What is the most important attribute in becoming successful?
Luck. Yes, you read that correctly. Luck, not hard work. Hard work certainly has its role, but it’s the presence, or absence, of luck that will ultimately determine whether or not someone is successful, or unsuccessful, in achieving their goals.
Reading that first paragraph makes a lot of you feel uncomfortable, doesn’t it? The reason we often overlook the role of luck in our lives is because we want to believe we’re in control – we want to believe that we’ve achieved what we have because of our own doing. Not because of something unpredictable, something we couldn’t foresee. Believing the latter challenges our sense of self-worth and it threatens our ego because it appears to take some of the credit for our accomplishments.
This is known in social psychology as a self-serving bias. We attribute good events to ourselves, whereas anything that doesn’t work out in our favour we attribute to our environment or some extenuating circumstance. We take more of the credit when things go right and less of the blame when things go wrong. It’s a natural human tendency, but one that is not entirely balanced.
When we see people who have succeeded* in their professions, what do we do? We look to their past to explain how they became successful. The fundamental problem with this process though, is that at any given point in their story, no one could have predicted what was going to happen in their future. As Steve Jobs said, “You cannot align the dots moving forward, only when you look back.” Yet, we believe that by understanding someone’s past, we can ultimately predict the future. But what happened in the past couldn’t have been predicted, why? Because the future is unknown. It’s unpredictable. We look favourably on the past because of the hindsight bias – believing unpredictable events were predictable in hindsight.
We do this because humans have an incessant need to make sense of things. We don’t like the unknown. It’s one of the reasons religion offers comfort to individuals, because it makes the unknown (death, how we got here) known. Here’s an example that proves this point, as used in Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman: Hitler really loved children and he really loved dogs. That sentence makes you feel a bit uneasy, doesn’t it? It makes us feel uneasy because it’s incongruent with the image we have of Hitler being evil – evil humans don’t like the same things we non-evil humans do. When in reality, Hitler was more like us than he was different. He did what he did not because he was evil, but because certain things happened to him – things that were unforeseeable. Still not convinced luck or opportunity played any role? At one point in his life, there was a 50/50 chance Hitler could have been a girl. Would the same events in history have occurred had this been the case? Unlikely. Luck, then, played a significant role in everything that followed.
Have you ever noticed that when someone achieves something great, we attribute it to their hard work and we never question what other factors contributed to their success? Yet, when someone doesn’t achieve something, we immediately question their integrity and commitment to working hard? Again, we do this because we want to believe that our future is within our control. It’s the same reason we believe that if we work hard enough, we can achieve anything we want. But the truth is, if you’re never given an opportunity, you won’t achieve much at all. You can be the world’s best soccer player and live in a desert, and if no scout ever comes to that desert, well, you probably won’t get very far in becoming a professional soccer player.
Luck, when it comes to our achievements, should be viewed in a similar fashion to the likelihood of finding a future partner. Almost everyone knows that predicting a connection between two people is almost impossible and the only reason you and your current partner, or previous partners, ever met is because of nothing more than luck and timing. It doesn’t matter how “hard you worked” or “how great a person you are” you could never have predicted meeting the person you did. Our lives are no different.
Here’s another concept that aids in supporting the role that luck plays in an individual’s future – regression to the mean. This means that if someone has an excellent game one week (I’m thinking of soccer here, but this same theory applies to other sports and professions too), they are likely to either have an average game the following week or worse, a below average game the following week. Why? Because individuals cannot constantly perform above average – 50% of the time an individual will play above their average, and 50% of time they will play below their average. Now, what’s the likelihood then, that a potential scout will be at the game and the individual will be playing above average? Well, 50% in this example. What’s the likelihood that the player won’t be injured? Or that the scout is looking for that particular position that the individual plays? Or that the individual will fit the age bracket of what the scout is seeking? And what’s the likelihood that the individual’s personality will be compatible with that of the recruiter? When you take all these other factors into consideration, you soon realise that very little control of whether that individual gets selected is actually within their control and much more lies within luck – being at the right place at the right time.
I’ve seen this multiple times within the sporting world – opportunities are awarded to some individuals and not others, despite those others being equally, if not more, qualified. How can this be explained? Our mind tries to rationalise people’s decisions by finding causal explanations. “Oh that first person must have been better." Or, "They must have worked harder.” When in actual fact, that first person was just lucky. And the others, unlucky. The Matthew Effect also plays a role. This effect suggests that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer – more opportunities will be presented to those whose names are known than to those whose names aren’t. That is why a CEO of one company is much more likely to become a CEO of another company than someone who isn’t a CEO of any company.
This cognitive bias is something we’re all susceptible to. We choose the name that looks familiar. Because it’s easier. And their name is readily available in our mind (also known as the availability heuristic). And the risk of choosing them and them not being successful is far less than choosing an unknown individual and that individual not succeeding. Humans do not like deviating from the norm or from what is easy, so we stick to what we know and to what is readily available.
Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner, explains this extremely well in his aforementioned book. As he states, “It is difficult to imagine people lining up at airport bookstores to buy a book that enthusiastically describes the practices of business leaders who, on average, do somewhat better than chance. Consumers have a hunger for a clear message about the determinants of success and failure in business, and they need stories that offer a sense of understanding, however illusory,” (p. 206). We believe that by studying experts, we too might become an expert. What we neglect to consider though, is the role that luck has played in their story of becoming successful. Who would buy a book that focused more on luck than on an individual’s attributes? Not many. Because it lacks a major selling piece, hope.
It isn’t all doom and gloom though. Hard work has its role. Obviously the harder you work, the longer you stay in the game and the more opportunities you have for luck to play a role in your favour. But the opposite is also true – the more opportunity you have to become unlucky too. We like to attribute our misfortunes to something bigger than ourselves – but how can you explain a child getting cancer? Or someone getting in a car accident on their way to work? Was that always “part of their story”, or did they just happen to be extremely unlucky? It seems silly to believe hard work could have prevented either of these tragedies, so why then do we believe hard work is the recipe for the converse, success? Does luck not play more of a role?
I recently posed this question to someone close to me – I asked them if hard work or luck had played more of a role in their owning of a business. Their response, “fifty-fifty”. I challenged this though – how hard had this individual actually worked? What had they given up to own this business? How did they come to obtain this business? And the answer lies not in their hard work, but in the opportunity they were presented – the former business owner unfortunately passed away suddenly, gifting the business to his two employees. Without this strike of luck, this individual could very well still be working “hard” without owning a business. But it was the opportunity that contributed more to their owning of a business than it was their own doing.
I’ve been guilty of believing that if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything you want in life. But my recent experiences over the past few years have forced me to question that. I look at what I’ve achieved (and conversely what I haven’t) and I look at what others have achieved. Is it true that they have worked harder than me? No, it isn’t. The truth is, they’ve been luckier than I have. Luckier with injuries (or lack of), luckier with coaches, and luckier with just general opportunities. I look at those who are like me, those that didn’t achieve what they perhaps set out to achieve, and what do they all have in common? Not a lack of willpower, or dedication, or commitment, they were all just unlucky. Suffering career ending injuries – how can you predict that? How can you prevent that? The truth? You can’t. Because the future, no matter how much we study the past, will never be predictable. Because life isn’t predictable. So my departing question to you is this – what role has luck played in your life? Remembering that we luck into where we’re born, what we’re born into, and what opportunities are presented to us.
*Succeeded by definition of achieving what they initially set out to achieve.