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The Role of Luck in Life Success (scientificamerican.com)
93 points by hourislate 7 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 62 comments

I've had a saying for a long time: it's better to be lucky than good. It doesn't matter how good you are if you're unlucky, and it doesn't matter how bad you are if you're lucky.

There are lots of complicated statements around luck and success. For instance, how lucky was Zuckerberg to have been at Harvard for college when he was? He obviously saw an opportunity and turned it into Facebook, but do you think it's even conceivable he could have done that had he not happened to have been a student at Harvard? What if the Winklevoss twins had never approached him in the first place? What if he never met Sean Parker? There were a string of things that had to line up for the story to evolve the way it did, and none of them were in Zuckerberg's control.

It's very easy to come up with examples of people just being unlucky. You could be born with a serious illness. Your child could die during birth. It's easy to think of situations that are just awful and there is nothing you could have done to prevent those awful things from occurring.

There are lots of simple statements around luck and happiness. Nobody argues whether or not you're lucky to be born rich, healthy, tall, attractive, etcetera. But people argue over whether or not intelligence is driven largely by nature or by nurture. Experts even argue over whether or not happiness itself is largely determined by genetics.

The general takeaway is luck is by definition what you cannot control so it's a fool's errand to try to do so. But success is what happens when luck stumbles across someone who was prepared to take advantage of it. Zuckerberg may have been lucky to have been at Harvard when he was, but he immediately saw the opportunity and turned it into Facebook - and (love him or hate him) he deserves credit for that.

Zuckerberg's luck is what makes him CEO of one of the FANG companies and not just another engineer at any random tech company. We can all point to minor changes in someone's life path that if changed would not put them where they are today.

If Yahoo had purchased Google Larry Page and Serge Brin would also likely just be engineers at some random company and not leaders of one of the largest/richest companies in the world.

Reading Creativity Inc, about Catmull and Pixar there was so much luck. Catmull was president of Pixar and now President of Disney Animation but Pixar would probably never have existed if Lucas had sold them to someone other than Steve Job. It also wouldn't exist if Jobs had been unwilling to lose 70 million on trying to make them a computer company and then giving them a chance to pivot to animation and instead shut it down. Catmull would likely have been a successful engineering manager but he would not likely be in his current top position.

I don't at all agree with the other statements in this thread that suggested people in these positions are top level skilled vs others. People see these people's skills through rose colored glasses of their success.

I agree that if I had to choose I'd rather be lucky than good. However, I can't affect my luck. I can do things that impact how good I am so that I don't need as much luck to be successful. I can also affect how many times I try. Repeated attempts should yield success eventually, possibly not in one lifetime, even if I'm unlucky.

IMHO, luck needs to be earned. There must be a reason for luck. Some may argue that some people are born smart and rich and they never did anything to deserve that. Well, even at the very beginning, when there were just a bunch of DNAs mixing up together, the entire process followed the very predictable laws of physics. It wasn't luck or coincidence. It's our interpretation of this physical process invents the identity if that child and attributes it with the undeserved luck, while in reality it's just a predictable physical process that couldn't have a different outcome.

We have no way of predicting that physical process (not by a very large margin) so reasoning about it that way is quite useless. The inability to predict (perhaps) deterministic physical processes is randomness and (un)luck.

If you have to earn luck; what is being unlucky? Someone earned a succession of crap?

It is maybe predetermined since the beginning of the universe how (un)lucky I am if only we could track every particle since the big bang (or whatever booted up time and space) but that is not very helpful if the economy crashes and I get some horrible disease just when I launched my new venture.

The unlucky is the absence of reasons to be lucky or even reasons to be unlucky. There is no science there, but I like to think about luck as money: we make an investment by doing something for others and later get back more of the same.

I think you can somewhat control your potential for luck, which IIRC Dilbert-creator Scott Adams called: your luck surface. The more you expose yourself to get lucky, the better your chances will be.

Of course it doesn't work much with gambling, so I guess there is a cost function that needs to be considered too.

The cost function is the gaining of skills to make you good. Whilst upskilling, you're not out catching your lucky chance, you're busy reading/studying/practising.

being good beats luck. being good allows one to to repeat successes whereas luck is often a one-time thing

people who are the most successful are better than 99.9% of the people in the same field or area. They know the subtleties and intricacies of mastery that elude the majority of people.

Zuck had been doing coding and other projects for years before creating Facebook. He didn't just overnight come up with this idea and learn all the skills needed to create it. This was a decade in the making for him.

I guess the idea is that success is the combination of luck and skill. No amount of luck matters if they don't have the skill. Someone can be incredibly skilled, and not have the same impact if they don't get lucky

Put another way, they’re related - being good dramatically increases your luck surface area.

I like to put it as being becalmed in a lake with the sail up. When the wind comes, you pick it up and ride ahead with it. With the sale stowed, you miss the opportunity.

Hm I like that.

Most of the time you have to work hard to be lucky...

Or if you are lucky you need to work hard to do something with it.

Quite a few years ago I lived a few bus stops from the venue of the yearly PHP conference in Hungary but somehow I never went. Just didn't seem worthwhile or something. In 2004 May, a friend of mine called on a Sunday he is going to attend the roadshow of said conference in a shitty rural city in Hungary with his brother driving and whether I wanted to tag along. I shrugged and went. Still have no idea why. That's when I first heard of Drupal, it wasn't visible at all back then despite I was heavily researching CMSes just then. Being present at that roadshow was luck. My meteoric rise from financially struggling Hungarian web developer to internationally acclaimed Drupal developer and architect of a Top 100 web property only five years later was, however, the result of me pouring practically every awake moment into Drupal (I believe it was a Google Summer Of Code mentor questionarie which asked how much extra time are we spending with our project and I still remember when I was like, I am not spending any extra time because that'd be impossible). The finances aligned. When I attended my first Drupal developer come together in 2005 February in Antwerp I needed to borrow money from my parents for the plane ticket and couch surf for I had no money. I bought a apartment right down on the beach in Vancouver in 2009... And yes, this seemed unreal and it still does, walking home every time fills me with a sense of "this is too good to be true".

> That's when I first heard of Drupal, it wasn't visible at all back then despite I was heavily researching CMSes just then.

As the old saying goes, "luck is when opportunity meets preparedness".

You were prepared for this by evidence of you research into CMS's at the time. This enabled you to see the opportunity Drupal created. You clearly ran with this and your success followed.

How many other people were there that didn't find the type of success you did? They were just as lucky to be at that conference at that time as you. If anything, you were lucky to have had the insight to see the potential an investment in Drupal could make and clearly it went beyond your wildest dreams in terms of financial and professional success. But even then I'd hesitate to call it all luck since you clearly saw that CMS's were becoming an important technology and Drupal in particular must have fused what you knew about CMS's and what could be possible.

> How many other people were there that didn't find the type of success you did? They were just as lucky to be at that conference at that time as you.

Ha that's right.

What I must have seen but failed to put into words is https://dri.es/drupal-sucks-less:

> All content management systems suck, Drupal just happens to suck less. — Boris Mann at DrupalCON Amsterdam, August 2005.

Typo3, Tikiwiki, Phpnuke (heaven forbid), XOOPS, even Mambo/Joomla, these were the systems of the day. Drupal ... sucked less and gained a lot more marketshare.

I think that only applies to the category of success.

But some people are just born rich. Some people are just born healthy, attractive, and even happy! Research suggests half of life satisfaction is determined by your genes.


What's luckier than winning the genetic lottery?

Plenty of people work like slaves their whole lives and don’t do all that well.

That's working out real well for Africa.

you don’t think people are successful in Africa?

In aggregate? No.

By virtue of not being born there I'm better off than the vast majority. Sure, I work hard at what I do. I'm also lucky a series of lucky and unlucky events transpired the way they did in order for there to exist an opportunity for me to work hard at something and do well.

Luck is 90% of it for pretty much everyone.

better off !== success

Keep telling yourself that.

The "luck" of Zuckerberg seems to imply it was a random event he was at Harvard and that he didn't intend to be there. That story is about the meaning of being at a place like Harvard, you have the tools and people around you to see and take advantage of opportunities before others.

The conflict behind the story is whether your suffering is the result of something random or meaningful. Someone who does the best they can at a lesser university and gets lesser results is not a result of randomness, but the meaning (or properties, qualities) of being at a lesser university and the choices made beforehand.

Attributing randomness to big successes undermines the hard work that a lot of people go through to get one step up the chain.

Luck put him there at the right time. Someone with his abilities in 1930’s Harvard would have had few paths to that kind of wealth.

Further, the path to Harvard if he had been born in say India’s slums is rather tricky especially when compared to having wealthy US parents.

Bit he was born in the US and not in India. Why? It's tempting to dismiss this question, but let's think about it. If we look at this from biological pov, he was created from a bunch of DNAs in the US and thus "Zuck" is just a convenient way to refer to a bunch of atoms. The entire process in this case is nearly deterministic and there is no room for luck. When we throw an apple seed into earth and see an apple tree 5 years later, we don't call it luck, right? There was a reason why we were there at that time and there is a reason why only an apple tree can grow from an apple seed. Luck is really just our inability to see the reason.

Quantum mechanics and thus physics does not seem to be an entirely deterministic process. Starting say when modern humans showed up to now the current world is almost entirely dependent upon chance and thus luck.

Note strange attractors do exist, so cities would be likely to form around rivers rather than atop mountains. That however says nothing about the people or cultures that would live there.

Yes I agree he didn't choose his parents, but he chose to go to Harvard and work hard and take peoples data and ect ect. Each step of the way he could have turned back, or made the film Born Rich like other people with the extreme luck of being born into a good position in life and get cut out of the family empire. Or go and start a religious cult with millions/billions of dollars.

I've seen enough people mess it up from all positions in life that I commend the good choices people make (apart from Zuckerberg's hot button issues) to achieve a life worth living well. That has a meaning to it, and going through suffering to get there.

> Attributing randomness to big successes undermines the hard work that a lot of people go through to get one step up the chain.

This is my entire argument. There's a much easier way to phrase it though: life's not fair.

Life is fair if you value fairness. In some places it's more important than freedom. Life's not being fair is a US value.


To me "life's not fair" reads as a contradiction to the cited statement.

As I understand it GP's argument was that, yes it may have been luck to meet the right people at the right time, but that a lot of conscious decision and discipline went into being in the right position at the right time beforehand. Reading it that way, life is fair, since it rewarded the work previously put into building up a life's success. Another way to say it would be: If facebook hadn't made Zuckerberg a billionaire, something else would have made him at least a huge success (the stellar kinds of successes that people like Zuckerberg experience are probably still insanely unlikely even in the world of billionaires)

I don't mean to guarantee success in the face of randomness, but rather to understand and highlight the meaning of making a good decision at the right time, regardless of the fortune or misfortune of luck.

>life’s not fair

“...and the you die”

Not my quote, heard it from a colleague

The full saying:

Life's a bitch and then you die. So fuck the world and go get high.

I’ve had this old post from Marc Andreessen pinned in my mental browser for a long time now. There are four types of luck and you can influence three of them:

Chance I is completely impersonal; you can't influence it.

Chance II favors those who have a persistent curiosity about many things coupled with an energetic willingness to experiment and explore.

Chance III favors those who have a sufficient background of sound knowledge plus special abilities in observing, remembering, recalling, and quickly forming significant new associations.

Chance IV favors those with distinctive, if not eccentric hobbies, personal lifestyles, and motor behaviors.


Boy, how lucky I am.

The probability of me stumbling upon this informative gem would have been pretty low if I hadn’t been lurking around HN.

As an avid poker player I think that the game reasonably approximates luck's role in life. There will be many situations where you will lose despite having done everything right and you will see other people win despite having done everything wrong. Both of these situations generally cause people to complain about injustice in the world, make illogical damaging decisions in desperation (go on tilt), or give up. Which of course causes them to lose any chance of success.

The path to success is to make the correct decisions over and over again even if you fail the first 5 or 10 times. Of course if your definition of success is to be a billionaire you will likely never succeed but if it's to accumulate a reasonable amount of wealth or to achieve some measure of success in your field then it isn't as impossible as everyone is telling you.

I like the comparison to poker which is a mixture of luck, skill and effort. The thing is also, if you win a lot of times in a row or at least are on top of the game, it is much more comfortable to play. You can continue with calculated risks. I think that's very much a position one wants to be in to feel successful and in control. Switching back from a disastrous round back to this mode is tough...

continuing with the poker analogy, in life you play multiple hands every day

You’ll get your share of luck, but get to make decisions every day

The first example of luck they provide is how the country you are born in makes a huge difference. Of course it does! But with such a broad definition, even talent becomes a matter of luck, as talent requires the luck to be born with the right genetic preconditions and the luck of growing up in a environment that allows you to develop your talent.

A better title would be: “An overly broad definition of luck leads to luck having a greater role in life.”

What kind of sensible definition of luck wouldn't include the place where you were born?

The kind that doesn't try to undermine every successful person born in a developed country ever?

I do believe that luck plays a huge role[0], but I get GP's point and I think it's fair.

[0] I think what really drives it home for me is not knowing successful people, but knowing people for who it didn't work out, despite them seemingly making all the right moves.

It's not about developed/undeveloped. It's about the possibility of your talents being utilised in the place where you were born.

Let's say you have the potential to be a great cricketer, but you're born in a country where cricket is not even played.

You're SOL.

Or you (the great cricketer) could be born in India and be a millionaire by 20.

Great point! When typing my reply I actually wasn't sure about using 'developed countries' as the term, but it was the one that came to me fastest. In a discussion further down the thread I just called it 'country of origin', maybe using something like that would have been more fitting.

> The kind that doesn't try to undermine every successful person born in a developed country ever?

Ok, so let's hear it?

Well, I guess you could always define it as the events outside of the agent’s control that unfolded after she’s decided on and taken the first step towards her goal

This way a casino player would still be lucky if she wins (but not in the ‚oh my gosh, how lucky are you that there exists a casino in the first place!‘-sense) and a successful person could still have her achievements honored even though there happened a lot of stuff before she entered the stage (like, ‚how „lucky“ was Newton that he didn‘t have to start from scratch, right?!‘)

Thanks for the answer. Honestly, that definition feels contrived to me.

I think the premise is simply not correct - that involvement of luck undermines personal achievement. Especially when many people get to be in the same lucky conditions, but only some of them achieve success.

I understand that instinctual reaction of many will be to significantly downplay others' personal achievements based on perceived involvement of their lucky circumstances. We see that sentiment often here on HN. But it should be countered by asserting that it is a silly way to look at things, not by defining "luck" in a weird way.

But what about the distinction between luck and privilege?

Aren‘t circumstances like country of origin, financial situation of one‘s parents or genetic disposition more commonly referred to as privilege?

> Aren‘t circumstances like country of origin, financial situation of one‘s parents or genetic disposition more commonly referred to as privilege?

Perhaps they are in the US, but not where I live, so I'm not used to making that distinction. And even if common, I'm not sure it is a useful distinction.

If I were feeling cynical, I would say that privilege seems to be the kind of luck you're supposed to feel bad for having. Maybe that is useful for rising awareness of certain societal problems, but I'm not yet convinced.

I guess the little less cynical interpretation would be that privilege is the kind of luck that you should be thankful for having :)

This was an interesting discussion. Thank you and have a nice weekend!

but people are more concerned with relative success within populations than between countries

A lot of comments discuss Zuck's luck, but a better example would be William Henry Gates III. Here was a kid born to a wealthy family, given a chance to learn about computers at an early age (before he was 11!). He leveraged that knowledge into a software business that was doing.. ok ish, whilst at Harvard.

But his luck continued when IBM decided they wanted to outsource creation of an OS for their personal computer. He deflected IBM to another company, who, to this day, must be kicking themselves for messing up the opportunity, only to take on the task himself. His skills/company weren't great in that direction, having his mother on the IBM board saved his bacon many times over.

Once he cashed that lottery ticket in, his more business minded friends saw to it that it was exponentially more valuable than anyone could have imagined.

Whilst Bill was certainly skilled, there was more than enough luck involved for everyone.

This article starts out with such broad implied definitions of “luck” it is hard to figure out what they’re really saying.

I hate things like "Far Greater Than We Realized" too. Who thought luck wasn't important and how long ago was that?

Fortunately we can just lop that bit off the title above.

Success in life has more to do with who you know, who your parents know and luck than anything, even hard work or intelligence.

The more you live, the more you realize that much of life is beyond your control. When you were born, where you were born, even the opportunities available are all out of your control.

Not to mention that there are only a few spots for success and even if everyone worked equally hard, most will fail while the few succeed.

Jobs made 3 fortunes. One is luck, three is skill.

Gates had 3 major turning points in the fortunes of Microsoft. It's hard to attribute all three to luck.

I would think in certain societies luck (randomness) has much less of an impact on peoples lives than others. Like dropping a pin somewhere in Norway vs the US to represent where someone will be born. In the US there is may be a pretty large amount of luck associated with where that pin lands whereas in Norway it might be significantly less.

Maybe part of the problem is that luck has connotations that, for better or worse, change the way we perceive the argument. Would it make a difference if we replaced luck with chance or probability?

Lucky sperm for example has some heavy overtones. Our language might be getting in the way.

It’s not clear how talent is being measured. Is it IQ, resiliency, motivation ?

And luck goes both ways, good luck or bad luck, we are all way way luckier just by being alive today

The article lists a bunch of things you can change personally and are therefore not "luck", like your last name, country of residence, display of middle initials and ease of pronouncing your name.

It seems to conflate luck with randomness.

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