Saturday, December 3, 2011

Survivor? Buy us!

Recently Brooke and I finished the first season of The Walking Dead, a nifty zombie-survival show on AMC and Netflix. It’s not terribly original, borrowing cliches and tropes from many zombie/horror predecessors, but throughout season 1 the zombies are reliably menacing and the characters are interesting enough to care about their survival.

The best part about the show is its scope: though the setting is limited to greater Atlanta, there are hints everywhere that the carnage and destruction is so widespread that there is almost certainly no hope for civilization- the zombies run the world now. And although the characters occasionally make stupid decisions that make me yell “Dude, go there alone! Haven’t you seen this movie before!?”, the general tone is “this is what could plausibly happen if a worldwide zombie apocalpyse occurred.”

Given that, it’s tempting to imagine how I would act if facing the situations faced by the onscreen characters - how would I survive, and what advice would I give to others? Perhaps I would develop a profile of those who have survived the zombie apocalypse, as a of guide in case the real thing happened. Let’s say I even had access to advanced statistics on survivors - real data to work with! I might come up with the following:
How to survive the zombie apocalypse:

1. Travel in small groups - 65% of survivors are in groups of 4-8 people.
2. Avoid heavily populated areas - 80% of survivors live outside cities.
3. Secure food and water - 67% of survivors have constant access to reliable food
Now then, that’s all good advice, I think. Nothing wrong with any of that. Suppose I analyze the statistics and discover more specifec gems:
4. Be ruthless toward the recently-bitten. Abandon or eliminate them before they become a threat. - 88% of survivor groups have had a member bitten who they had to kill.
5. Use a shotgun - 44% of survivors have one, more than any other type of gun.
6. Avoid mixed groups - 73% of groups consist of similar individuals in race/income/economic status.

Like this, with more guns.

I have studied every survivor and they follow, on average, at least 4 of the 6 preceding rules. See how easy it is? Just follow my six simple rules and you, too can survive the zombie apocalypse! But really...can you?

What if I told you that the reason 44% of survivors have shotguns is because shotguns were more widespread before the apocalypse already? What if we could analyze those killed along with survivors, and we learned that, in fact 82% of shotgun owners had died, while only 71% of revolver owners had (revolvers are easier to wield in close-quarters)? What if I’m suspicious of rule #6 and I learn that most groups consist of similar individuals because people tended to group with their existing friends and family anyway, usually whoever was nearby when things went bad? Perhaps I somehow learn that 67% of familiy/friend groups suffered severe casualties, while 65% of mixed-economic groups also did. What if we learned that among those who followed at least 4 of the 6 rules, 50% had died anyway?

Suddenly a new picture emerges. By studying the dead as well as the survivors, we learn that maybe the rules aren’t as clear as they seemed. In fact, half the rule-followers are dead. Maybe we could discover more statistics to explain every difference, but what if the largest factor was chance? Just pure, dumb luck. You were at home with your gun instead of at work and cut off. You were on a road trip with food packed. You were discovered by a National Guard patrol. Your house had fewer windows. Some probabilities can be prepared-for in advance, but many can’t.

If I could somehow have access to all the data instead of the more easily-accessible survivor information, I might throw up my hands and say that while my 6 principles are probably sound - some more than others - a lot of the end product comes down to luck and resourcefulness. My career as a zombie-advice guru is over, and I am humbled.

This brings to my real point: business advice books. Right now I’m reading the Millionaire Next Door, a tremendously popular book that has all sorts of advice, based on actual data, on how millionaires gained their wealth. It has to be true, right? After all the data comes from actual millionaires! Well, maybe. But I’m skeptical. I appreciate the MND values of thrift, saving, and wise investment, but I ask again and again, “Yeah, but what about the people who followed your principles and didn’t make it? Were there any who invested exactly as you suggest and lost money?” The book says nothing.

This, unfortunately, seems the fatal flow of so many advice books I’ve seen. By studying only the winners and ignoring losers, you can gather a lot of data and learn little.

Gonna need those millions for plastic surgery...

Knowing about the poor sap who gathered his family in a country home, armed them with shotguns, fed them with his food supply, and got overrun by zombies anyway might teach us something things we’d rather not consider, but it’s absolutely vital if you want to know the things that actually govern success and failure. Otherwise...well, good luck in the apocalypse!


  1. I think Stephen R. Covey has always lived by the double tap principle.

  2. Well, zombie survival isn't easy. It takes about 10,000 hours of practice shooting zombies in the head before you can effectively call yourself a "headshot expert." Also, you need to relax, to "sharpen the saw" (metaphorically and, if you find yourself in a Ravenholm-type saw mill when the virus breaks out, acutally).

    I've always thought that self-help, get-rich-quick books were all fairly similar to each other. They hash out some commonly accepted/common sense notions ("Save your money," "Practice and then you get better," "Work together with other people"), put a famous rich white man's/Oprah's face on it, and sell it. The end result? A lot of people relearn basic financial, social, or business strategies while the wealthy author makes more money off the royalties. Not that they're actively bad, mind you; some people really benefit from a refresher in personal finance, and a lot of people truly improve how they act in social situations or approach important tasks or projects. But the books don't sell because people want small, quantifiable change. They sell for the same reason slot machines attract so many pullers: the idea that, if it works one time in a million, then maybe, just maybe, I'm the lucky millionth customer.

  3. Yeah maybe a lucky customer, but that still means you have to read. Isn't there something that comes in a DVD instructional video to make successful entrepreneurship easier?