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Great Success = Some Talent + A Lot of Luck

February 18th, 2008 · 7 Comments

Spotted this wonderful, and very accurate, ‘equation’ by Daniel Kahneman:

The Secret of Regression to Mediocrity

Success = Some Talent + Luck
Great Success = Some Talent + A Lot of Luck

The term ‘regression to mediocrity’ (also known as ‘regression to the mean’) was first coined by Francis Galton in 1886. Galton showed that, on average, the children of tall parents tended to be shorter than their parents, and that the children of short parents tended to be taller than their parents.

Say what?

The point is that height is partly determined by your genes, and partly by the environment you grow up in (e.g. food, healthcare, etc). A confluence of good genes and a good environment might produce a very tall person. If that tall person has a child with another tall person, sure, the child will have good genes – but they certainly aren’t guaranteed to have a good environment. In fact, they’re probably just going to have an average environment. That means that the child, on average, just isn’t going to be as tall as their parents.

This applies for all sorts of different things wherever luck, or random chance, is involved. Take gambling. Imagine I win the World Series of Poker this year. Now, if this happened, you would agree that I must be a pretty excellent poker player; perhaps even the best poker player in the entire world. Would you expect me to win next year? Even 50% odds? Probably not. But why?

Luck. We all know that there is a significant element of luck in poker, simply in the cards that you are dealt. I don’t just need to be highly talented to win the World Series, I need good luck. To win again next year, I would once again need good luck – which by definition is hard to come by. So, I might do very well, but I probably wouldn’t win.

There are people who’ve won the World Series twice. Since the tournament began in 1970, four players have won multiple times. However, it hasn’t happened since 1988, when there were only 167 entrants. Last year, there were 6,358. It’s much easier to to be luckier than 100 other people twice in a row, than it is to be luckier than 6000 people.

Many people like to ascribe success to all sorts of different factors, like religion, schooling, discipline, fitness, sex, age, philosophy, etc. Not only does this help sell books, but it also lets us ignore the inconvenient, and (to some) slightly depressing fact that success – particularly great success – is down to sheer luck:

Randomly meeting a essential business contact on a plane.

Spotting a book on a shelf and, for no real reason, deciding to read it.

Your parents moving to an area that turned out to have a school that had a really great biology teacher. Being in the right place at the right time.

Luck isn’t everything, though*. People don’t create a company like Google by luck – it requires talent, and the more talent the better. You need to be smart, you need to be able to work hard and to spot opportunities. You may need a high degree of education, or a hard-won sense of intuitive.

(*Unless you win the lottery, in which case you are exceptionally lucky, and talent quite literally doesn’t enter into the equation. But we are talking about the role of talent in success here, and whether talent is enough on its own, not the universally-accepted fact that luck can result in good things)

However. Being an exceptionally talented scientist won’t automatically get you a Nobel Prize, any more than being a brilliant poker player will automatically make you win the World Series. It might get you in to a great university and make some important discoveries – and it might win you tens, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. To get to the very top, though, you need luck – and a lot of it.

Ah, but aren’t there some people who consistently create successful businesses, or win multiple Nobel Prizes? Yes, there are. Regression to the mean doesn’t dictate that if you have tall parents, you must be shorter than them – it just means that you are likely to be shorter than them. There will be a small proportion of people who are taller than their tall parents. Likewise, if you create a successful business, your next business isn’t likely to be as successful – but there’s a small chance it might be.

We only hear about those people who win out on that small chance. After all, those people who set up two, three or even four successful businesses (in a world of six billion, this is bound to happen a few times) are far more interesting to write about than those millions of people who just set up one. And it’s far more interesting to ascribe their success to getting up at 6am every day, eating a bowl of porridge and cycling 20 miles in the morning than to something as boring as luck.

This can only be thought of as defeatist if you believe that winning a Nobel Prize, becoming President, or winning the World Series is integral to your self-worth. Some people will have a lot of bad luck during their lives. Some people will be very lucky. Most people will have a bit of both, and they’ll succeed if they have talent. That success shouldn’t be sniffed at – and great success shouldn’t be thought of as the preserve of a superhumanly talented few.

Great Success = Some Talent + A Lot of Luck

Tags: bio · philosophy · psych · science

7 responses so far ↓

  • Rowan // Feb 18, 2008 at 7:25 pm

    I’d add Timing, which I think makes a huge difference – but then I suppose that often falls inside Luck :)

  • Rowan // Feb 18, 2008 at 7:28 pm

    …and what’s that saying about talent also being the skill to recognise when you’ve just had a bit of luck, and to take advantage appropriately?

    I may be misquoting a character in a book here…

  • Another Hon // Feb 18, 2008 at 9:56 pm

    The traditional Chineses saying on Success is that it will require ‘Heavenly timing, Earthly advantages and Humanly harmony’. Translating it into modern speak, it means: Success = the Right Place + the right time + the right people. (implying that you need a lot of luck but also a lot of talent to get yourself into such a situation!)

  • Naomi Alderman // Feb 20, 2008 at 12:42 pm

    What an interesting post.

    I would definitely add ” hard work” into that equation. (Unless you want to define the capacity for hard work as a talent. But at the very least it’s a different kind of talent.) Certainly as a writer you can have all the luck (inspiration, good contacts) and talent (natural understanding of words) in the world but unless you’re willing to sit your arse on a chair and keep on producing words until you get to the good ones, there will be no book.

    But yes, it offends our Protestant work ethic to think that people can be successful mostly through luck. I think the idea’s got more difficult for us to deal with since we stopped believing in Heaven – at least then there’d be eventual redress for the inequities of the world. Now we just have to bear the idea that not only can some people be very lucky with no special merit, but some can also be very *unlucky*.

    This reminds me of those people who insist you can cure cancer with positive thinking. It’s really hard to accept that we’re powerless in some terrifying situations. Paradoxically, it’s easier to believe that we somehow caused the horrible thing ourselves than it is to bear the fact that there are limits to our power to affect the world around us.

  • Another Hon // Feb 21, 2008 at 4:05 pm

    With futher thoughts, my new equation becomes: Sucess = (Right idea + Right place + Right time) x Hardwork x Luck

    Idea is important and it has to come from ‘the right peope’. So, the people dimension is already embedded. If Hardwork or luck is zero, success is zero so this equation makes sense.

  • phoenix // Dec 16, 2009 at 2:51 am

    Sure it is. What we need to do is to figure out how to make us more intelligent and talent, but not to complain why the comet did not hit us.

  • Niki // Dec 23, 2009 at 10:39 am

    very interesting thought/post!
    I also have to agree with what Naomi (the commenter above) said, that sometimes, it’s human’s nature to wanting to feel that they’ve “known” the secret to success, and thus, ascribe to many different factors (& hence, theories & books!) , while in Reality,
    we are really just a comparably ‘weak-and-still-evolving’ creature in this blue planet in this unexplainably vast, mysterious universe.

    Bottom-line is, I always love this line that I’ve heard somewhere (I think it’s a line from a movie..), that:
    “we are all given a chance (no matter how small or big it is), so what we can do is just to grab it, and not to let it go”.

    It’s useless (& waste of time) to think about “luck”,
    Living your life is all really about doing the BEST you can do, during your lifetime, despite all your circumstances!
    The world is, fortunately, full of great, inspirative stories of those who are in positions of “bad, bad luck”, yet can also arise & do something GOOD/positive creating changes in this world! (even from the handicapped, crippled, blind persons!).

    let’s do OUR BEST in our given lifetime,
    for ourselves, & to make the world a better place!

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