Survivorship Bias while Learning Japanese
Ever read a blog, forum, or some other social media where someone was sharing their success story to learning Japanese? They shared their methods and techniques, and told you how you can do it too! You just got a front seat to survivorship bias. And it’s something important to know when you get stuck and wonder “why can’t I do it when everyone else can.”
What is survivorship bias?
Since only the survivors are the ones who get to tell their stories (those that perish are no longer around), you are only getting partial information, which can often be misleading.
The original story of survivorship bias goes back to some war, where the military was trying to decide where to put armor on their fighter planes. Armor prevents bullets from destroying a plane. But armor is heavy, so it could only be added to limited parts of the plane. So planes that returned from war with bullet holes were analyzed.
An initial incorrect thought appeared because of survivorship bias:
Let’s put the armor where the bullet holes are! That’s where planes are being shot and need to be protected the most.
But then someone smarter said:
No let’s put the armor where the bullet holes aren’t! Because the planes that made it back (the survivors) with bullet holes aren’t telling the whole story. The fact that they made it back means that the bullet hole locations weren’t enough to destroy the plane. It’s the planes that didn’t make it back alive that needed the armor.
You are reading a ton of survivorship bias
Like all those surviving planes with their bullet holes telling one half of the story, Japanese learners online sharing how they mastered Japanese are doing the same. All these success stories that motivate us? Survivorship bias is strong with them. If you doubt it, ask yourself how often you see failure blogs based around the theme of “How I failed learning Japanese.” While they mostly don’t exist, they would actually be pretty useful.
So are success stories bad?
No. They feel good to read. They help other people learn Japanese. They give them motivation, methods, guidance, and new success stories pop up from the original success stories.
However, you must take a success story as only part of the picture. Otherwise you set yourself up for false expectations and failure. For every success story, there are hundreds or thousands of failure stories. You can’t do exactly what someone else did because you aren’t them and aren’t in their shoes. Whatever the survivor did worked. They share what worked. But for you it might not work. Does that mean you are a failure?
Then Jalup also has survivorship bias… right?
Yup. There is no way around it. Jalup is a success story.
I have made attempts to tell the full picture. While I wasn’t aware of the concept of survivorship bias through writing most of this website, I did see how my story didn’t work for everyone. I did see the importance of including all the negative sides of learning Japanese, and the hard obstacles you have to overcome. This is why I often laid out problems, but didn’t have the answers. This is why I talk about failure so much. Also don’t forget that I didn’t become fluent using Jalup. Jalup was based off of how I saw all the people struggling who were reading my success story.
But despite all this, Jalup still has survivorship bias. The people that successfully used Jalup still add to that survivorship bias. And I accept that. That’s why I always want anyone who is struggling using Jalup to remember to not just look at the people here who always seem to have it so easy. Because most don’t. Most people can’t learn 2000 kanji before learning sentences. Most people can’t learn 1000 cards in a week. And this is not only completely okay, but it’s expecting otherwise that is the extreme.
A survivor’s different view of the world
Survivors often say:
Work hard, stay the path, be dedicated, and your dreams will come true.
While there isn’t anything wrong with saying this, it’s probably more accurate to say:
Work hard, stay the path, be dedicated, and your dreams have a better chance of coming true than if you didn’t.
But an unfortunate life view can pop up in survivors. They might not say it out loud (though some do), but they may have internalized it because they are a survivor.
I succeeded with hard work and dedication. If you aren’t succeeding using the same methods I used to succeed, you must not be working hard enough.
If you are struggling, and you want something to really hit you emotionally on this subject, then check out this video below about survivorship bias.
Is life fair?
Ask someone if life is fair.
Those who answer yes: are usually successful (the survivors). To them, their hard work in life is what got them where they are. That makes life fair. Since life is fair, if someone else didn’t succeed it’s because they didn’t work hard enough.
Those who answer no: are usually struggling. They worked hard in their life and didn’t get what they wanted. That makes life unfair. Since life is unfair, they may work just as hard or harder than someone else that succeeded, and still never be successful themselves.
Success stories are not inherently bad. Without them you’d have no information. No planes would have come back from the war. But make sure it’s just one part of what is moving you forward.
One final warning is to avoid the “But I will be a survivor!” mentality. I always talk here about how everyone is the hero of their own story. This makes you assume that you will be a survivor. But that can’t always be the case. Your odds will vary based on your circumstances, but even with ideal conditions, surviving is still tough. Otherwise everyone would be fluent.
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.
Great article, this in particular stuck out to me:
“I succeeded with hard work and dedication. If you aren’t succeeding using the same methods I used to succeed, you must not be working hard enough”
As I’m now a little further in my Japansese Journey (as well as my Jalup journey) and am a little more confident, I think this might have crept in in my attitude towards others. It’s good to have a humbling reminder to ensure we act kindly towards other learners.
The bright side of learning something like a language is that if you crash and burn you are not dead, so you can try again. As long as you learn from your mistakes and fail in a different way each time, you are still making progress. If nothing else you are learning what doesn’t work well for you. A lot of things you learn from failing can apply to learning many different skills, so even if you give up on something what you learn isn’t wasted. It can still apply when you try to learn something else.
When you read postapocalyptic YA sci-fi (like the 5th Wave or Pure) do you think, “yeah, that’s me! I’ll survive, I’ll the hero” or “Oh, dear! I’m going to die along with almost everyone else.”
Apparently, you’re supposed to believe without question that you’ll survive; that’s the appeal of the genre.
I have no idea how this translates into learning Japanese, but maybe if you like the genre you can put yourself in the same mindset as you have when reading YA sci-fi… or something.
What a change in tone this article has. I understand wanting to set realistic expectations but this can basically be summed up as a demotivational article. I don’t understand why you would write this for people struggling with Japanese. Even if the war is lost it is far better to stay the course all the way to the bitter end than to instill the idea that for many it is hopeless. I don’t know Adam, I’m not a fan of this one.
A much better article is Everyone is a Japanese Hero in the Making. People should go read that instead.
I’m sorry it came off that way. My intention was the opposite.
It was meant to prevent people from comparing themselves to the “success stories” and to not feel down on yourself when you don’t think you are doing as well as someone else who is in the spotlight.
Most people struggle fiercely all the way to reach victory in Japanese (including myself). Know that this is normal, and that you aren’t doing something wrong if your story hasn’t been the same as Mr. Success… At least that was what I was trying to say :)
In that light it makes sense.
I’m pretty new. I’m not aware of many other Japanese learner blogs so maybe that skews my perspective on what others are dealing with when tackling this language. I haven’t felt the need to go anywhere else for information, you’ve got it all covered here haha. In the end you’re right. We are all different and what works for one may not work for others and it is important to not lose sight of that. Cheers ^^