One of the things that I feel is undervalued is the role of luck. We hear about how the successful – the winners in business – get that way by virtue of their intelligence and diligence. Yet, if you think about it, lots of folks are smart and work hard. Yet not all succeed. Which made me wonder just how much of success is luck. I asked Siri (I was on a walk) and got the link to an article where they actually researched this. As to the answer, do you feel lucky?
The article starts with a suite of evidence. I know I’m mighty lucky to have been born as a white male in California, had both parents, was able to secure a really good education, and more. The data says that all these things are boons to the likelihood of success. There were also all sorts of weird variations (including middle initials contributes to success?).
Further, the article reports on how two researchers ran some simulations. They had characters with varying degrees of ‘talent’, and then also some good and bad luck. What happened, of course, is that the folks with a combination of luck and ‘talent’, did best. Talent alone didn’t do it, nor luck. In fact, the most talented didn’t succeed the most. “The most successful agents tended to be those who were only slightly above average in talent but with a lot of luck in their lives.”
The research goes further. It’s typical, in academia, that folks who get grants then are more likely to get subsequent grants. Which, it turns out, isn’t the best option. A different simulation by other researchers suggested random was better! And, arguably, the best policy was giving everyone the same amount!
When we take this back to the real world, what seems to be important is that luck plays a big role in success. Those folks at the very top appear to have been very lucky. Further, their future success isn’t guaranteed (note that currently there’s a prime example of over-valuing previous success). If you’re smart, and dedicated, you’re more likely to do well, but you can also be subject to the slings and arrows of fortune which can similarly contribute.
I think we should be wary of rewarding past success with greater opportunity. We should also be wary of any assessment of how smart someone must be, just because they are successful. There are a lot of factors that contribute to success (for instance, research suggests, that being taller and having a deeper voice, increases the likelihood of doing well in business). They do say luck favors the prepared mind, so do work hard. But you’re also dependent on the vicissitudes of fate. Do you feel lucky?