- Luck, talent, and hard work all contribute to our successes.
- We often ignore or downplay the role of luck in our success.
- We may discount luck because it conflicts with deeply held beliefs about independence.
You wouldn’t be reading this, about the largely hidden role of luck in success, if I hadn’t had a crush on Esperanza Spalding.
I first heard of the virtuoso bassist on a lazy day in the summer of 2010 while watching the Nobel Peace Prize Concert because nothing else was on. A year later, a friend told me she was filming a video and the crew needed more guys. Cool. I thought I’d drop in; maybe get a chance to ask her out. The video premiered on February 1, 2012. I posted it to my social media feed. That first post, a song penned to embolden young black men, inspired a second. On day three, my motivation digressed.
Twenty-five days later, I wrote about the experience. The editor of my law school’s student newspaper saw it and suggested I post the article there. Three months later, I was running the year-old paper. I ran a piece on falling bar exam results that led me to consider the possibility that psychological phenomena influenced bar exam performance. By 2014 I was so convinced I went back to school for a master's in psychology. A year later, I met an alumna of the program who invited me to a conference where, two years later, a question about writing professionally introduced me to an editor at Psychology Today. Strings of good luck are rarely so conspicuous.
Life is filled with luck - beneficial or harmful chance events at least partially outside of the control of the people they affect. Sometimes luck is objective: Win the lottery? Good luck. Win a lottery rigged in your favor? Not luck at all. Sometimes luck is subjective: With 14,000,605 to 1 odds, one expects to lose a lottery drawing. Therefore, there’s no objective difference between missing one number and missing them all. But if you miss by one number? Bad luck. Missing all the numbers? Well, you expected to lose; luck was never a factor.
The tendency to mislabel, overlook, or spurn luck follows people into their professional lives. Research suggests talent, effort, and luck are interdependent factors that contribute to a person or group’s level of success, but when successful people tell their stories, talent and luck are often absent. People tend to downplay their talent, but that’s another article.
Ask an entrepreneur how they survived ten years in business when seventy percent of new businesses fail in that same time. “Hard work.” Ask a new executive how they got from pool of interns to the limited number of seats in the boardroom. “Hard work.” But surely their competition was talented and hardworking, too. How does one account the failure of other members of their cohort to reach the top of the proverbial mountain?
Inattention to luck may happen because most chance events are unlikely to attract attention. “Randomness often plays out in subtle ways, therefore it is easy to construct narratives that portray success as having been inevitable,” write Pluchino et al. in a discussion of hindsight bias, the tendency to perceive past events as more predictable than they were. Imagine not being selected for an interview because someone misread your résumé but not knowing that’s what happened. That’s certainly bad luck, but you’ll never know.
Dismissal of luck may stem from our preference to be in control. Neuroscientists have learned that something in our brain turns on in the presence of control. Psychological research suggests humans dislike uncertainty. Uncertainty signals danger, causing anxiety. Crediting luck may also rob of us intrinsic motivation. Meanwhile, Western cultures value individualism. In the United States, “hustle culture” is having a moment. Accepting the idea that randomness contributed to one’s success may be hard for a person whose lodestar has been “I can do this myself.”
In some cases, the influence of luck only becomes evident when looking at large groups of people. Among other things, the use of middle initials increases evaluations of intellectual performance, people with earlier surname initials are more likely to receive tenure, and one’s chances of being named CEO are strongly affected by one’s birth month.
One study investigated the interaction between talent and luck. The researchers found that moderately talented people were the most likely to experience the highest levels of success. The reason for this result is that there are far more moderately talented people than extremely talented people. Although an extremely talented person might be more able to take advantage of a single instance of good luck, a string of good luck is more likely to happen to one of the more numerous moderately talented people. If we combine this result with Angela Duckworth’s research on grit, one would expect the most successful people to be very hardworking moderately talented people who experience a lot of good luck.
Chance events play a larger role in life than people often realize. Break any link in a chain of fortunate events and an entire section of your life evaporates. In my case, without Esperanza… Date? What date? Oh. Right. I forgot about that. No, I didn’t get a date. My luck isn’t that good.
Pluchino, A., Biondo, A. E., & Rapisarda, A. (2018). Talent versus luck. Advances in Complex Systems Vol. 21, Nos. 3 & 4 (2018) 1850014
Rescher, N. (2014). The machinations of luck. Metaphilosophy , October 2014, Vol. 45, No. 4/5 (October 2014), pp. 620-626
Pritchard, D. (2014). The modal account of luck. Metaphilosophy , October 2014, Vol. 45, No. 4/5 (October 2014), pp. 594-619
Sauder, M. (2020). A sociology of luck. Sociological Theory Vol. 38 (3) 193-216