On Luck, Randomness and Success

I am not a frequent card player. Indeed, I have previously politely demurred card playing opportunities because I’m convinced that cards and I don’t get along. Moreover, I’ve always had the sneaking suspicion that some people are just plain luckier with cards because they and cards have better chemistry.

Reading If You’re so Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich? Turns Out it’s Just Chance by Emerging Technology from the arXiv (under MIT Technology Review’s Medium channel) got me thinking about luck. A summary of Italian researcher Alessandro Pluchino and his colleagues’ Talent vs. Luck: the role of randomness in success and failure, the research concludes that those who end up the wealthiest are NOT the most talented. “Maximum success* never coincides with the maximum talent, and vice-versa,” note the researchers.  In other words, it is random luck that makes the difference.

It’s a surprising conclusion, and one that suggests the typical approach that governs funding decisions – that is, based on proof of past success, or on meticulously crafted and argued cases – is not necessarily the best path to success. In fact, it turns out that the strategy for delivering the best returns is to divide funding equally among the parties. And the next best strategy? Random distribution.

Canadian grant-awarding bodies: take note! [says this small business entrepreneur.]

 Persistence Trumps Talent

Persistence Trumps Talent

 Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe

I can’t help but wondering, though, if there’s more to luck than just random randomness. One of my all-time favourite mantras comes from Daniel Pink’s illustrated career guide, The Adventures of Johnny Bunko.  Chapter four’s lesson is “Persistence trumps talent,” meaning that focused and determined efforts coupled with mediocre talent will always pay higher dividends than exceptional talent without the push.  This notion of luck being an output of persistence hit home when I read Patti Smith’s autobiography Just Kids about her years with Robert Mapplethorpe, both of whom ultimately achieved significant artistic success and recognition. Yes, they both had talent. But what mattered is not only that they knew what they wanted and toiled persistently at their crafts for years, but that they were constantly physically present in environments that were conducive to achieving success in art and music: living (dirt poor) at New York’s Chelsea Hotel in the late sixties and seventies; intermingling with like-minded creatives; investing years socially inching their way to the back room of Max’s Kansas City where Andy Warhol once had held court. Both of them had great “luck” meeting influential individuals who propelled their careers. Were these auspicious chance meetings truly random, or rather an inevitability that a “lucky break” would eventually occur?

 Arshile Gorky ("Bitter")

Arshile Gorky ("Bitter")

 

I also think attitude plays a role in luck. What wasn’t clear to me from the research was if inherent optimism and positivity had an influence on luck.  Back in 2011, the AGO held an exhibition featuring major works from the Abstract Expressionist movement. One of the first pieces I saw was by Arshile Gorky. While I don’t recall the piece, I remember the artist’s story: born Vostanik Manoug Adoian, he changed his name to Arshile Gorky. “Gorky” means “bitter.” Like a prediction, he ultimately suffered terrible calamities: fire, cancer, broken neck, heartbreak, until he hanged himself at the age of 44. While I wouldn’t be so glib as to suggest his dreadful luck was as a result of his name choice, I have to wonder if how you view yourself and frame your context has a correlation to good or bad fortune.

Does success happen purely by chance? Or does random good luck occur because we have made the effort position ourselves physically and temporally where we are more likely to intersect with it? We can expect to see more research on serendipity in the coming years. Regardless, I think I will continue bypassing the card table.

And I’m changing my name to Alucksa.

 

 

* In this study success is measured solely on financial terms.