Is Success Due to Talent or Luck

How important is luck in personal success?
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A topic of ongoing, often heated debate, for generations, has been the relative importance of talent versus luck in the development of careers and in the amassing of wealth. Various studies over the years even have shown persistent differences in national attitudes. For example, Americans traditionally tend to believe that talent and hard work are the key factors in determining a person's success in life (or lack thereof), whereas Europeans tend to believe, by way of contrast, that luck usually plays a decisive role.

Impact of Beliefs

A person's attitudes on this question will have clear ramifications. For one, a belief that talent and effort normally the decisive elements in success normally will increase motivations to work hard and achieve. On the other hand, believing that luck plays an inordinate role is bound to blunt a person's incentives.

Additionally, attitudes on this matter will shape perceptions of fairness. If you feel that luck is the more influential factor, you probably will feel trapped in an unfair system that is not based on merit. Believers in the power of talent or hard work will tend to have an opposite perception, that the system in which they work is fair and meritocratic. See our related discussion about the value of advice from successful people. As described therein, such people to downplay the role of luck.

Finally, one's personal happiness often is linked closely with one's viewpoint on this question. Those who place great weight on the power of hard work and talent will tend to be happier and more satisfied in life than those who believe that success, advancement, and wealth are more a matter of fate, luck or happenstance, with personal effort playing a minor role, if that. Moreover, your attitudes on this matter will influence your degree of risk aversion in career management, whether you live to work or not and the sorts of management models that appeal the most to you.

An Experiment on the Subject

Among the intriguing experiments conducted by Columbia University sociology professor Duncan Watts was one designed to test whether superstar pop musicians owe their success largely to talent or to sheer luck.

Watts set up a website with a collection of new, unknown songs. Visitors could listen to the collection and download their favorites, all for free. Some listeners got to see statistics on how many times each song had been downloaded previously; others did not. Members of the former pool showed a clear herd instinct: the choices of early respondents seemed to have a strong influence on those who chose later. Watts repeated the experiment 8 times, and the same pattern emerged.

Alternative Interpretation

Rather than an example of how luck can trump talent, perhaps Duncan Watts' experiment actually shows how early successes or good first impressions can pay huge dividends further down the line, for people, companies and products alike.

Personal Anecdote on the Topic

This writer is reminded of his experience in high school forensics (that is, competitive speech and debate). Judges tended to be overly generous in scoring competitors who had established track records as winners. You see much the same thing in sports. In baseball, for example, whether the umpire calls a pitch on the border of the strike zone a ball or a strike often depends on who the hitter is. If he is a star with a reputation for having a "good eye" (that is, excellent judgment regarding whether a pitch is in the strike zone or not), it likely will be called a ball. For lesser hitters, a pitch in exactly the same spot may be called a strike. You see this time and again.

Bottom Line Lesson

Get off to a good start at whatever you do, and you are likely to make your own luck in the future.