Is Success A Product of Luck or Hard Work?


During the covid-19 lockdown, this headline about Success, Luck and Hard work went viral. Nearly half of men say they do most of the home schooling, 3% of women agree. I bring this up not to debate who’s right but because it’s a great example of something called egocentric bias.

Is Success A Product of Luck or Hard Work?

Most people think they do most of the work. For example, researchers have asked authors of multi-author papers what percentage of the work they personally did. The result for the percentages sum is on average 140%. When couples are asked to estimate how much of the house work they do, the combined total is almost always over 100%.

Now you might think this is because people want to appear more helpful than they actually are, but that’s not it. When couples are asked what fraction of the fights they start or how much of the mess is theirs, the total is again over 100%.

People think they do more of the work but they also think they cause more of the problems. So why is this? I think it’s simply because, you experience and remember vividly all of what you do but not all of what everyone else does.

So naturally you overestimate your own contributions and underestimate others. I think this bias leads us to underestimate the influence of other things on our lives, like the role luck plays in our success.

Let us use hockey players for example, if you ask a professional hockey player how they managed to reach the National Hockey League (NHL), they might mention their hard work, determination, great coaches, their parent’s willingness to get up at 5:00 AM, and so on. But they probably won’t acknowledge how lucky they were to be born in January.

Statistics shows that, in many years, 40% of hockey players selected into top tier leagues are born in the first quarter of the year, compared to just 10% in the fourth quarter.

An early birthday can make you up to 4 times as likely to be a pro hockey player, and the reason for this disparity is presumably because the cut off date for kids hockey leagues is January 1st.

Those born in the first part of the year are a little older, and so on average bigger and faster than kids in their league born late in the year. Now as they grow up this difference should eventually shrink to nothing, but it doesn’t. This is because, the young kids who show the most promise are given more time on the ice and enter more tournaments where they receive better coaching and improve their skills.

These advantages compound year after year so by the time you get to the pros, birthdays are heavily skewed towards the start of the year. But does any professional hockey player feel thankful for their birthday? probably not.

We are all like that – largely oblivious to the fortunate events that support our success.

Probably the most significant bit of luck many of people enjoy, is being born into a prosperous country. Around half the variance in income received by people around the world is explained by their country of residence, and that country’s income distribution.

If you were born in Burundi for example, which has the world’s lowest gross national income per capita of just $730 a year, it doesn’t matter how smart or hardworking you are you’re unlikely to earn much as an adult.

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Now, many people get offended if you point out how big a role chance plays in their success, and I get it. If we are just a product of our circumstances, then our hard work and our talent seem to count for nothing.

People think it has to be either skill or luck that explains success, but the truth is, you need both. For example, let’s look at the 8 top track and field world records (both men and women). All the athletes to achieve these records are obviously world class, extremely dedicated and talented. Yet, when they achieve their world records, 7 out of 8 had a tailwind. Now, these athletes all have the ability to win a gold medal, but to set the world record required a bit of luck as well.

If competition is fierce, being talented and hardworking is important, but it’s not enough to guarantee success, you also need to catch a break.

Largely. I think we’re unaware of our good luck, because by definition, it’s not something we did. Like the house work done by your significant other, it goes unappreciated.

Here’s the crazy thing, downplaying the importance of chance events may actually improve your probability of success. This is because, if you perceive an outcome to be uncertain, you’re less likely to invest effort in it which further decreases your chances of success. So, it’s a useful delusion to believe you are in full control of your destiny.

Now there may be another benefit to overlooking your lucky breaks, which is, it makes it easier to justify your place in society. If you have a lot of wealth or power, you can just ascribe it to your own intelligence, effort and perseverance. This makes it easier to accept inequality.

Once you have achieved a certain status, it seems natural to feel like you deserve it and all the other good things that come your way.

In another experiment, participants were asked to think of a good thing that happened to them recently, and then one group was asked to list their own personal qualities or actions that made that good thing happen, another group was asked to list external factors beyond their control that led to the event, and a control group was simply asked to list reasons why the good thing happened. For completing the tasks, participants were told they would be paid $1, but in the end, they were offered the option to donate some or all of the money to a charity.

Results showed that, those who listed their own personal attributes contributed 25% less than those who listed external factors beyond their control. Now I think of what all this means for people in our society, specifically for people in positions of power, like business leaders and politicians. Undoubtedly, most of them are talented and hard working, but they have also been luckier than most, and like most of us, they don’t realize just how lucky they are.

Luck or Hard Work

This gives them a distorted view of reality. They’re kind of living in a form of survivor bias. All these leaders have worked hard and ultimately succeeded, so to them, the world appears fair. In their experience, it’s a reward of hard work, but what they don’t have, is the experience of all the people who have worked hard and failed. So, what are they to make of people less successful than themselves? The natural conclusion is that, they must just be less talented or less hard working.

This perspective makes them less inclined to be generous to give back, and they’re the ones who set the rules for how society operates. This is particularly unfortunate, since one of the main ways many of people are lucky is in their country of residence. But what is the country, except for the things put there by people who came before – The public transport, emergency services clean air and water and everything like that. It seems a cruel trick of our psychology that, successful people without any malice will credit their success largely to their own hard work and ingenuity, therefore, contribute less to maintaining the very circumstances that made that success possible in the first place.

The good news is that acknowledging our fortunate circumstances not only brings us more in line with reality, it also makes us more likable. In a study where people have to read the transcript of a fictional 60 minutes interview with a biotech entrepreneur, experimenters tried changing just the last paragraph where the interviewee is talking about the reasons for their company’s success.

In 1 version, the entrepreneur personally takes credit for the success they’ve had, but in the other he says luck played a significant role. Now, people who read the luck version of the transcript, judge the entrepreneur as kinder, and thought they’d be more likely to be close friends with him than those who read the other version of the transcript.

Raising our awareness of fortune events can also make us happier, because it allows us to feel gratitude. 

Initially, I wanted to write this article just to say – our circumstances and psychology conspire to make us oblivious to our own luck. This leads successful people to view the world as fair, and those less successful than them as less talented or less hard working. This is before you factor in any discrimination or prejudice.

It also became apparent to me that I should talk about what to do if you want to be successful in such a world. I think the best advice is paradoxical. First, you must believe that you are in complete control of your destiny and your success comes down only to your own talent and hard work. But second, you’ve got to know that’s not true, for you or anyone else. You have to remember, if you do achieve success, that luck played a significant role, and giving your good fortune, you should do what you can to increase the luck of others.

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