Are successful people successful because of hard work or dumb luck? Researchers are zeroing in on an answer.
Luck is a Four Letter Word
A review of the psychology, self-help and success literature doesn’t have many good things to say about luck. A foundational psychological idea, the locus of control, asks the question “do we make our own luck, or does luck make us who we are?” If you believe deeds trump luck, then you’re said to have an internal locus of control. If you take the alternate view, that luck is the determining factor, then you have an external locus of control.
Having an internal locus of control, and thereby denying luck to some degree, is seen as a positive trait. Unsurprisingly, research shows that people with an internal locus of control are observed to take better care of their health by exercising more. Those with an external locus of control are less likely to resist behaviors like drinking, which harm their health.
Most of us like stories, and good stories are built on a foundation of plausible cause and effect. A story that relies too much on luck or twists of fate frustrates us or betrays our trust in the author. We also like to tell stories about ourselves. When good things happen, we’re much more likely to pick an explanation that puts us in the driver’s seat than one where we get taken along for the ride by random chance. When someone does make it big, we want to know what they did that caused the success in the hopes that we might replicate their feat. How unsatisfying it would be to know that they got where they are by blind chance.
Researching the Breakout Hit
Still, we wonder how much of what happens to us is by chance and how much is due to our own efforts. This problem is a tough nut to crack because every result includes elements of chance (some of which we aren’t even aware of) in addition to our decisions and actions. The only way to empirically test the effects of luck would be to control all the other variables and see what happens if only luck is allowed to have it’s way.
Matthew Salganik, a professor of sociology at Princeton University, decided to create just such an experiment. He created an online music listening experience containing a number of tracks by different bands and users decided which ones they would like to download for free. They could also see how many other users were downloading each track. In a matter of time, certain tracks became popular and others did not. We see this everyday on iTunes or the popular music charts.
What was different is that Salganik could run the exact same experiment again and again, each time with fresh experimental subjects who did not know anything about the previous trials or their outcomes. Each time he ran the experiment, the popularity of the tracks was different. The music was the same, the research subjects were all drawn from the same pool, so the only explanation left was luck. And luck was making a huge difference.
At least as far as popular music is concerned, you need more than talent. You need luck. Perhaps Salganik will be able to replicate his experiment in other domains, but until he does, I’m willing to grant that luck plays a significant role in almost any endeavor. So if we want success, and we need luck to succeed, how do we get it?
If luck is the dominant term in the success equation, then perhaps it’s time to start thinking of achievement more like a game of chance. Even the best gamblers lose sometimes. And they don’t give up because they understand that they’re playing a game of chance. In life, if we discount the power of randomness, we can be doing the right thing and getting nothing for our trouble. But the worst thing to do in this case is to move away from a winning strategy even when it seems to be losing in the short term.
For games of chance, small and shaky advantages can be made large and stable over time. If you and I play a game and you win a dollar from me 51% of the time and I win a dollar from you the other 49% of the time, there’s no reliable way to say how any given round of the game will turn out. But if we play enough times, it is almost inevitable that your 51% will put you way ahead. This is the “house advantage” that reigns in all casinos. The house advantage virtually assures that the casino will take in more money from its patrons than they win at the tables. Like the house, your best bet is to have an edge, however small, and use it again and again.
Many Small, Rapid Bets
Casinos are relatively safe from bad luck because no one bet has the power to bankrupt the whole operation. If bets were allowed to grow without bound, eventually someone would win an outrageously large bet and put an end to the operation. If luck matters as much as Salganik’s experiment indicates, we need to be sure we can live through failures to play again another day. Keeping the costs down and reserves high helps us “play more hands” in our lives and slowly gain the upper hand against chance.
It’s Not Personal
Acknowledging luck and chance in our lives can increase our resilience. In failure, we’re apt to look at what we did and see how it created our downfall. This is absolutely necessary. The danger is that we can go too far, assume that our actions are the only things that matter and make ourselves responsible for something that may have nothing to do with us. Although we’ll probably never be able to fully separate luck from skill in everyday life, knowing they both play their part helps us maintain a healthy perspective.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by