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On Cumulative Advantage and How to Think About Luck (ofdollarsanddata.com)
248 points by imartin2k 9 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 137 comments

There's a similar experience I've seen with YouTube. The first hundred subscribers(assuming you don't ask friends and family to subscribe) is always the hardest, and even if you're putting out higher quality content than the big channels, it's difficult to break that barrier. Once you cross that barrier, getting from 100->1000 usually takes half the time, and it becomes successively easier to get more views and subscribers with less effort. Once you're in the hundred thousands you can earn a decent side-income from just putting out a video a day, and once you're in the millions you can be set for life with little effort assuming you don't have high production costs.

It is a snowballing effect, but most people never cross the initial tough barriers(after 10k, it becomes relatively easy to keep growing). In order to cross it, it either involves luck, or you have to know someone more popular than you who can boost your channel.

In my experience growing a successful(ish?) YouTube channel, the initial barrier was more like 10k subs. I don't even upload anymore and still get hundreds of subs per month.

But the way YouTube works is a bit more difficult. Higher subscriber counts get you higher CPM rates. Higher CPM rate videos place higher in search. I've actually seen this myself in my own competing videos. YouTube really pushes video CPM rate in search.

So on YouTube, the barrier to entry is extremely difficult. To hit 10k subs I had to do tons of marketing, guest posts, bought some advertising. 10-20k? Just post a video every week. 20-30k? Just post a video every month or two.

If you don't mind sharing, what is approx income from it ?

Ad rates keep dropping and the algorithm changes have chopped off more than half my organic traffic.

2016 was my best year and I made about $500-$750/mo. This year about $100/mo. In 2016 I got ad rates from 20-30/1k now it's 5-8/1k. Channel is a coding channel: http://youtube.com/devfactor

On Twitter it seems to be somewhere in the 500 to 1000 followers count before things become an order of magnitude easier.

I don't think it's just the cumulative advantage of having more people retweet you (and thus the greater relative ease of getting in front of people) I think it's also learning how to present a constant "face" on Twitter. By the time you're at 1000+ followers you've figured out how to be interesting, how to be consistent, you've streamlined your personal site to point people towards your Twitter and all of this feeds back in on itself.

That assumes that people are trying to optimize their Twitter "face." There's definitely a difference between a very focused profile around something specific and something more general that mixes different topics, including personal ones.

Yeah I resist it to my own detriment. But on the other hand, I get people not wanting to hear about what I think about Canada's foreign minister (my favourite politician) when they're following me to read data science and cyber security articles.

Isn't it this very HN voting system also based on the same premise? Getting past first few votes (the hardest) take you to the wider world.

well, you have some exposure time when your comment is very recent. if we all deserve equal chances but there are many of us, then the exposure time is quite limited. it's a much better system than most others out there. "direct democracy" is hard when you expect others to be listening

Another good example is google. Why are we doing SEO? Does that even make sense? Isn't it their job to figure out the results that have the most value to the searcher and our job to create good content regardless of how people stumble upon it.

I've often wondered if optimization of content for higher ranking or worse yet, engineering content based on what's trending, defeats the very purpose of a search engine: to provide relevant, high quality content. It's like everyone in Hollywood making superhero movies because they make money. We'd never have movies like Walk the line, Shawshank Redemption, life of pi

> but most people never cross the initial tough barriers(after 10k, it becomes relatively easy to keep growing)

I've heard that after the magic number of 10k subscribers, you have an open invite to the YouTube space in LA/NYC and can use their substantial production equipment and be mentored.

I imagine the long tail for YouTube starts around 1000 subscribers.

Out of curiosity, how difficult would it be to "buy" your way in?

I'm thinking you could more or less hire influencers to recommend your channel/content?

I doubt the really big ones would do it - and anyone moderately successful is still going to ask for like thousands of dollars. But yeah, if you have money to burn that can probably boost you - but most people don't, so it again favours the people who already have an advantage.

There are actually many businesses predominately in Asia or India that sell clicks/likes

> J.K. Rowling published a book called The Cuckoo’s Calling under the pen name Robert Galbraith only to be outed by someone performing advanced text analysis with a computer.

That is highly misleading. She was outed by a person with inside knowledge (anonymous tip), which was confirmed by automated text analysis.


Further, they only compared Rowling to three other authors and Rowling ended up second in at least one of the tests. The analysis likely did not prove anything by itself.

It's an interesting exercise to try to design board games that have economy-like systems. You'll notice that it's very easy for rich-get-richer effects to emerge.

Now, rich-get-richer effects can be desirable in a board game in which the starting conditions are perfectly symmetric and luck plays no role, because the more skilled player is going to the one to acquire that snowballing advantage. But in asymmetric games, or games in which luck creates asymmetry, rich-get-richer effects obscure the relative skill of the players.

I don’t think that rich-get-richer effects are desirable in any game (1) since that makes the game degrade into a lopsided endgame where the poor have no shot at winning the game, leading to frustration. A game should always allow a shot at winning to stay interesting.

(1) unless it’s an educational game aimed at demonstrating the effect.

A game should always allow a shot at winning to stay interesting.

While that sounds good in principle, it doesn't always work so well in practice. I have played board games that were designed that way and I began to realize that my choices early on did not matter very much. This had the effect of making the whole game feel pointless until the last turn where somebody would quickly grab the win.

Many games handle it poorly. The idea is to disincentivize poor planning and poor decisions such that winning becomes more difficult, but never so much that it becomes impossible. No matter what the situation is, a player should ideally be able to see a path to victory, or at least a spiteful form of failure, it just might involve rather significant gambles. The player on top should also ideally feel that their position is constantly one poor decision and some really bad luck away from being taken from them. Hidden information is frequently employed to this end, allowing players to imagine that their opponents are in a better or worse situation than they actually are, as well as providing the opportunity to intentionally deceive others about one's position.

What is best in game design is the ability to end the game quickly once a decisive advantage has been gained, but with various chances to screw up and lose the advantage.

Chess is “rich get richer” but you can still win in the end.

These two dynamics (endgame vs snowballing) are not necessarily coupled that tightly (unless in the hands of skilled player which is the whole premise).

Yes, that's the problem with Monopoly for example, once you start winning you can't lose (losing / can't win).

> Yes, that's the problem with Monopoly

It is the problem of it "as a game", but it was the original goal design. It is a lesson on how capital can accumulate and leave people without options.

Monopoly is derived from The Landlord's Game, which was created by Elizabeth Magie in the United States in 1903 as a way to demonstrate that an economy which rewards wealth creation is better than one in which monopolists work under few constraints[1] and to promote the economic theories of Henry George and in particular his ideas about taxation. (From Wikipedia)

Monopoly is perhaps one of the most widely played and popular board games in the World.

It was intended to have a rich-get-richer side effect. The original intent was to demonstrate this phenomenon.[1]

It's almost impossible to design a game with an economy where this does not happen, unless you mimic real-World societies where they have avoided it (e.g. Scandinavian countries).

This is not a popular point to make to most Americans, but that does not make it any less true.

[1] http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20170728-monopoly-was-inven...

Monopoly is perhaps one of the most widely played and popular board games in the World

Which is itself, perhaps, an example of this effect at work. Monopoly is boring to play and contains very little engaging gameplay [1]; a winner quickly emerges and the game then becomes a long grind in which everyone just wants it to be over. There are so many board games that are simply better and more fun in every way, yet time after time someone pulls out a Monopoly set for no good reason other than it has some kind of unfair, unjustified mindshare advantage.

[1] If one plays by the actual rules, it's thankfully over a lot faster, but everyone seems to play by rules that force it into a long, painful endgame.

Stephen King vs Richard Bachman is a wonderful illustration of market vs merit.

Does merit have similar increasing characteristics?

Does it apply in non-competitive contexts?

Market success, notoriously, has non-merit factors: a comment on reddit has to have merit to get a few votes. But to go from a few to thousands, it has to be early, visible in the thread, the thread has to be visible, the story has to be visible on the front page, it has to stay there a long time. ("karma train")

One of the sub-factors is people like to read what others read - regardless of quality - in order to be on the same page, get the same jokes and references etc. To know what's going on - like the news.

Like Stephen King himself said, the experiment did not have enough time to reach maturity. I don't think it's contradictory to suggest that reputation is a component of merit. Most people do not succeed, yet those who do have a habit of succeeding over and over again. And so when you view something with an unknown track record it's expected value is going to be much lower than something from an author with a track record of dozens of successes.

In today's era where reviews and award often consider many factors besides just the book quality alone, they've become quite useless. So how are people supposed to find new books? You end up going from a handful of reviewers who tend to like the material you like, or by going to the same author over and over. In either case, it takes new entrants some significant amount of time to reach their full potential. I don't think this inherently means the market is broken.

To suggest that reputation is a component of merit is a category error. Reputation isn't part of merit; it doesn't cause merit. Merit may cause reputation.

You probably mean reputation has some positive correlation with merit, so that reputation can be used as a predictor of merit. And of course, you're right.

However, I wasn't addressing how consumers can ascertain merit, but whether merit has similar increasing chacteristics to market success, as described in the article.

That is, if someone starts with a little extra merit than someone else, does it also compound as they practice?

I wanted to exclude competitive factors. For example, Gladwell's Outliers claims that Canadian hockey players have birthdays biased to part of the year, and that this was because the slight age difference makes child players more successful against their sub-year younger opponents in the same age-group. They get more practice and confidence, and get selected for extra training. But, this competitive aspect gives an artificial advantage to players who are slightly relatively better. And also, this advantage is not present just once, but every time they play, for years.

BTW both the points you and I made regarding the merit-market relationship are mentioned in the literature posted by gwern https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17052074 (last link):

> in part because people use the popularity of products as a signal of quality—a phenomenon that is sometimes referred to as “social” or “observational learning” (Hedström 1998)—and in part because people may benefit from coordinating their choices; that is, listening to, reading, and watching the same things as others (Adler 1985). - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3785310/

Does this happen in software too? Would Git be languishing unknown on SourceForge if it hadn't been written by Torvalds?

Edit: I'm sure it's a big factor in app stores.

There are a number of other projects that used the same concepts, so, fame was definitely a factor.

But I think it was more important that Torvalds was the leader of an important software project, could mandate its use, and recruit maintainers, despite the project’s immaturity in the early stages.

Torvalds’ skill did matter, though. He understood the essence of git’s predecessors, and wrote a credible system that had very good performance from day one.

There are so many interesting projects out there, really great stuff with great ideas and elegant implementation, languishing in obscurity because they lack the critical mass to start growing.

There are a lot of open source operating systems that are foundationally much better suited to the desktop than Linux, for instance, but no one uses them because they don't have Linux's driver or application library, which is because they don't have enough contributors to catch up, which is because no one uses them...

The main issue with git isn't that it was written by Torvalds (it is maintained by other people as well), but the fact that it was used to maintain the Linux Kernel

I'm sure it does. But it goes both ways. Because if you're famous people will start using it based on trust and if it turns out to be crap people will feel betrayed and be angry and you'll lose the trust.

It does indeed. Think Peter Molyneux and Godus.

If they are famous they can probably withstand the occasional flop, although I suppose writers, actors etc., have been known to fall out of fashion entirely.

The manner of the flop is important as well. The reason Peter Molyneux's reputation has taken such a pummelling over Godus is the way he handled - or mishandled - the crowdfunding.

Yes, if it wasn't for Github, we would probably all have been using Mercurial which is simpler and more user friendly.


It actually puts me off writing some OSS libraries as it’s hard to know if anyone will appreciate them. If you already have an audience you know you’ll get some feedback and initial users / contributers.

I think, as a rule, you're better off extracting OSS libraries from things you've built. That way you know that you are already appreciating them.

I was wondering about this in the context of the 80-20 rule, and believe I have a simple answer. Basically you need two things: 1) Some slight advantage 2) The network effect, that is, the probability of competing depends on the current winnings.

If you have these two things, you get 80-20 like distributions, you get the explanation for why winners keep winning. If you are interested, you can find my simulation and analysis at


Kind of shocking how well this works. The intuition is, why has coke won, well they had some initial advantage, and so they won a bit. Now that they have won a bit, they can finance themselves into more competition. For example, they can place themselves into more stores, into more restaurants etc. Now they get a chance to compete more.

Your rules are basically "the winner takes it all in the long run". This is similar to reality but real actors can disappear. Individuals have a limited lifespan. Their offspring have slightly different abilities. Corporations/Nations/Organizations are run by individuals (chosen not randomly) and may face technological/political challenges but here it's not clear that these structures need to disappear.

Do you see a good way to factor in these things?

Interesting that you see it as 'winner takes all'. Wondering why you say that. The simulation can be run in various ways. When I run with rules:

r1) Actors have normally distributed abilities,

r2) Actors are chosen randomly based on current winnings, the more you have won, the more you compete,

r3) Winner of competition wins one point from the loser,

You get interesting results, for example, in the two columns below, the left is Household income in 1970 broken into quintiles. The right column is simulation results.

    4.1%                         6.7%

   10.8%                        11.5%

   17.4%                        16.0%

   24.5%                        23.3%

   43.3%                        45.6%
Interesting how well the top 3 or 4 quintiles match between the simulation and the real world data.

If you run the simulation with different rules, the real world quintiles do not match the simulation quintiles nearly as well. You can tweak the simulation to see this as well.

The simulation can be tweaked to handle cases such as inheritance, so an actor with different ability inherits the wealth of a past actor. It would be interesting to see how many generations it takes to loose the wealth to test the adage that wealthy families loose their wealth in 3 generations.


Ill try it and get back to you.

I modified the simulation as follows:

I allowed it to evolve for a single generation, enough time for the top 20% of the population to have 80% of the wealth. I now choose a random sample from the top 20% of the population to follow, lets call them T20.

I now repeatedly

1) pass the wealth of all actors to actors with new, random abilities

2) let the new actors compete for a generation (the same number of competitions we used above)

Result: After 3 generations of steps 1 and 2 above, 80% of T20 has lost almost all their wealth, 10% has lost 75% of their wealth, 10% has done really well, growing it by a factor of 8, due to capable ancestors for three generations.

Amazing, it matches the statistics in https://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-investor/globe-wealth/...

Winning and losing have a lot to do with confidence and ability to take risks. Winning reinforces confidence which allows one to take more risks if they have a growth mindset(also equally important).

PS: The add-on[1] I use to avoid redirects doesn't like these medium hosted blogs. These links redirect to medium[2] which redirects to original link and I am stuck in an infinite loop.



Examples like King/Bachman are the sorts of things that to me debunk the notion of meritocracy and support things like wealth redistribution and affirmative action. If success is largely a product of randomized path-dependent effects and feedback loops, then success is not really earned. It's basically lottery winnings.

That being said I'm not sure I accept that premise universally. It seems like this is true in domains that are popularity contests: pop culture, politics, etc., but I have no proof of that and have never seen anyone do any kind of comprehensive analysis of it. Maybe I just don't want to believe that success beyond a certain point is random.

> [King/Bachman] debunk the notion of meritocracy

Not sure that is correct, because (if you agree that King is good), you do need to be good to be successful, and I think that is what meritocracy wants to accomplish for society: that those who are successful are good, rather than bad. For society, it is not necessary that everyone that's good is also successful, just that the bad doesn't rise to the top (too much).

What it debunks is the (incorrect) corollary that if you are not successful, you must be bad/lazy (or that if you are good you are guaranteed to have success). Which of course does not follow (A→B does not imply not(A)→not(B)), particularly if there are multiple necessary factors for success, such as for example quality AND luck/path dependencies. If it is quality AND luck, then it's not the same as lotto, though the random part does play a role.

And yes, wealth redistribution makes a lot of sense for societies, and yes, the "no success → bad/lazy" fallacy is often used to justify not having such mechanisms.

Not from the article, but this makes me think of something that we learned back in my college probability course: "wealth gravitates towards the wealthy." Even in fair games and situations, it is much harder to come out ahead when you start out behind. Think of how the house always wins in Vegas, or how a random walk can experience heavy drift.

The house always wins because all of the games have a negative expected value, not because the house starts out with more money than you.

But the house needs enough money to keep playing to even out the random fluctuations over time to make it to that expected value.

For example, a craps table has a negative expected value for the players, and positive expected value for the house. But on a winning streak (these streaks are fairly common, just like losing streaks) the table might lose money if you look at the period of a few hours.

That is why casinos have insurance policies. Sometimes they do not accept bets beyond a certain size.


Pot-Size limits don't impact hot or cold streaks.

True, but it does impact how probabilistically unlikely the hot streak needs to be to default the house.

They can ask you to leave at any time.

That's a fair point for some games, but even in games where the gambler has a positive expected value would have him/her go bust eventually when playing against someone with much, much more wealth (ignoring the fact that you can walk away):


This actually should not happen if you adjust your bet size to match your bankroll (with the caveat that your bankroll is sufficiently large to be unaffected by the minimum bet). The article you link to actually suggests that, in the first bullet point, though it's expressed in the negative.

For those interested, look up The Kelly Criterion.


This is why poker players who are good enough to play at a certain table level can't maintain it if their bankroll falls too low. At each stakes level the game not only gets harder, but the minimum bet can eat up your bankroll if you get large string of unplayable hands (let alone bad beats or bad plays). What ends up happening a lot is that players will win a significant amount of money at say the $5 table, then try to play the $10 table, and lose enough money they find themselves back at the $5 table. The really unlucky ones may end up back at the $2 table because they may not have moved back to $5 early enough to be able to bankroll that level properly.

I find the economics of poker to be completely fascinating, and when I found out about kelly betting from a HFT friend if mine, it really changed how I looked at the topic.

The house uses its wealth to construct an environment that only houses games with negative expected values.

There is this interesting paper that evaluates role of luck and talent in outcome.


" The largely dominant meritocratic paradigm of highly competitive Western cultures is rooted on the belief that success is due mainly, if not exclusively, to personal qualities such as talent, intelligence, skills, efforts or risk taking. Sometimes, we are willing to admit that a certain degree of luck could also play a role in achieving significant material success. But, as a matter of fact, it is rather common to underestimate the importance of external forces in individual successful stories. It is very well known that intelligence or talent exhibit a Gaussian distribution among the population, whereas the distribution of wealth - considered a proxy of success - follows typically a power law (Pareto law). Such a discrepancy between a Normal distribution of inputs, with a typical scale, and the scale invariant distribution of outputs, suggests that some hidden ingredient is at work behind the scenes. In this paper, with the help of a very simple agent-based model, we suggest that such an ingredient is just randomness. In particular, we show that, if it is true that some degree of talent is necessary to be successful in life, almost never the most talented people reach the highest peaks of success, being overtaken by mediocre but sensibly luckier individuals. As to our knowledge, this counterintuitive result - although implicitly suggested between the lines in a vast literature - is quantified here for the first time. It sheds new light on the effectiveness of assessing merit on the basis of the reached level of success and underlines the risks of distributing excessive honors or resources to people who, at the end of the day, could have been simply luckier than others. With the help of this model, several policy hypotheses are also addressed and compared to show the most efficient strategies for public funding of research in order to improve meritocracy, diversity and innovation."

Does one player actually need to get ahead of the other? Couldn't a "win" be that the player that started behind improved their position over time. Feels like it oversimplifies life as a zero sum game.

Well inflation

I would argue that wealth gravitates toward those who are better at accumulating wealth (Warren Buffet, George Soros, Peter Lynch). There may be a correlation between those who are good at accumulating wealth and those who have accumulated a large amount of wealth.

That's a bit tautological. Also, what do you mean by "good"?

Also many things cost less for wealthy people. They literally spend less as a fraction of their wealth than anyone else for credit, for example. Wealth will naturally gravitate towards them even if they do nothing more than act like anyone else because of that kind of thing.

People who are good at making money make more money. Yes, it's tautological, which doesn't make it untrue. People who are good at scoring the basketball get a lot of points. People who are good at cooking make delicious food. I think you're questioning whether someone can really be good at "making money", and the answer is yes. Money follows rules and laws that appear random to those who are not skilled. Just like some people might not understand the laws of electricity, making electricians seem like wizards. That doesn't mean the laws don't exist. And those who understand the forces behind money are able to take advantage of them, like a surfer uses the force of a wave to propel himself. Effortless. The wealth just seems to find you.

Your second point is accurate, but not really a rebuttal.

You miss the point. It’s vastly easier to be successful at making money if you start with a lot of it, and vastly harder if you start with nothing.

A few very unusual people in each generation start with nothing and become billionaires, but for most of the population a running start will get them much further towards a comfortable life than almost any combination of luck and talent.

This is a problem, because many of our social myths suggests that the most reliable and predictable way to become richer is through hard work - and therefore rich people are more socially valuable than the poor, who stay poor because of laziness.

Both of those beliefs are absolutely untrue.

When you say that I miss the point, that usually means the true disagreement is over what we're talking about. Like I said, you're talking about the power of compound interest, economies of scale that encourage pooled investing, and other systemic effects. And you're not wrong.

What the OP was pointing out was that, there are people who understand money and people who don't, and that plays just as big a role as having wealth (see lottery ticket example cited in sister comment). I think I've demonstrated I understand your point; do you think you really understand that one?

Also, > the most reliable and predictable way to become richer is through hard work

Do you know a more reliable and predictable way to become richer? It may not be fast and it may not be fair, but in a capitalist society, I believe it to be true.

Doesn't mean the rules of making money don't cause it to drift to those who already have a shitton of it.

I meant that in the same way as there is likely a correlation between people who are good at math and people with advanced degrees in engineering, math, science and finance.

When talking about wealth in our society (especially when it is tied up in real estate and other non-cash assets), things get a lot more complicated, especially when wealth can help move markets and set policy. I was purely talking from the perspective of thinking about games and probability.

I suppose lottery winners are good at accumulating wealth too.

You actually strengthen basementcat's point. There have been many stories about how lottery winners often end up worse off than they were before. Handing someone 100 million dollars won't keep them rich if they are bad at handling money. Apparently this is proven by research of lottery winners: https://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/REST_a_0011... and https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2016/01/12/odds-are-15-...

That does not strengthen that point, quite the opposite, one might argue:

People who were never exposed to having money to begin with don't know what to do with it. Having money from the start (rich parents) gives you a head start.

what is your argument? you just made a claim without evidence- would be more compelling with some. i think there is a lot of data to suggest the opposite.

I claim that those who are better at managing their money (spend wisely, save more, invest wisely) tend to accumulate wealth more quickly than those who don't.

For example, I have several colleagues who started their careers around the same time as me. Some are much wealthier than me partly because they spent considerable time and effort accumulating real estate portfolios (among other investments). Others have accumulated less wealth than me because they spent much of their incomes on ephemeral pleasures.

thats just completely tautological. id argue that little upward mobility, and racial inequality in lifetime earnings suggest that being having money makes it easier to make more. also because it is my lived experience as someone who is rich.

> i think there is a lot of data to suggest the opposite.

You also just made a claim without evidence. It would be more compelling with some.

The article didn't even mention the field where the effect seems to be biggest: visual arts. The value of a painting depends almost entirely on the fame of the artist, as I understand it.

That's because the value of this kind of art, in this context, is as a form of social signaling. The actual talent of the artist, and the meaning the work communicates to the owner, these are not really considerations for this metric.

I really dislike when people focus on luck this much. If you have in your mind the notion that luck is real and that it affects the outcome of your efforts in any way, sooner or later (and often times without really noticing that you're doing it) you will use that notion to excuse your failures and to explain away other people's successes, and that will prevent you from achieving your goals as fast as you would have otherwise.

While it is useful to understand the nature of how markets operate and the role of luck in them, I find that worrying too much about this is harmful for my personal development and that taking a stance that is something like "luck doesn't exist" is more useful. http://ssygen.com/posts/luck

You can't lump together all forms of luck into a single "objectively true, pragmatically false" category without considering the magnitude of impact luck has on what you intend to do. In the extreme, playing the lottery is almost entirely luck, and it's very much pragmatic to believe that it is so.

It's not a binary choice between 0% luck / 100% power, and 100% luck / 0% power. There's a whole continuum in between, and the exact luck/power breakdown for any given action is a matter of objective fact. Where we run into trouble is when our perception of the breakdown does not match the objective reality, and we waste our time on impossible tasks or don't bother to try tasks that could have benefited us.

And the breakdown of luck/power is objectively skewed in favor of power for those who are white, and skewed in favor of luck for those who are minorities. So while white privilege and white supremacy might both be wrong, they are certainly not wrong to the same degree. While privilege is a view closer to the objective reality and is thus probably overall beneficial as long as you don't take it too far. Likewise for feminism/incel.

As I've stated in the article, it's about the mindset you take and not what is objectively true. You're not helping minorities by pointing out that their success in life will be mostly due to luck, you're just giving them excuses to not try harder.

> You're not helping minorities by pointing out that their success in life will be mostly due to luck, you're just giving them excuses to not try harder.

You really think they’re not trying hard enough? What is trying hard to you?

I don’t know if you’re American but it’s not unusual for black Americans to work twice as hard as their white counterparts to receive equal recognition, or success.

There are minority groups in America that do well despite all their minority status, like asians. This happens because they have the correct mindset with which to approach the world. Everything I see from other minority groups in America, especially blacks, is that they have the main mindset of blaming others instead of themselves for their misfortunes. This kind of mindset won't really get you anywhere in life.

I'm from Brazil if that matters.

What evidence do you have that "mindset" is the cause of the difference and not simple selection bias?

Black Americans are mostly native born. Asian Americans are mostly immigrants or just one or two generations removed from immigrants.

Immigrants from Asia can pretty much only get a visa through some kind of work visa. That means they are pre-selected for having a highly-demanded skill set before they can even enter the country. It also takes decades for them to qualify for permanent residence, so they need to be employed in that field for the entire time. It is almost guaranteed that these people will be financially successful because someone who is employed for decades in a field that can qualify for one of these visas will be financially successful. Anyone who isn't will not legally be allowed in the country.

US law pretty much guarantees that Asians on average will be more financially successful than average because they are much more likely to be here on a visa that requires financial success.

Doesn't immigration law in America apply equally to immigrants from everywhere? Why would Asians require one set of rules while Hispanics require another? And if they do play by the same rules then that still doesn't explain the success of Asians over other immigration heavy groups like Hispanics.

I think you can't discount the fact that Asians simply have a better mindset that focuses on hard work more than other groups, which explains at least part of their success. And it's really not a surprise to think that if you value hard work and you act on that value by working hard, you will be rewarded. There's no need to make up excuses by blaming systemic racism or any other sort of external influence that doesn't play as much of a role in your life as your own effort will.

Immigrants are a very large portion of Asian Americans. Immigrants are a very small portion of black Americans.

Black immigrants in the US have roughly the same level of financial success as Asian immigrants, they are just a much smaller portion of black Americans than Asian immigrants are of Asian Americans. The real difference is between immigrants and non-immigrants, not between black and Asian people.

Also, it's untrue that immigration law applies equally to all races. There are many aspects of immigration law that are different based on national origin. People from India and China are excluded from many ways of immigrating except for work visas.

I'll grant you this point given that evidently I don't know much about immigration in America, however this is somewhat removed from my initial claim and we sort of went on an unrelated discussion.

Do you agree that it's best to promote a message of "don't blame others for your failures" over a message of "your life is mostly dictated by luck"? I don't see how you could argue that the latter is better than the former.

I agree that is a better mindset for individuals, but it is worse for society as a whole. That idea is frequently used as an excuse to do nothing about the factors that keep people trapped in cycles of poverty.

I think this is where we disagree. In my view, individuals becoming more responsible and productive will always be better for society as a whole, because society is made up of individuals. The main idea that keeps people trapped in cycles of poverty is the idea that their problems are a result of society and not of their own actions.

And I really won't change my mind on this notion, given that my parents started up poor in Brazil and worked their way up to provide me with a reasonably good life, way better than the ones they had. And the main thing that enabled them to do that was their own mindset about life and just a lot of hard work.

The same applies to many other people I know, and the opposite also applies to many other people I know. There are people who simply don't work as hard, or don't pay enough attention to spot opportunities, or aren't financially responsible, or are alcoholics, or any other number of problems that are self-made. Those people keep themselves trapped in a cycle of poverty through their own actions, not anyone else's.

>Doesn't immigration law in America apply equally to immigrants from everywhere?

Isn't part of the whole immigration debate in America the fact that Latinos find it easy to illegally immigrate here? Asians literally have whole oceans to cross to get here. Many Latinos can get on a truck and just drive across the border.

You also can see huge income differences between African immigrants and native-born African-Americans. This has less to do with mindset and more to do with the selection bias TheCoelacanth mentioned. Immigrants from Asia, India, Africa, etc. will be more financial successful because they are deliberately selected for.

From the article you posted:

> And so the more general formulation of "luck isn't real" would be something like "you shouldn't blame external factors for your failures".

Well, sure, but luck is still real. How can knowing a true fact not be useful?

> Ideas that empower you should be accepted, ideas that remove power away from you should be rejected.

How about we don’t accept/reject ideas based on how they make us feel but rather based on if they’re true or not. I understand that it is effective, but it will ultimately cause you to reject something vital.

There are things that are true that don't lead to good results. A nihilist atheist who sees no meaning in life is probably objectively correct is his assessment of the world, but if he ends up killing himself because of it then that true fact wasn't really useful, was it? There are tons of other situations that are similar and I think that luck is one of them.

It’s not the fault of the thing that it lead to bad results.

I understand how it works. 1) What you think affects how you feel. 2) How you feel affects your life, how hard you try and how you deal with setbacks.

The article that you linked to about empowerment talks about empowering others by focusing on the equally objectively true narratives where the others have a say in the outcome. But I think that only applies to when you’re writing a comment or a blog post and you don’t have infinite time to talk about everything and if you have to focus, might as well be on something constructive.

If we’re talking about living with yourself, then I think there’s plenty of time to consider all of the perspectives. The nihilist can come to terms that there is no meaning in life provided for him and create his own.

>If we’re talking about living with yourself, then I think there’s plenty of time to consider all of the perspectives. The nihilist can come to terms that there is no meaning in life provided for him and create his own.

The main problem with adopting certain mindsets is that they have the ability to change the way you filter the world without you realizing it. So even though you can find a way to live with that mindset, if it's a mindset that focuses on things you have no control over, it will be less useful than another mindset that focuses solely on things you do have control over. That's the main point I was trying to get across.

> I find that worrying too much about this is harmful for my personal development and that taking a stance that is something like "luck doesn't exist" is more useful.

That may be true, but what’s the effect on your understanding of other people, society, and how the world works? Is that not important to your personal development?

What do you mean by luck? Circumstances beyond your control? That's what it sounds like to me but I also think you can't possibly mean that. It's trivially false.

Theoretically, the wide availably of user-reviews on sites like Amazon and GoodReads, should allow unknown writers to gain visibility and reach the full market of readers who would enjoy that book. The fact that JK Rowling has failed in her anonymous writings, points towards the great opportunity that still exists for platforms/apps that can surface great books from unknown authors.

On a tangential note, it would be amazing if the guild/union of authors collectively agreed that all books will be published anonymously for the first year, with the author's name only revealed after the first year anniversary. This would allow newer authors to step out from the shadow of the established ones. I doubt this will ever happen of course, but I think we would see so much more dynamism in the industry if it ever did.

> On a tangential note, it would be amazing if the guild/union of authors collectively agreed that all books will be published anonymously for the first year, with the author's name only revealed after the first year anniversary. This would allow newer authors to step out from the shadow of the established ones. I doubt this will ever happen of course, but I think we would see so much more dynamism in the industry if it ever did.

The much, much more likely outcome would be a massive surge in interest for textual similarity analyses.

And then in gaming them!

Solving the visibility problem is only a problem for uneatablished authors, not readers. I would guess that most people are happy to read something from an author hey know rather than taking a chance on another author who is “better”.

The visibility problem affects the readers as well. Consider the ~million readers who enjoyed reading the Bachman/King books after the author's identity was revealed. There are probably a 100 other "Bachmans" out there whose books they would have enjoyed reading as well, possibly even more than their favorite King books. Except that because of the author's lack of visibility, they never discovered these works.

Yes, the readers aren't "losing" anything. But nevertheless, they have still missed out on something they would have enjoyed.

I'm sure that there is a bit of "wine tasting" effect. Knowing that a brand-name author wrote a book probably makes it more seem better to many readers. But even outside of that, the reader isn't really missing out by not experiencing the best author. Many light reading experiences are fungible, even if there are some quality differences.

I read the "Robert Galbraith" books. I would have never read it if I hadn't known that J. K. Rowling wrote the book. But I wouldn't have felt like I was missing out, I would have just read some other detective novel instead and been equally as satisfied.

I would fall outside your supposition - the few creators whose work is so good I know I'll enjoy it don't produce as much media as I consume. All else being equal I'd prefer novelty when taking a chance on content. I actually thought that was the default.

The story about name recognition is perhaps more important. A publisher was giving advice to would be authors and their advice was until you had at least one and possibly two best sellers it was always more valuable to give away your books than sell them. This was because the barrier to reading a new book is so much higher for an author the reader doesn't yet "know" than one that is a known quantity.

There is another bias where things that are free must be lower quality or there is some catch so I would be careful with that.

So don't sell any books until I have a best seller?

That wasn't what I took away from that publisher's statement. I heard it to mean that in the beginning getting your name out was very important. And while the Oatmeal famously lampooned "exposure" as something that might be valuable, building one's "brand" is a thing.

Publishers are often very confused about how publishing works.

Instead of his vague recommendation to "accept luck as a primary determinant in your life," I recommend reminding yourself that although luck may be a necessary condition for success, it is not a sufficient one.

For a literal take on the role of luck in life, read “The Dice Man”.

The article is mathematically unsound and provides no proof or model whatsoever of what they claim.

I am a little surprised that it just provides a simulated model; Yahoo ran a famous experiment which does exactly what demonstrates his point about randomness and media success being only weakly correlated with success: "Experimental Study of Inequality and Unpredictability in an Artificial Cultural Market" http://www.princeton.edu/~mjs3/salganik_dodds_watts06_full.p..., Salganik et al 2006; Salganik & Watts 2009, http://www.princeton.edu/~mjs3/salganik_watts09.pdf "Web-Based Experiments for the Study of Collective Social Dynamics in Cultural Markets"; http://cultural-science.org/FeastPapers2008/AlexBentley1Bp.p... ; "Leading the Herd Astray: An Experimental Study of Self-fulfilling Prophecies in an Artificial Cultural Market" https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3785310/ , Salganik & Watts 2008.

Great links! I agree with the general truth of the phenomenon described & your references do a much better job demonstrating this.

I think it's meant more as a thought experiment than an actual formal proof.

There's too much noise out there. I don't think it's purely market advantage. People are buying from authors they already like because they can't read all the books, so they look for books that are from an author they already like or ones that manage to breach their noise filter. Same with music, there's probably thousands of bands you would love and songs you would list among your favourites, if only you would give them an equal chance of listening, but that's not how we usually behave.

Yes the market recognises this behaviour and tries to push past success because they get a great return, but familiarity and noise floor are powerful.

Yes, this seems more like a demonstration of how strong branding is in crowded fields.

Cumulative advantage has always seemed obvious to me and not terribly intereeting. I'm more interested in why it doesn't dominate in a completely out-of-control way.

For instance, we know small companies often win against much larger ones.

> we know small companies often win against much larger ones

We do? They do?

It seems to me that this statement requires context in order to say much of anything. I don't know what to do with it as a standalone general statement.

Do they win when the far larger business actually cares, in head-to-head competition? I doubt that happens very often. When counting the successes there also is significant danger of survivorship and selection bias because the David vs. Goliath story resonates so deeply with human listeners.

Or do they win when the larger business doesn't even know it is in the race, like an ant screaming at an elephant oblivious to its existence "this pebble is mine"? I'm sure the chances of success here are pretty good.

Why does the large company not understand the race when it has such great cumulative advantage?

How did the giants of today get to be giant in a 20-year span when they started out tiny? And why didn't the giants of 20 years ago use their cumulative advantage to get even larger?

I don't see what your reply has to do with anything I wrote.

I wholeheartedly agree with the article that success ultimately boils down to luck and not much else. Not even kidding, the harder I work, the luckier I get!

So if not everyone, then at least the majority of all people worldwide who work very hard will be successful. I think reality shows this not to be true, hundreds of millions of very hard workers who even exhaust their bodies towards an early and broken death would probably disagree. You are already lucky by birth. Even apart from one's own family, we are placed into environments consisting of culture, institutions and tools developed over millennia. How much the place of one's family within one's own society plays a part depends, some countries are better at letting people from all kinds of families develop, in many others there is a large inheritance factor within families, where family income has a high correlation with one's own lifetime income.

Maybe we can think of it as everyone having a lottery ticket, but certain things can increase your odds. When it comes to startups, for example, VCs are often arguing that just being closer to them in SV can help your chances. The neighborhoods we grow up in, the schools we attend -- they all influence that "luck" number for each person!

Is this surprising? My first criteria for choosing a restaurant is, are there people already there? Unless I’m passionate anout the domain and am willing to give up substaintial personal time, I’m not interested in discovering new talent or being a guini pig.

It’s interesting to watch how seating is arranged by staff, particularly early in the night. Early customers or ones that they want to be seen are seated near the front or by the window.

> or ones that they want to be seen are seated near the front or by the window

This will piss me off now whenever they offer a table in the corner.

It’s funny when you get a window first time, but turn up with a kid the next time and get the overflow room upstairs.

This explains a similar phenomenon with paper clips


This is also a very good reminder of why discrimination takes a long time to defeat. The moment we legislate that we shouldn't discriminate by race, gender or religion the capital gained from all the advantages is skewed towards to the oppressors and the playing field is not leveled yet.

I think that instead of adding one marble at each step, it's better to add a fixed percentage of existing marbles, e.g,, 0.25%. This will better approximate the processes that are being modeled. But then the effect shown in the article will disappear.


It is the way of heaven to diminish superabundance, and to supplement deficiency. it is not so with the way of man. he takes away from those who have not enough to add to his own superabundance.

Is one of things they lack a solid moral fiber and will do whatever to win(lie, cheat, steal, exaggerate, fake things.. fake a reality that doesn’t exist, etc)?

It may not be something covered by the article, but this is not false. And those who don't do it, are not virtuous paragons or whatever- they either haven't done it, didn't think of it, or got caught.

Don’t you mean Envisioning the Future?

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