The Importance of Luck in Success
Last week my podcast was on the role of good luck, or, alternatively, divine favor, in our successes. I provocatively titled it, “You Didn’t Build That.”
Serendipitously, the Wall Street Journal last weekend ran a big article on economics research that confirms this. They write:
These scientific luminaries [Nobel Prize winners] actually have something in common with people who reach the top of their fields in any business. They had to be talented to get there. But talent alone wasn’t enough. They also had to be lucky.
As it turns out, the scholars who set out to quantify the role of talent and luck in career success were recently presented with an honor of their own, and it was only slightly less prestigious than the Nobel Prize: They won the Ig Nobel Prize. The Ig Nobel Prizes have been awarded since 1991 to work that makes us laugh, then think, which is a refreshing break from the stuff that makes us think but isn’t meant to make anyone laugh. This year’s Ig Nobel for economics went to those who found mathematical proof that the most successful people aren’t the ones you might suspect. They’re not the most gifted or creative or motivated. What they have is the most luck.
Luck is the most valuable force that society routinely undervalues. Take a peek behind the curtain of any good business, and you won’t have to look very far to find it.
“Without luck, people’s hope in the long run of being really successful seems pretty slim,” said Marc Abrahams, founder of the Ig Nobels and editor of the magazine Annals of Improbable Research. “But there seems to be a lot of people who have been extremely successful in their careers who are quite certain that it’s entirely due to their talent.”
Together they programmed a computer model to study how talent and luck collide. To run their simulations, they built a small world inside a box. There were hypothetical people with different levels of talent, distributed along a bell-shaped curve, randomly bouncing into green dots and red dots: green for good luck, red for rotten luck. The red dots cut their success in half, but the green dots doubled it, proportional to their talent, since more talented people tend to be better at capitalizing on the opportunities that luck presents. (To put it another way, basketball players are more likely to make a shot when they’re open, but they’re still not going to make as many as Stephen Curry.) Their experiment showed that having average talent but ample luck is better than lots of talent and little luck. And the most successful people in their simulations were the ones with moderate talent and magnificent luck.
I included an extended excerpt because this Journal articles are often paywalled.
Also serendipitously, Maxwell Anderson’s weekly newsletter over the weekend was also about the role of luck, with several articles linked under the heading of how to be lucky.
One of his articles is a 2007 blog post from Marc Andreesen, founder of Netscape and now a major venture capitalist, talking about the criticality of luck to entrepreneurial success. He wrote:
Luck is something that every successful entrepreneur will tell you plays a huge role in the difference between success and failure. Many of those successful entrepreneurs will only admit this under duress, though, because if luck does indeed play such a huge role, then that seriously dents the image of the successful entrepreneur as an omniscient business genius.
The role of chance in human affairs is a central part of the work of Nassim Taleb as well. His books Fooled by Randomness and Antifragile are very thought provoking and important reads. You don’t have to agree with everything or like Taleb personally to benefit from these.
Back in 2017, I wrote up a summary of Taleb’s work in newsletter #14, putting it in a religious context. The manner in which randomness and black swans intersect directly aligns with traditional Christian teachings around the sovereignty of God over events. The rejection of a divine interpretation of this leaves us in the awkward place of a life governed more by random chance than by our own efforts.
I even think about this post as a minor example of randomness. I did a podcast on it. The Wall Street Journal wrote an article about it. And Maxwell Anderson wrote a newsletter on it all within a week and all independently. They just intersected in my inbox and doorstep.
It’s difficult, and in some ways not really a human way of doing things, to try to constantly operate out of a mode that keeps chance top of mind. But we should at least use our knowledge of this to keep us humble about the extent to which our successes and accomplishments are a result of our own hard work and genius.