Making YouTube videos for a living is nice, isn’t it?
You hear about it all the time. Ads showing YouTube stars’ multi-million dollar mansions. Viral videos exploding with millions of views. People making full-time incomes from the comforts of their home.
Top YouTubers can make upwards of $10 million in a year. When you add up the advertising revenue, sponsorships, and endorsement deals, those figures go up even higher. Being a professional YouTuber sounds lucrative, doesn’t it?
If only it were that easy.
When you first go on the homepage, YouTube offers a ton of suggestions. Their algorithm suggests videos you might like based on topics you’ve watched and what other viewers like. Most of the videos you see have millions of views.
What you don’t see, however, are the many more videos that have only a couple hundred views, or even less. Those videos that go unseen, the ones that are hidden away, represent the content released by the masses of YouTubers struggling to generate any revenue.
According to a study done in Germany, 96.5 percent of aspiring YouTubers don’t make enough money to even reach the U.S. poverty line. When you consider that the U.S. poverty line is $12,140 for a single person (that’s $1,011.67 per month), the figure from the study looks pretty bleak.
Being part of the top 3 percent of most viewed channels, however, means bringing in advertising revenue of $16,800 annually. Still, that number doesn’t look too good compared to the millions of dollars we keep hearing about.
Along the way, people drop out, find more viable opportunities, or simply lose interest. Yet, our eyes are all on the top performers. And that’s what we call survivorship bias.
Focusing on the Fittest
If you’ve ever judged something on the whole based on how the best perform, then you’ve fallen victim to survivorship bias. The failures tend to be less visible than the successes, so this leads us to the wrong conclusions. Also, organizations tend to shine the spotlight on their most successful cases for promotional purposes, causing people to think more highly of the organization.
The restaurant industry is a good example. It’s been said that 90 percent of restaurants shut down within their first year. Razor thin margins, incompatibility with the public’s taste buds, and competing eateries make the restaurant business a survival of the fittest.
Yet a quick online search on places to eat would make one believe that most restaurants are surviving, if not thriving. What the search results don’t show are the graveyards of restaurants past.
Have you ever listened to a song from a previous decade and felt nostalgic? People often lament the downward spiral of music. They complain about how songs from the 90s are much better than music released today.
What most of the listeners don’t realize, however, is that most of the “top songs” from a previous decade are better than an “average song” in today’s world. Only the top hits continue to remain popular long after they’re released. The mediocre and terrible songs fade into obscurity.
That’s why you listen to a classic song by Celine Dion, Nirvana, or Tupac and think to yourself, “Ah, those were the days when artists produced real music.”
The Problem With Survivorship Bias
It’s clear that survivorship bias makes us see things from a skewed angle. But what are the implications on our personal life?
We often analyze the successful by looking at the traits they share. Yet, the many more failures that go unnoticed likely have the same traits in common.
Failed entrepreneurs can be equally as hardworking, intelligent, and creative as successful entrepreneurs. Failed companies can have innovative, useful products with the potential to impact people’s lives as much as successful companies’ products.
But it’s easy to study the successful cases because the information about them is well-documented and publicized. Plus, the successes of others feed us hope.
The problem is that focusing only on the survivors makes us overly optimistic. So when expectations meet reality, our hopes are dashed. Like waves against the rocks, they crash and break.
Let’s go back to the YouTube discussion. Statistically speaking, your income as a professional YouTuber is probably going to be below the poverty line of $12,140. In comparison, the median personal income in the U.S. is $31,099 for people 15 years old and older. If you work at a retail clothing store, your salary hovers around $24,920.
Judging by these hard numbers, it’s a better bet to go for “clothing sales representative” than “professional YouTuber”. But that’s not what we want to believe. That’s not how our minds operate.
When we’re told the odds are against us, we don’t want to listen. If anything, it only makes us even more determined to succeed. We’re driven more powerfully by our emotions than by logic.
We’re more easily convinced by one person’s anecdote than by research studies relying on thousands of data points. When you can be that one person who makes it big amongst all others, who wants to be practical?
We attribute a lot of one person’s good fortune to their personal traits. But in truth, wild success is largely outside of an individual’s control. The successful individual could happen to be doing something at the intersection of the right time, right circumstances, and luck.
Like in other fields, there’s a first mover advantage at play in the YouTube world. Back in 2006, the top 3 percent of YouTubers accounted for 63 percent of all views. 10 years later, the top 3 percent accounted for 90 percent of views. With time, that gap widens more and more.
Our perpetual optimism is a double-edged sword. We want to keep going. The problem is, we don’t know when to stop.
How To Avoid Falling into the Survivor Bias Trap
Now that you know it exists, you begin to see things in a new light. What you see in front of you isn’t everything. There’s a whole other layer underneath the surface composed of failures, near-misses, and struggles. Reality is a cold, yet truthful lesson.
Now, you can protect yourself from utter disaster. When the odds are stacked against you, you don’t have to go all in. You don’t have to forgo school, quit your job, or toss aside everything to pursue something risky.
Think of it as hedging your bets. Often, our aspirations are scalable. In the beginning, the time investment is low.
While you continue your everyday work, you can pursue your side project in your spare time. As you see glimmers of success, you then gradually ramp up the amount of time and energy you spend on your project. You evaluate which endeavors provide the highest returns and place your efforts accordingly.
While it’s good motivation to focus on the best in a field, it’s also important to avoid tunnel vision. Open yourself to different opportunities.
One person I knew went to culinary school to become a pastry chef. Her ambition was to prepare desserts at a fine dining restaurant and then open up her own cake shop.
Two years into school, she was offered a sales position selling baking technology to catering and food companies. Where she ended up was completely unplanned, but she grabbed the opportunity and has been satisfied with it since.
One of the key differences between those who are lucky versus unlucky is whether or not you keep an eye out for opportunities. Sometimes, good fortune sits in places you wouldn’t expect.
After all, if you only see what’s inside the tunnel, you miss everything outside of it.
The Survivors Learn to Strategize
“It must be nice to play video games for a living.”
Well, now you know. The point is not that you shouldn’t make YouTube videos or chase after your dreams. That’s not the point. Instead, it’s about being aware of the realities and preparing for any scenario that might unfold.
The survivors know how the game is played. When you try many things and see potential in one of them, you invest more energy into making it grow. Then, you thrive.