The Dangerous Inspiration of Icons

I think its probably human nature that we have people in our lives that set examples for us. We are inspired by the lives they lead and do our best to emulate or imitate that model. And because we need hope in our lives, because we need to dream and cultivate desires for a better life it is also only natural that we pick out the favored, the shining lights, the success stories.

As a potter and working artist I have any number of examples that inspire me. They’ve all ‘made it’, and I hope that I can learn from their example. And to a certain extent this is true. But at the same time its true its also misleading. The one’s who have made it are only the ones at the tip of the iceberg. Their success paves over a road littered by failure. The mountain they climbed is heaped by the tragedy of fallen aspirants, the corpses of potters who couldn’t stick it out, whose dreams of working in clay died and the remnants of which now decompose in dust covered wheels hidden in basements, kilns left out in the weather rotting and crumbling like the ruins of long abandoned shrines and blasted ghettos….. Bags and boxes of clay drying out in neglect, glaze buckets composting fallen leaves and dead animals…..

Of course we’d rather look at the victors. Of course we’d rather spend our time and efforts in worship of their fame and good fortune. This is the life we seek to emulate. The failures are best removed from our sight, best ignored. We think we are better served by not dwelling on the mistakes…..

But are we? The always interesting blog “You are not so smart” thinks differently. The upshot is that ignoring the failures leads to what is known as “The survivorship bias”. Here is a bit of what the post has to say:

“Simply put, survivorship bias is your tendency to focus on survivors instead of whatever you would call a non-survivor depending on the situation. Sometimes that means you tend to focus on the living instead of the dead, or on winners instead of losers, or on successes instead of failures. In Wald’s problem, the military focused on the planes that made it home and almost made a terrible decision because they ignored the ones that got shot down.

It is easy to do. After any process that leaves behind survivors, the non-survivors are often destroyed or rendered mute or removed from your view. If failures becomes invisible, then naturally you will pay more attention to successes. Not only do you fail to recognize that what is missing might have held important information, you fail to recognize that there is missing information at all.

You must remind yourself that when you start to pick apart winners and losers, successes and failures, the living and dead, that by paying attention to one side of that equation you are always neglecting the other. If you are thinking about opening a restaurant because there are so many successful restaurants in your hometown, you are ignoring the fact the only successful restaurants survive to become examples. Maybe on average 90 percent of restaurants in your city fail in the first year. You can’t see all those failures because when they fail they also disappear from view. As Nassim Taleb writes in his book The Black Swan, “The cemetery of failed restaurants is very silent.” Of course the few that don’t fail in that deadly of an environment are wildly successful because only the very best and the very lucky can survive. All you are left with are super successes, and looking at them day after day you might think it’s a great business to get into when you are actually seeing evidence that you should avoid it.”

What the bias suggests we should instead consider is why the ones that failed did so. What they got wrong often ends up being more important than what the winners got right. Chance, opportunity and timing are perhaps portioned out in equal measure between the winners and losers, but if the ratio of success is 1 in 5, 1 in 10, 1 in 100, then there is simply more ill chance and bad timing that weighed in as well. If we don’t observe the losers we fail to see what counted as a wrong turn. And only looking at the winners we often fail to see by comparison what conditions were of good fortune, which accidents were happy, and how the gods smiled in particular cases. It all looks rosy in success. Its not at all obvious that by changing one small detail the entire venture might get overthrown. That what seemed vital for success was less important than not screwing up this other detail. And the survivors are generally the last ones to know what threatening details were the important ones to have avoided. The blueprints for success don’t generally include those……

“Survivorship bias pulls you toward bestselling diet gurus, celebrity CEOs, and superstar athletes. It’s an unavoidable tick, the desire to deconstruct success like a thieving magpie and pull away the shimmering bits. You look to the successful for clues about the hidden, about how to better live your life, about how you too can survive similar forces against which you too struggle. Colleges and conferences prefer speakers who shine as examples of making it through adversity, of struggling against the odds and winning. The problem here is that you rarely take away from these inspirational figures advice on what not to do, on what you should avoid, and that’s because they don’t know. Information like that is lost along with the people who don’t make it out of bad situations or who don’t make it on the cover of business magazines – people who don’t get invited to speak at graduations and commencements and inaugurations. The actors who traveled from Louisiana to Los Angeles only to return to Louisiana after a few years don’t get to sit next to James Lipton and watch clips of their Oscar-winning performances as students eagerly gobble up their crumbs of wisdom. In short, the advice business is a monopoly run by survivors, people who took damage in places anyone could be damaged and survive but who were lucky enough to never take a critical hit. As the psychologist Daniel Kahneman writes in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, “A stupid decision that works out well becomes a brilliant decision in hindsight.”


It might seem disheartening, the fact that successful people probably owe more to luck than anything else, but only if you see luck as some sort of magic. Take off those superstitious goggles for a moment, and consider this: the latest psychological research indicates that luck is a long mislabeled phenomenon. It isn’t a force, or grace from the gods, or an enchantment from fairy folk, but the measurable output of a group of predictable behaviors. Randomness, chance, and the noisy chaos of reality may be mostly impossible to predict or tame, but luck is something else. According to psychologist Richard Wiseman, luck – bad or good – is just what you call the results of a human beings consciously interacting with chance, and some people are better at interacting with chance than others.


Wiseman speculated that what we call luck is actually a pattern of behaviors that coincide with a style of understanding and interacting with the events and people you encounter throughout life. Unlucky people are narrowly focused, he observed. They crave security and tend to be more anxious, and instead of wading into the sea of random chance open to what may come, they remain fixated on controlling the situation, on seeking a specific goal. As a result, they miss out on the thousands of opportunities that may float by. Lucky people tend to constantly change routines and seek out new experiences. Wiseman saw that the people who considered themselves lucky, and who then did actually demonstrate luck was on their side over the course of a decade, tended to place themselves into situations where anything could happen more often and thus exposed themselves to more random chance than did unlucky people. The lucky try more things, and fail more often, but when they fail they shrug it off and try something else. Occasionally, things work out.

Wiseman told Skeptical Inquirer magazine that he likened it to setting loose two people inside an apple orchard, each tasked with filling up their baskets as many times as possible. The unlucky person tends to go to the same few spots over and over again, the basket holding fewer apples each visit. The lucky person never visits the same spot twice, and that person’s basket is always full. Change those apples to experiences, and imagine a small portion of those experiences lead to fame, fortune, riches, or some other form of happiness material or otherwise, and you can see that chance is not as terrifying as it first appears, you just need to learn how to approach it.

“The harder they looked, the less they saw. And so it is with luck – unlucky people miss chance opportunities because they are too focused on looking for something else. They go to parties intent on finding their perfect partner and so miss opportunities to make good friends. They look through newspapers determined to find certain type of job advertisements and as a result miss other types of jobs. Lucky people are more relaxed and open, and therefore see what is there rather than just what they are looking for.” – Richard Wiseman in an article written for Skeptical Inquirer

Survivorship bias also flash-freezes your brain into a state of ignorance from which you believe success is more common than it truly is and therefore you leap to the conclusion that it also must be easier to obtain. You develop a completely inaccurate assessment of reality thanks to a prejudice that grants the tiny number of survivors the privilege of representing the much larger group to which they originally belonged.


If you spend your life only learning from survivors, buying books about successful people and poring over the history of companies that shook the planet, your knowledge of the world will be strongly biased and enormously incomplete. As best I can tell, here is the trick: When looking for advice, you should look for what not to do, for what is missing…, but don’t expect to find it among the quotes and biographical records of people whose signals rose above the noise. They may have no idea how or if they lucked up. What you can’t see, and what they can’t see, is that the successful tend to make it more probable that unlikely events will happen to them while trying to steer themselves into the positive side of randomness. They stick with it, remaining open to better opportunities that may require abandoning their current paths, and that’s something you can start doing right now without reading a single self-help proverb, maxim, or aphorism. Also, keep in mind that those who fail rarely get paid for advice on how not to fail, which is too bad because despite how it may seem, success boils down to serially avoiding catastrophic failure while routinely absorbing manageable damage.

Read the whole article, with fascinating background and anecdotes here:

That’s all folks!


Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Arts education, Ceramics, Creative industry, Creativity, Ephemera, metacognition, Pottery. Bookmark the permalink.

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