The Role of Luck, or Another Data Point Showing Nobody Understands the Words They Say

Scientific American recently published an article on their website titled “The Role of Luck in Life Success Is Far Greater Than We Realized”, by author Scott Barry Kaufman. It’s under the blogs subdomain, so I’m hoping that they have lower quality control there, as well as a keen sense of irony towards the series title “Beautiful Minds.” Unfortunately, it still seems high enough that they didn’t call it “The Roll of Luck,” so they don’t get points for charming camp, either. In any case, it’s been viciously linked at me without warning, so I’m going to give it the ol’ Alone-style analysis.


The subtitle and nominal thesis of the article is “Are the most successful people in society just the luckiest people?” First principles: answer in the affirmative, and you have what the author wants to be true. Now that we’ve gotten our legwork done, let’s dive in.


What does it take to succeed? What are the secrets of the most successful people? Judging by the popularity of magazines such as Success, Forbes, Inc., and Entrepreneur, there is no shortage of interest in these questions.


Great, I like success, too. This being America, I believe that success is measured in units of “sexmoney,” which took the place of the petrodollar around the collapse of the Soviet Union. So does that mean we’ll be given advice on getting success?


There is a deep underlying assumption, however, that we can learn from them because it’s their personal characteristics–such as talent, skill, mental toughness, hard work, tenacity, optimism, growth mindset, and emotional intelligence– that got them where they are today.


That’ll be a no, then.


This assumption doesn’t only underlie success magazines, but also how we distribute resources in society, from work opportunities to fame to government grants to public policy decisions. We tend to give out resources to those who have a past history of success, and tend to ignore those who have been unsuccessful, assuming that the most successful are also the most competent.


The last time most of us have distributed resources in society was a tip at a restaurant, but don’t let that distract you: Scott has just done a tricky bit of mental contortion. He’s just changed the topic from “what does it take for you to succeed” to “what should we reward people for in society.” The first is extremely helpful in your everyday life; the second will destroy your soul. Be warned.


But is this assumption correct? I have spent my entire career studying the psychological characteristics that predict achievement and creativity. While I have found that a certain number of traits— including passion, perseverance, imagination, intellectual curiosity, and openness to experience– do significantly explain differences in success, I am often intrigued by just how much of the variance is often left unexplained.


Scott goes for the three-pointer: establishes himself as an authority despite being a weak enough academic to need his own website, confesses that everything that people do normally attribute to success does contribute, and then tries to shift the focus entirely on to the “unexplained” variance. Yeah, why do Chads get all the sexmoney? Who can give us the answers we seek?


In recent years, a number of studies and books–including those by risk analyst Nassim Taleb, investment strategist Michael Mauboussin, and economist Robert Frank— have suggested that luck and opportunity may play a far greater role than we ever realized, across a number of fields, including financial trading, business, sports, art, music, literature, and science. Their argument is not that luck is everything; of course talent matters. Instead, the data suggests that we miss out on a really importance [sic] piece of the success picture if we only focus on personal characteristics in attempting to understand the determinants of success.


Note: all three of the people he cites are involved in some way or another with business. Scott is not involved in business; he is a psychologist. “Great, so he’s being interdisciplinary?” No, he’s still writing on psychology, which means he’s still stuck in the one discipline. He’s just searching for sources farther and farther afield to prove his point, which is something like hiring mercenaries to fight your wars: you may win, but you’re going to get exactly what you paid for. Also, the opportunity part is just pure bullshit. An opportunity is the prerequisite for success: it is defined as “the thing that the success springs from.” Of course opportunity is involved. It’s like claiming that prologues write books.


Kaufman gives us a nice little list of things that luck does for success:



…which is great, except that none of this is luck determining success. The point that comes closest is scientific impact, which uses citations as its metric and as such is entirely about recognition by others. If you identify how much others recognize you as your metric for success, you are either female and in high school or in deep, deep trouble. Recognition from others is something you have no control over, because other people have free will. Treating it as if it ought to be otherwise is madness.


Of the rest, half are about time and location of birth and half are about name. Time and location of birth aren’t anything you can change, but you can certainly choose how your kids are born, which is precisely why people immigrate to better countries. As for the names, it probably doesn’t occur to you, but you can change your name. Want to get tenure? Change your last name to Aaronson. Want to do well in sales? Make sure your customers can easily pronounce your name. Want people to think you’re smart? Put your middle initial on your resume. (I’m going to start doing that; thanks, Scott!) Woman in law? Start going by a more masculine version of your name, and if you can’t think of one, just initialize. This is all fantastic advice, and none of it is luck.


Scott cannot recognize this. He thinks that all of this is identical to luck. He put all those links up and never thought to knock the K off his surname, or at the very least go by Scott B. Kaufman on his website. This is because all of these changes are changes to identity, and to Scott, a change to his identity is equal to his death. (Side note: it used to be traditional for Chinese people working in or immigrating to America to go by English names. Nowadays, they go by their birth names instead, even though Americans haven’t gotten a smidge better at pronouncing them. What does this indicate? Can you pronounce Chinese words like Xiao or Qing? And if you seek to go to a non-English country, what should you do with your name?)


Instead, Scott decides to keep exploring luck.


In an attempt to shed light on this heavy issue, the Italian physicists Alessandro Pluchino and Andrea Raspisarda teamed up with the Italian economist Alessio Biondo to make the first ever attempt to quantify the role of luck and talent in successful careers. In their prior work, they warned against a “naive meritocracy”, in which people actually fail to give honors and rewards to the most competent people because of their underestimation of the role of randomness among the determinants of success. To formally capture this phenomenon, they proposed a “toy mathematical model” that simulated the evolution of careers of a collective population over a worklife of 40 years (from age 20-60).


Note: the physicists are being interdisciplinary. They’re trying to apply their technical skills to a problem in a completely different domain. That domain, however, is not psychology. It is economics. Consider: how would this study be treated if it were being discussed in the Wall Street Journal? Would it be in the Life & Arts section, or the Business and Finance section?


The Italian researchers stuck a large number of hypothetical individuals (“agents”) with different degrees of “talent” into a square world and let their lives unfold over the course of their entire worklife. They defined talent as whatever set of personal characteristics allow a person to exploit lucky opportunities (I’ve argued elsewhere that this is a reasonable definition of talent). Talent can include traits such as intelligence, skill, motivation, determination, creative thinking, emotional intelligence, etc. The key is that more talented people are going to be more likely to get the most ‘bang for their buck’ out of a given opportunity (see here for support of this assumption).


All agents began the simulation with the same level of success (10 “units”). Every 6 months, individuals were exposed to a certain number of lucky events (in green) and a certain amount of unlucky events (in red). Whenever a person encountered an unlucky event, their success was reduced in half, and whenever a person encountered a lucky event, their success doubled proportional to their talent (to reflect the real-world interaction between talent and opportunity).


Emphasis mine. They did not include any ability to reduce or avoid bad luck, or any native factor that would cause an increase in “bad luck,” like the insufferable adolescents who whine about how “unlucky” it was that they were caught with weed while running a red light. This study is about what happens to people who are blindly exposed to the vicissitudes of fate, which I guess covers a lot of the population. What you should be reading here is not “man, I really hope I don’t get unlucky” but rather “man, I’d better make fucking certain I don’t get unlucky in the way that takes a full half of my sexmoney. I like my sexmoney.”


What did they find? Well, first they replicated the well known “Pareto Principle“, which predicts that a small number of people will end up achieving the success of most of the population (Richard Koch refers to it as the “80/20 principle“). In the final outcome of the 40-year simulation, while talent was normally distributed, success was not. The 20 most successful individuals held 44% of the total amount of success, while almost half of the population remained under 10 units of success (which was the initial starting condition). This is consistent with real-world data, although there is some suggestion that in the real world, wealth success is even more unevenly distributed, with just eight men owning the same wealth as the poorest half of the world.


None of this is surprising if you’ve ever met some of the really successful or unsuccessful people. Of course the real world is going to be even more harshly divided, if many people are seemingly trying to nuke their own chances of success and if it’s considered socially acceptable to pay an army to go take all the sexmoney from people who can’t keep theirs. I understand this is officially termed “cucking.”


Although such an unequal distribution may seem unfair, it might be justifiable if it turned out that the most successful people were indeed the most talented/competent. So what did the simulation find? On the one hand, talent wasn’t irrelevant to success. In general, those with greater talent had a higher probability of increasing their success by exploiting the possibilities offered by luck. Also, the most successful agents were mostly at least average in talent. So talent mattered.


However, talent was definitely not sufficient because the most talented individuals were rarely the most successful. In general, mediocre-but-lucky people were much more successful than more-talented-but-unlucky individuals. 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.


Understanding this is a pivotal moment in any person’s life. There are three, and only three, paths you can choose here.


The first is to accept there are things beyond your control and to work on adjusting your ideas of success away from sexmoney and towards things that do directly result from talent: to make good and beautiful things, for instance, without worrying about whether you will be paid in sex or money for them. There are countless gorgeous things in the world which have no name on them. You can join the nameless masses gracefully, and we will all join them in the end. The focus shifts from your success to the success of those who come after you. This is a mature option, and suited to maturity.


The second is to decide that you’re going to make damn certain you get lucky, no matter how dumb the methods of luck are. If it’s putting your initials down, you’ll do that. If it’s getting your boss his favorite treat, you’ll do that. If it’s telling him/her you love him/her, you’ll do that. (n.b. This one isn’t necessarily a good idea, but it will increase your sexmoney.) This is a more youthful choice, and fits in better with youthful passion. If it’s kept past its time, or focused on more than it should be, then it will eat you away with neurosis. It’s potent, but dangerous.


The third is


Talent loss is obviously unfortunate, to both the individual and to society. So what can be done so that those most capable of capitalizing on their opportunities are given the opportunities they most need to thrive? Let’s turn to that next.


absolute abdication of power.


I won’t bother quoting the rest of the article for reasons of decency. It is pure pornography, discussing potentially better ways to award people with success (sexmoney) and showing the stats on them (three Italians show you the way your boss should be treating you, semicolon close parentheses). The conclusion is that rewarding people at random or giving everyone something is the best way to go about things, and I’m not going to go into an in-depth analysis of methodology, so let’s peg that one at “sure, sounds right.”


Let’s be real: Scott is not a manager for anyone, and neither is anybody reading this article. This information is totally irrelevant to him in the same way a “how to give a blowjob” video is irrelevant to straight men, although straight men are still the target demo. It’s an extremely useful study for executives, and it has one clear message: “Your systems are easy to game, and randomness is a better way to go. Make sure that your systems either can’t be gamed because they’re random, or that they reward people gaming them in the right ways. Also, there is a hell of a lot of undiscovered talent out there that’s willing to work for cheap, so put some money there rather than on the big boys, who are probably just lucky.” Apply this to any situation where you would be choosing something over another thing. Actually, come to think of it, we can all use this for situations like choosing vendors and choosing restaurants: you’re sometimes going to find out the hole-in-the-wall is shitty, but sometimes it’ll turn out to be fantastic and you’ll be getting a great deal. This is a valuable personal lesson, and the other side to the lesson is: “people are dumb, they will judge potential for success based on prior success, and so if I’m going to get a healthy dose of sexmoney I’d better show myself off as being as successful as I can without looking like a phony.” Technically speaking, this is known as “marketing.”


Scott concludes:


The results of this elucidating simulation, which dovetail with a growing number of studies based on real-world data, strongly suggest that luck and opportunity play an underappreciated role in determining the final level of individual success. As the researchers point out, since rewards and resources are usually given to those who are already highly rewarded, this often causes a lack of opportunities for those who are most talented (i.e., have the greatest potential to actually benefit from the resources), and it doesn’t take into account the important role of luck, which can emerge spontaneously throughout the creative process. The researchers argue that the following factors are all important in giving people more chances of success: a stimulating environment rich in opportunities, a good education, intensive training, and an efficient strategy for the distribution of funds and resources. They argue that at the macro-level of analysis, any policy that can influence these factors will result in greater collective progress and innovation for society (not to mention immense self-actualization of any particular individual).


…which would be excellent, except that this is not an economics piece, it is a psychology piece. There is no reflection here on what this means about our individual, personal view into the world. Scott fails to discuss the implications of the study on how we live our own lives. Instead, he talks about policy, which is what other people ought to do. There isn’t even the slightest nod towards praxis or (on the hopeless yet overpopulated outskirts of psychology’s mandate) some kind of reflection on human biases regarding success and failure. He just marvels: wouldn’t it be great, if people like me, who went to Carnegie Mellon and got a PhD from Yale, who are very educated, very talented, and deserve so much for being who I am, got all the sexmoney I deserve. That would be just super.


The mismatch in plurality is intended. Let that serve as your warning.

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