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Luck and Success

I have long been uncomfortably aware that luck has played a major factor in my success (such as it is). I spent more than three years after my PhD alternating between unemployment and low paying part-time jobs, before I got two lucky breaks. First one philosophy department urgently needed a full-time lecturer for a few months due to an unexpected absence, than a second; in both cases, I just happened to be around at the right time. The second job got renewed a few times, and then I was around when the department secured a very large grant which kept me employed for the next five years. I was able to take advantage of my lucky breaks by publishing a lot, but I was lucky to be given the time and conditions to do research. I know that lots of other people who left philosophy due to the scarcity of jobs would have done as well, or better, if they had had the breaks I had.One way to comfort oneself in the face of evidence that lucky breaks played a big role in one’s success is to think that even though that’s true, you need to be good enough to take advantage of the breaks. I am tempted to think that the research time and good conditions allowed my natural talent to shine through. There is probably something to the thought that people need to be good enough to take advantage of their breaks, but how good is good enough? A recent study suggests – albeit with regard to a very different field – that the bar for being good enough is pretty low.

In a series of experiments, Matthew Salganik, a sociologist at Princeton University, recruited 30,000 teenagers to 9 identical virtual worlds. In these worlds, they were exposed to music by emerging (but unsigned) bands and given the opportunity to download the songs they liked most. Which songs were most popular varied from world to world; the song rated number one in one world was rated number 40 in another.

Various factors affected which songs were liked most, including information about what other people liked. But luck seemed to have played an important role. That’s not to say that quality was irrelevant. It was possible to identify songs that were generally rated as better across worlds, and others that were generally rated as worse across worlds. But a great deal of variation in preferences is consistent with these ratings, and that’s just what they found.

Of course popular music is quite different from other cultural products, and cultural products are different from other kinds of things we rank. It may be that familiarity plays a role in music that it doesn’t play in other kinds of rankings (we may like songs we are familiar with, just because we are familiar with them). And it may be that familiarity plays a much less important role in ranking, say, philosophers. But there are other mechanisms that amplify the effects of luck. An early success, or the right encouragement, can lead to confidence which in turn leads to objectively better work. That can in turn lead to more confidence (and perhaps better conditions, more people willing to read your work, more research time) and that leads to yet better work. A vicious circle can turn in the opposite direction: an early rejection may lead to lack of confidence, worse work, worse conditions and a consequent further decline in quality.

Those who are successful should recognize the role that luck played in their success, even if their work really is better. Luck plays a role in its being better, not just in being seen to be better. The recognition of this role should lead to more humility, and a greater willingness to help those less fortunate.




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8 Comment on this post

  1. You sound a bit rueful, as though you’re upset at being cursed by good luck. I get the idea that we should compensate/insure/etc the unlucky for drawing the short straw, but I’ve never found the flipside of this – the idea that we should penalise the fortunate – remotely intuitive or attractive.

    Has anyone written a sort of dark and twisted counterpart to Rawls on this stuff? As in: “veil of ignorance, distribution of talents/resources/etc, let’s think about how best to hobble that b*stard in the front?” I’m sure there are people who think about public policy this way (Anglican Church, left-wing academics who can’t buy a house in Oxford, Socialist Workers’ Party, etc) but I don’t see reasons to join in. Whereas risk-aversion powers the Rawlsian result that public policy should be about improving the lot of the least fortunate, a policy based on hobbling the front-runner seems to lack a similar foundation. There’s plenty of evidence that it’s a good idea, long-term, to actually encourage the front-runners leads to welfare gains – entrepreneurs really do create wealth; and the talented often pay more tax than they consume in public services, and they give more philanthropically, etc. Bright engineers create products that make everyone’s lives easier, and that gives us more time to bicker with each other about the porter’s lunch/transhumanism/Woody Allen. Everyone’s a winner. I can think of the odd place where this rosy picture of everyone being able to ride the coat-tails of the best player doesn’t hold. The ugly, it seems to me, have a particularly sour lemon to suck: mating is (to first order) a zero-sum game, and it’s one where strict rationality in the rationally self-interested sense seems to have a tighter grip on our souls than is usually the case (for evolutionary reasons, I expect). There’s no riding of coat-tails, spillovers or positive externalities in that game. But generally, there’s plenty of evidence that having fortunate/talented people in your midst is actually to your advantage.

    Your last paragraph is code, isn’t it? Money, right? You mean cash or internet banking transfers. And you mean that the fortunate should give it away for nothing in return? I always think of something Abraham Lincoln said “you work, and toil, and earn bread. And I’ll eat it.” He called it “the eternal struggle between these two principles – right and wrong – throughout the world”. I think of it when people want something in return for nothing. Is that where you’re headed with “a greater willingness to help those less fortunate”?

    1. Actually, I had in mind punishment primarily rather than redistribution. But I’m quite happy to extend it to redistribution. There are – Spirit Level type – arguments that redistribution is in everyone’s interests. That’s an empirical question. The difference principle also turns on empirical matters, so there’s no need to invert Rawls at all. It might just turn out that the distribution which improves the welfare of the least well off is one that is fairly egalitarian. What do the better off get in return? They get to live in a more secure society.

      1. What do you mean by “punishment” here? Do you mean you want to punish the lucky, or do you mean you want to build institutions that prevent people punishing people for bad luck? (I’d argue we already have quite a few of those.)

        “It might just turn out that the distribution which improves the welfare of the least well off is one that is fairly egalitarian.” It depends a bit what you mean by “fairly egalitarian”. To me, the liberal democracies are all fairly egalitarian. They all have universal democratic franchises, tax/GDP rates roughly in the range 30-50%*, some social welfare provisions, public education systems, some public healthcare, functioning justice systems which purport to be blind to social position, etc etc. If you’re rich and I’m poor, they provide limits to how much you can boss me around.

        *Most long-standing OECD countries have Gini coeffs somewhere in the range 0.25-0.35… that’s a fairly narrow band; if we use (say) the HDI to summarise those countries which have a fair shot at being on the right track, then we see Scandanavian, Antipodean, North American countries on the list (plus others). We also see a range of Ginis… there are probably things other than income inequality which matter most for being on that list (some aspects of democratic institutions, sensible combinations of markets and regulation, etc.).

        1. Yes, I want to punish the lucky. Either that, or you are the least charitable reader I have ever met! Prisons are full of people who have problems due to bad luck. Impulse control problems are highly correlated with lower SES. Of course, need for money and a narrow range of options for getting it is highly correlated with lower SES. One way in which narrowing inequality might be good for everyone is by reducing these problems, and therefore the direct and indirect costs of crime. Of course that doesn’t mean that the prison population can just be let out, but there is evidence that less punitive strategies actually reduce recidivism with regard to most criminals. I have a paper in Law & Philosophy on this.

          As you know, measured by any measure including Gini coefficients, inequality has increased in every Western society over the past three decades. In many countries this is quite dramatic. The GFC seems to have put blip in that, but western democracies are returning to trend. So there’s lots of room for increasing inequality. These issues are not the only ones that matter, of course, but they’re not independent from the ones you mention. Political influence and wealth are not entirely independent, so the design of democratic institutions is not indifferent to equality.

          1. “or you are the least charitable reader I have ever met!” Certainly plausible. I haven’t met all your readers, but I’d like to think I’d be looking at top 10%, maybe 5…

            Completely agree that we need institutions that avoid penalising people for bad luck. We also need institutions that provide incentives for people to respect each other.

            The income inequality thing is interesting – the same people who say we should take a long-term view about problems like environmental change usually argue that we should take a short-sighted, possibly instantaneous view of income inequality.* And vice versa. To me income inequality is a moderately interesting diagnostic variable which tells you something kind of interesting about a society, but it is not that interesting in terms of being an indicator of social health. Some inequality is undesirable, and some is an excellent idea (see first two sentences above – free riding is a form of lack of respect for other people). Basically, I don’t think it makes any sense to try to address inequality as though it is anything other than a complex mixture of the unfair and the perfectly reasonable. One of the reasons for the political heat in this issue is because different sides insist on discussing it in terms that exclude the possibility of the issue being complex. It’s the sort of issue that makes me feel sorry for economists** – on one hand they are constantly enjoined to do fewer linear regressions and more complex systems thinking; on the other, people (such as the Spirit Level ideologues) insist on removing the complexity from issues where it exists, and really matters.

            [We in New Zealand have had an interesting ride in terms of Gini. We’re a high migration country (30% population increase since 1990, on the back of bog-standard rich country fertility rates), and it’s often two-speed: people from countries a lot wealthier than us (UK, Australia) and people from countries poorer than us (Pacific Islands, parts of East Asia). That’s one factor. Another is that there were a bunch of liberal economic reforms in the 1980s & 90s, most of which were really good ideas. Our Gini rose sharply between mid-80s and mid-90s but has since flattened out (wiggles notwithstanding). But GDP growth has been far higher in the new, less equal NZ than it was in the old, more homogeneous NZ, so the children of the NZ poor have a rosier future now than they would have if their richer primary school classmates’ parents were subject to 1970s-style policies today. I’d argue that at least some of the attendant Gini rise is fine – I have no objection to the two-speed migration: we could just go with Brits & Aussies, or just with folks from the Pacific rim (but not Australia) but why? Seems arbitrary (racist, too, probably). Also people do respond to incentives. Our farmers are now among the most competitive in the world. Back in the 1980s we paid them production subsidies which were significant enough to have impacts on monetary policy (ie pretty distortionary at the big scale as well as the small). Getting rid of that sort of thing was a good idea, even if the net effects were to widen income gaps between rich and poor. Your mileage may vary, of course, but even the Scandanvians have basically retreated from the 1970s style “equality-uber-alles” thing…]

            *Recall the standard result that beyond about the tax/GDP levels we see today in the OECD, redistributive policies start to reduce your future growth prospects by driving brain drains/disincentives to innovate, work hard, etc.
            **Economists have it far tougher than any other discipline I can think of in terms of strident public ignorance regarding their field.

  2. Neil can speak for himself, but I read the piece to speak against the ‘just deserts’ mantra typically offered by conservatives and libertarians when they resist redistributive policies aimed toward social democracy. Obviously this still leaves on the table the argument that – all things considered – minimal government intervention leaves things in pretty decent shape. The problem for this argument appears that things seem to be left in even better shape on every measure we care about when government intervention goes beyond the minimal (e.g., Scandinavian countries).

    Though I think Neil’s argument is more likely to resonate with the wider public, Tom Clark heads to the same destination via a different route at Naturalism dot org forward slash progressivepolitics dot htm

  3. Your points regarding luck and success echo Malcolm Gladwell’s description of the “Matthew Effect” in his book Outliers, where those with advantage tend to accrue further advantage, whether it be due to confidence, or a range of different circumstances. He often ascribes the beginnings of success to luck, for example he points out that a disproportionate number of Canadian hockey players are born in the beginning of the year, resulting in them being larger and more mature and consequently better athletes than the other children in their grade.
    In regard to the question you raise – “how good is good enough” – Gladwell attributes the astronomical success of statistical ‘outliers’, such as the Beatles and Bill Gates, to the 10,000-hour rule. Although this is probably a rather overly specific measure of the time required to achieve brilliance when given an opportunity, I agree with the notion that it is practice that ultimately determines success. Not ‘natural talent’, which is probably just a combination of cultural and social factors (and luck) in the early stages of life.

  4. Brunello Stancioli

    “I love him who is ashamed when the dice fall in his favor, and who then asks: “Am I a dishonest player?”–for he is willing to succumb. ” (Nietzsche).

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