from a limited perspective. We can learn from people who have failed as well and avoid a similar outcome.

Learn from the losers [Tim Harford’s blog]


  • While I agree with the premise of studying losers as well as winners, I don’t think the story of the damaged planes supports that. By definition the damaged planes were not “losers” but “winners” in that they made it home! So this really a parable of correctly defining success, not learning from a true failure. Good story of doing proper analysis though.

    • I think you’re kind of right. The except acknowledges that the planes that made it home were ‘winners’ but then uses that to make assumptions about the losers (which couldn’t be examined because they didn’t make it back). Those assumptions are perhaps not so crazy with planes being shot, because maybe there is an argument that the damage should be uniformly distributed (across the sum of all planes) and thus not having ones with certain damage returning indicates that such damage would be terminal. However, if there is a reasonable argument that damage *wouldn’t* be uniform, reinforcing where the returning planes were not shot could just be reinforcing where the planes simply don’t get shot for one reason or another.

      The actual name for this error of only looking at those who are successful and thus assuming the attributes they have are what makes them successful, and attributes they don’t have are either unimportant or antithetical to success is Survivorship Bias, and the people who I (anecdotally) find are most guilty of it are those who style themselves as ‘self-made’. I think that is associated with the fundamental attribution error.

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