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Michael Lewis: Don't Eat Fortune's Cookie (princeton.edu)
552 points by gregdetre on June 4, 2012 | hide | past | favorite | 180 comments

I've enjoyed two great books that discuss this: "The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives" (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/08/books/review/Johnson-G-t.h...) and "Fooled by Randomness" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fooled_by_Randomness)

I think people dislike talking about luck's role in our successes (but not failures) because it hints at a deterministic world view where our free will is less important than we'd like to believe.

You cannot help luck (p) but you can help the number of times you put yourself in a position to be lucky (n). The expected value is n x p, so you clearly have a big influence in your success.

For example, going to Princeton gives you a much bigger chance to be seated next to an important Lehman person, and having the right parents gives you a much higher chance to go to Princeton. Some people have such high "n" they are bound to end up "lucky".

I feel compelled to both upvote and comment on your post, in order to further emphasize the point you are making: you can help the number of times you put yourself in a position to be lucky. This understanding is incredibly important and relevant to every aspect of one's life, however diverse, from business to dating. Check out Luck Surface Area [0], a relevant concept largely based on the above.

Also, most often than not, merely beating inertia and getting to do things, no matter how involved or not they are, can have a tremendous impact on one's success. Simple things really work. You just have to do stuff. Other times you just have to ask. You'd be surprised how often you get exactly what you ask for without being manipulative. Rejection Therapy [1] is a true eye opener, especially when the rejection never comes. The way I see it, it's the most profound realization that at that point luck was just made out of thin air.

And while some things definitely cannot change, like the country one was born in and the socioeconomic status of their parents, there are many, many others that can be hacked.

[0] http://www.codusoperandi.com/posts/increasing-your-luck-surf...

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rejection_Therapy

While what you say may (or may not) be right, you have completely missed the point of the speech and its lesson by focusing on the question of how to become successful. The point is, if you do happen to become successful, don't think you deserve it, and don't forget to repay your debt to those who aren't so successful.

This is not a lesson in self-help, but one about one's place in society.

I think you may be contradicting yourself. Using your example, one thing leads to another but it all hinges on an initial lucky roll of the dice: born in the US to the right parents. No one "earns" this head start but almost everyone reading this discussion has it.

Like you, I believe that I've had some say in getting to where I am today, but it's hard to tell how much of that is reality and how much is self-aggrandizement.

Perhaps the way to think of this is by going to Princeton, you increase the chances of sitting next to someone from Lehman. So you're not putting yourself in a position to be lucky, you're reducing your need for it.

In other words, we view the odds of an unlikely event as lucky (the chance you'll sit next to someone important) but the odds of a likely (sitting next to someone who can't get you a job) event as the norm.

Going to Princeton increases your chance of so many things it's hard to measure. And don't forget about the allure of being new: http://kstarr.com/blog/dont-eat-fortunes-cookie-how-michael-...

Alternate explanation: People know they can't do anything about true luck, so they want to focus on things they might be able to do something about.

Maybe, but I'm talking about retrospection here, not prospection. People, even when talking about past successes, are very unlikely to admit their good fortune.

In other words you're more likely to hear, "I worked very hard" than "I worked very hard and was very lucky."

There are notable exceptions. Warren Buffet has openly talked about the role of luck in his success.

I don't know whether it's statistically more likely, but I do think I find the latter sentiment more often among scientists. Plenty of famous people in science will also refuse to admit luck had much to do with their success, of course, but many others will do so. A total guess as to why is that there's a recognition that "good science" is something you can control, but "science that gets famous" has much more of a sociological and good-timing component that's hard to control. Sometimes people know they're on the verge of a big breakthrough, but other times it's quite hard to know whether this interesting problem you're working on will turn out to be a solid but niche contribution, or a future 1000-citation paper. Sometimes you even have to wait 10 or 20 years to find out that what seemed like a minor contribution at the time was actually made retroactively important by a different advance.

I've read a bit on discovery. There are 3 main theories discussed on scientific discovery - the great genius, the cultural zeitgeist and just chance. The great genius without who history would be greatly changed was discounted on the commonality of multiple inventions and the existence of many sufficiently intelligent people at any given time. The cultural zeitgeist holds that there are many ideas in the air and one only has to look to pick it, that it is the intellectual backdrop that determines when and what gets discovered. That multiple inventions are often separated in time and not all discoverable items are found when they could be runs counter to this. The chance model suggests not all discoveries are found and scientific discovery is random as to who gets it and that it follows a Poisson distribution. In one article [1] , an example of a tree with 1000 ripe apples and 1000 apple pickers was given, how many apples are picked?How many people pick the same two or three?

A refinement of the stochastic model considers that geniuses exist but they are able to see and synthesize more than others not that they can see what others can't. They benefit from the cultural backdrop and do not innovate as islands. Their discoveries would eventually be replicated by a large number of individuals making blind turns with individual portions. In sum, not all ideas that are discoverable within a cultural zeitgeist are found, it is essentially random who discovers what but there are a few lucky individuals that tend to be over-represented [2].

How lucky? In numerous ways. In addition to having the right set of genes, epigenetic developments and beneficial stochastic fluctuations in neural development they also need the right set of skills and experiences, and then to not just pick a solvable problem but to pick one solvable by their particular mindset. Solving problems is not a deterministic process but more a sampling of a large combinatorial construction of possibilities acquired only through expertise. So there is an element of chance in fixing the right permutation of ideas. So run history twice and Einstein might not have found General Relativity. In getting recognized luck also plays a role in setting up a Matthew Effect. The only part in which luck is only partial is in being enthusiastic on a subject, the time and effort spent to gain expertise on it (base level of intelligence luck determined, 1 sigma sufficient) and the obsession to be able to think all the time on a subject.

If you are interested in this sort of thing I strongly suggest anything by Simonton (as an aside one of his papers argues that it is not what age you start that matters but how many years into your career that determines the drop off, so late starters get the same burst and drop just shifted in time).

[1] http://www.garfield.library.upenn.edu/essays/v4p660y1979-80....

[2] A small group of highly productive individuals is most likely to participate in multiples, including independent rediscoveries. These same persons are also unusually intimate with the "technoscientific" zeitgeist and perhaps equally gifted with an inordinate amount of good luck.

Not free: http://www.deepdyve.com/lp/psycarticles-reg/multiple-discove...

That's really interesting.

One other factor is that I think science encourages a certain humility and honesty. When you're trying novel things and checking against real data, you inevitably get your ass handed to you from time to time. I think that makes it harder to treat "because I am awesome" as a 100% reliable explanation.

because science focuses on repeatability and control. personal successes do not. Any thing that passes as science has been proven to a degree of certainity, by definition. Any science is good science because it's been proven, and then there is science that got famous.

Its not so much an exception as a predictable response. Admitting something is luck is a display of weakness (in pretty much any culture, I'd imagine). You're far more likely to encounter such displays by those who can withstand it. Buffet has nothing to fear, he's proven more than anyone that he's among the best ever in his field, even if it's luck that he's #1 vs #100 on the wealthiest list. Every supermodel seems to claim that they were ugly or a tomboy in high school and they were just lucky that some photographer noticed them. Rookies talk about how hard they've worked to get to the pros, while retiring athletes talk about how lucky they've been.

"The harder I work, the luckier I get" - Samuel Goldwyn

Samuel Goldwyn obviously never worked in a sweatshop.

More seriously. Lots of people work very 'hard' for (what we would consider) very little compensation. Its more important to work smarter than 'harder' or with more 'effort'. (eg. Sometimes you also need to acknowledge when your efforts are leading nowhere and drop something - this might not be considered 'working hard' - though perhaps it should be)

>>Samuel Goldwyn obviously never worked in a sweatshop.

And you obviously don't have to be in a sweatshop to work hard. You can work hard as a Janitor, driver, programmer, stock trader, president or whatever.

To be 'lucky' through hard work you've got to be clever enough to pick up the area where you want to work hard.If by any means you can't start where you would have liked, you need to keep moving gradually to the place you would like to go.

My advice: If your hard work doesn't look rewarding in both the long and short term. Iterate quickly, take a quick feedback and play a different game. But whatever game you play work hard while playing it.

EDIT: To all those people who are downvoting. Hard work in the wrong direction doesn't give the results you expect. Is this such a difficult and surprising thing to understand?

The best band that came from my college was probably one of the best regional acts as well. For 10 years, they were effectively on a non-stop, nation-wide tour. They were a ska act at a time when ska hit. So, they were right place, right time, and put forth incredible effort.

In the end, they did not get the big record deal, the band fell apart, and they all went on to different things. I've had a hindsight talk with the leader of the band and he's basically said, we thought all our hard work touring would pay off, but we probably should have been working on other things (like marketing and woo-ing labels, I presume).

Kind of OT, but the big change in my career came when I realized that promotions are not rewards for "hard work", moving up comes from demonstrating you'll be more effective at the new job. As a worker, you think that you get promoted as a reward for what you've done, but as a manager, you promote because of what the worker can do in the future.

Samuel Goldwyn should have gone with:

  "The luckier I got, the luckier I get"

It seems there are 3 main factors in success (or lack thereof):

Luck, working smarter, working harder.

Luck is a major factor for everyone, but you can't control it. You can certainly influence working smarter, but it is often a matter of juding in hindsight what was smart rather than determining it before hand. Working harder is much more under our control than the others.

It is important to acknowledge luck. This helps use be humble in our successes, not be too devestated in our failuers, and be compassionate to those less fortunate. It is also just plain true.

It is also important to try to work smart - creating a startup, writing a novel, etc at least has a chance of creating huge rewards and even changing the world...the odds of changing the world from inside the sweatshop you mention are close to nil.

But it is how hard we work that we can mostly control, and there is some truth to Goldwyn's quote...it just isn't all of the truth.

I liked your analysis and agree for the most part. But you can't leave out the talent factor, nor the resources/position one starts with. It is possible to be born into success.

>>It is possible to be born into success.

It definitely is, but it only takes you there. You have carry it from there on.

Most of rich kids feel its their 'right' to be rich, regardless of whether they 'deserve' it or not. I have a lot of friends who inherited crazy fortune from their parents. According to them poor people getting rich due to whatever reason is 'unfair' to them.

Most rich kids just like the status quo to remain unchanged. Their idea of getting rich, is they staying where they are, without much effort and others remaining poor.

Can you expound about "poor people getting rich" being unfair? Where does this sense of entitlement come in for the rich kids?

When you are born in luxury, you have to do nothing else in life. All you need to do is to ensure you continue to stand where you are, and others stand where they are(To keep your advantage). When that thing gets disturbed, people feel uncomfortable.

From a poor guy's perspective he has to 'rise' no matter how. From a rich guy's perspective he is supposed to stay where he is no matter how. Most rich people think, the poor are poor because they don't deserve to be rich. And they are rich because of a special gift, like a unique blessing which only they are supposed to have as it was given to them at birth.

This is not just restricted to money. This sort of a thing also happens in many other things like for example born-with talents Vs Gathered skills. Naturally talented people don't like others gaining their skill through practice. Because they feel their born-with skill was a special gift they have, some kind of a unique blessing. And you are supposed to get only through that special gift.

Lets say you are a kid with the costliest video game in the neighborhood. You got it because your rich Uncle Joe gave it to you. You pride around telling you are the only guy who has it. You also know nobody else can have it because no one near has a rich uncle Joe. An year later you find another guy having the same video game, which he bought after selling lemonade on the footpath.

Now not only does he have the video game, but he has it without the rich uncle joe. In other words your rich Uncle joe isn't a special distinction you have anymore.

Talent is a fair point. So is the resources/position one starts with, but I had considered that one part of luck.

In "The Luck Factor" Richard Wiseman talks about the personality characteristics that are associated with luck. Agreeableness and conscientiousness are not (contra this saying, which gets attributed to all and sundry) but extroversion, [lack of] neuroticism, and openness are.

And likewise, "luck is the residue of design" - Branch Rickey

Of course luck plays a role, but we are not talking lottery style luck here. If success was mostly luck then it would be a pure numbers game. China and India would hold most of the world's successful people due to their massive populations.

Do they hold the most lottery winners? Do they hold the biggest lottery winners?

Doubtful that many play the lottery, but they also lead the world with bad luck too, with the world's most accidental deaths. Source: http://www.rightdiagnosis.com/a/accidental_death/stats-count...

Except people can Hedge. Some times it's better to double down when things are going your way, but plenty of people who thought they where already successful wish they had taken some money off the table.

Ignoring the role luck's roles leads to lot's of stupid decisions like this. 99.9% of the time going 90 on an interstate is fine, that does not mean it's a wise decision.

But then do people overestimate the impact of their own influence? Would it benefit themselves/the world to come to grips with randomness?

I figure it this way, I may or may not randomly succumb to a car accident, but if the next day I lost my hand I wouldn't give up on programming, I'd learn how to type faster with one hand. I bet the other one gets in the way anyways.

My point isn't that random isn't a big deal, or that people don't ever overestimate themselves, but that people shouldn't look at it like that anyways, it keeps you in control of your own life.

Now you're just getting into life philosophies. Fatalism vs. free will is not an argument I am equipped to engage.

I don't think fatalism vs. free will was what he was getting at.

We see a lot of moralizing about this, particularly in the USA where individualism and the self-made-man is practically a national religion, more pervasive and deeper-rooted than even Christianity.

We see this every day on television - politicians foaming at the mouth about lazy good-for-nothings who failed to provide for themselves and now reach their hand out to their fellow taxpayers. We see it every time the word "Entitlement" appears in yet another headline.

We see it every time when we treat the poor as people who are lazier, dumber, or just plain lesser.

If we are going to moralize about the merits of achievement, and if we're going to continue throwing people under the bus for being unsuccessful, we should come to grips with the randomness factor.

I don't think that's his point. To me, coming to grips with randomness is much more about humility and tenacity, which are character traits rather than philosophical issues.

Taleb's books were ones of the most thought-provoking I have ever read. Made me think differently about a lot of things that I thought I knew.

I think though people don't talk about role of luck also because it's useless to talk about it - you can't say: "my lesson for you, my son, is - always be lucky". People try to find something that they can actually do - even though many of what they end up doing is futile.

It's very difficult to do something for the sake of doing it without focusing on the end, but in reality all we can control is what we do, not the effect of what we do. Reading talebs books completely opened my eyes to our own magnificent limitations. There's real beauty in recognizing how little control we have over outcomes. But we have 100% control over the journey . . . what we learn and create, theres a lot of comfort in that idea.

Taleb's books made a huge difference for me too. He basically removed a number of layers off the prism I used to see life through. Thoroughly practical too.

The notion of luck doesn't imply that we don't have free will, but rather that we don't have complete control over our lives and environment, which I assume is something everyone believes regardless of their view on free will.

Moneyball is a good read as well. One of the baseball statistics it addresses is errors which are entirely based on what someone scoring the game thinks should have happened.

The speedy outfielder who just misses catching the ball on a flat out run gets charged with one, the hung-over slugger who waddles toward the gap after a late start doesn't.

A question: I want to read those books. Which one should I start first?

The Drunkard's Walk was the better of the two in my view. I'd start there and follow up with Taleb's book if you want to read more.

However, if you're really into Wall Street trading, flip the order.

Fooled By Randomness leads nicely into the Black Swan, Taleb's even better follow up book.

I really liked Drunkard's Walk. That said, I personally prefer the interpretation of probability as addressing uncertainty rather than randomness.

I think part of the problem with realistically viewing one's life through this prism is the impossibility of determining what percentage of one's success is due to luck.

In a sense, literally everyone who is alive today is lucky. They are the product of an unbroken line of genetic material passed down for millions of years. Can you imagine? Not one of their thousands and thousands of ancestors managed to be killed before procreating!

In another sense, everyone alive today is lucky they weren't stillborn. Lucky they weren't claimed by SIDS or whooping cough, or a cold, or any of the various childhood afflictions we've eradicated. Everyone who wakes up tomorrow is lucky they didn't get cleaned out by a bus crossing the street, or sideswiped by a drunk driver on their way home.

Almost all of the "rich" people in the U.S. did not start out rich. Unquestionably, luck played a role. But how much? Who's to say that, if Michael Lewis skipped that fateful dinner, he wouldn't have gone to a frat party, met a future ballplayer, and then gone on to break the MLB steroid scandal. Or sat next to a White House intern and broken the Clinton sex scandal? or, or or. If any one of these alternate scenarios happened, he would still claim to be "lucky" to be in the right place at the right time. And, in a sense, he'd be right. But that doesn't necessarily mean he was successful because he was luckier than millions of other people around the world.

Obviously someone born today in the U.S. is much "luckier" than someone born in Somalia. Someone born into an upper-class family in Germany is "luckier" than someone born into a nomadic tribe in Algeria. Does that make the "luckier" person's success more attributable to luck? (And, as a corollary, the "less lucky" person's success less attributable to luck?) Maybe, but to what extent?

I'm not sure that's the right question to ask.

More important, in my view, is the reverse side of that luck equation: if you assume that input A leads deterministically to outcome B, then if you didn't get outcome B, obviously you didn't put in input A. Replace "A" with "hard work" and B with "economic success" and you have a nice justification for killing the social safety net, for example: obviously people who aren't successful must not be working hard enough.

So accepting that luck plays a role in success doesn't just affect your view of someone's success, it affects your view of other people's potential lack of success, which is an even more important thing to have if you want to have empathy for your fellow human beings.

Unfortunately, cognitive dissonance being what it is, a desire to attribute your own personal success to hard work rather than to luck makes it harder to attribute other people's failures to bad luck, and inclines you to assume that they must "deserve" their situation in life.

So I think it's less important to play the "what if" game there with specific situations, and more important to realize that people who haven't been successful might have been unlucky (or less lucky), rather than to try to decide whether someone successful was lucky or not.

This reminds me of a passage from Richard Dawkins' "Unweaving the Rainbow."

"We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here."

I too thought of that passage but also this from Watchmen:

"There are thermodynamic miracles, events with odds against so astronomical they're effectively impossible, like oxygen spontaneously becoming gold; I long to observe such a thing. And yet, in each human coupling, a thousand million sperm vie for a single egg. Multiply those odds by countless generations, against the odds of your ancestors being alive; meeting; siring this precise son; that exact daughter, until your mother loves a man she has every reason to hate, and of that union, of the thousand million children competing for fertilization, it was you, only you, that emerged. To distill so specific a form from that chaos of improbability, like turning air to gold, that is the crowning unlikelihood, the thermodynamic miracle. The world is so full of people, so crowded with these miracles that they become commonplace and we forget. I forget. We gaze continually at the world and it grows dull in our perceptions. Yet seen from another's vantage point, as if new, it may still take our breath away. Come, dry your eyes, for you are life, rarer than a quark and unpredictable beyond the dreams of Heisenberg, the clay in which the forces that shape all things leave their fingerprints most clearly."

And if you recursively click the first link in Wikipedia articles, you end up at philosophy :)

My point is that if you dedicate a lot of time thinking about any particular aspect of life, you end up back at the "Getting to Philosophy" problem. Your luck comes in shades of grey. At some point, the line between black and white is drawn rather arbitrarily.

Would I consider myself "lucky" to be born in the US? To be born at all? Sure, why not. It's at least a statistical significance. But that stroke of luck was just the basis from which I built my relative level of success. The same is true for any starting point. The more relevant question is, does it really matter?

I wouldn't say that contemplating the deeper meaning of one's own "luck" is a waste of time, but obsessing over it is foolish. While you're busy contemplating how lucky you are, the other person is busy positioning themselves to succeed.

I think it really does matter, in at least two ways. As a person, and as a citizen.

As a person, I find it useful to consider how I've been lucky in that a) I'm better able to take advantage of the luck I've had, and b) it makes me more careful about downside risk. It also helps keep me from a certain fat-headed overconfidence. As the line goes, "Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple." I think that stunts people's growth.

As a citizen it's especially important for me in figuring out how to vote and what to advocate. I'm a big believer in the veil-of-ignorance approach: [1] In helping design a society, I should do it so that I would think it fair no matter which role I played. You can look at that as a way to subtract luck from the equation.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veil_of_ignorance

But no one would ever literally contemplate the single fact of their personal luck long enough to degrade their professional potential. It is realistic only that one might spend a few days a year or minutes a day at it. And occasional periods of self-awareness or mediation are almost certainly helpful in achieving life's goals. Instead, I take as Lewis's message that the successful should be and behave humbly. We should help those who live in less comfort or happiness.

Its amazing how self-defensive some successful people can become about their socioeconomic status. An implication that luck had any more than a very minor contribution is blasphemous. Some can become outraged at the suggestion that they might own one penny that wasn't earned fair and square. Completely on their own, with no help from anybody. Not even scholarships count as help (they're earned).

And for some reason, admitting that one received assistance from one's parents is taboo. Just look at the Romney campaign for a prominent example:

"I could have stayed in Detroit like him and gotten pulled up in a car company," Romney said at the debate. "I went off on my own. I didn't inherit money from my parents. What I have, I earned. I worked hard, the American way."[1]

1: http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2012/jan/...

What about someone that fought their way out of endemic poverty? For me, I was fortunate my whole life and while I have worked hard for what I've achieved, it is all largely dependent on the love, encouragement, mindset, and financial help I received from my family. I have a friend, though, that is one of my personal heroes. He came from disadvantage and dysfunction. But, by some spark that frankly I still find intimidating, he started fighting his way out from early childhood. Every challenge available in high school. Ivy League. Finance. Politics. He doesn't like to visit home now, which makes me sad, but I can understand.

So how much luck with him? We could argue that people like him are lucky for their innate drive and passion, but that's a tricky one.

On the other hand, this person who fought their way out, could have easily failed if they were sufficiently _unlucky_, no matter how hard they tried, no matter how "intimidating" that spark. Heck, they could have been hit by a bus or something immediately after getting their dream job! A contrived example, to be sure, but nobody becomes successful without at least a little bit of luck. The point of the talk was that even people who fight their way through the entire process should recognize that they were somehow lucky, and that they should strive to help others who might not be so lucky.

I was one of the graduating seniors at Princeton who saw this talk live, and non-Princeton readers have to understand that the line "Never forget: In the nation's service. In the service of all nations" at the end is not just a concluding remark - it is both Princeton's motto and, IMO and according to many of my classmates, the thesis of the entire talk. The entire speech builds up to make this point: you are lucky, and by default you'll forget that you are sometimes... so make sure you remember to help people who aren't.

I'd argue a lot, still. Was he born in America, or Somalia?

Perhaps his innate drive and passion would have made him a mighty pirate? Arrr.

Not even scholarships count as help (they're earned)

And heaven forbid you count student loans as getting help, even though they are taxpayer subsidized to keep the interest rates artificially low.

I'm surprised by how defensive people can get about their own success. It seems to me that you can never know if your success was due to your own hard work or some lucky breaks (or, more probably, a combination of both to which you'll never know the balance).

It reminds me of the story about thousands of people flipping coins. Out of those thousands of people, some of them are going to flip a long string of heads. Does that mean that those people are "good" at flipping heads? Is someone who flips a string of tails "bad" at flipping heads?

just law of large numbers at work

Using this logic, pretty much everything is due to luck. finish your PHD? You were lucky that you were accepted and that you had a good enough education to get into the program.

"It seems to me that you can never know if your success was due to your own hard work or some lucky breaks"

You may have a point. But, I'm really tried of people attributing all success to luck (and using this as an excuse as to why they aren't succeeding). It also discounts all of the hard work that someone does put into something successful.

If I sit here and do absolutely nothing, I won't ever have a successful startup. This is why I know it's not mostly due to luck. Luck implies that it happens to you with no intervention..like winning the lotto.

My idea of luck is broader.

The position I was born into in the society definitely gave me some advantages in starting businesses. I would happily call that luck; it's not like I carefully picked my parents.

There are all sorts of odd contingencies that I didn't plan that have helped me in business. The first company I started came about only because I ended up subbing for a friend who wanted to take a quick vacation; by the time he was back his bosses said, "Hey, why don't we start a company?" Pure luck. I could have easily gone a decade longer before starting out on my own.

For me the comparative baseline isn't people who don't do a thing. It's all the people who work just as hard but have differing levels of success. Compared with a Cambodian rice farmer, I'm pretty lucky. Compared with somebody from my social class who was fucked up by abusive parents, I'm lucky.

Heck, I'm lucky just to be born into this era. 50 years ago I would have ended up a car mechanic. 500 years ago I'd have been an underfed monk. I'm freakishly lucky to be living in the Age of Nerds.

The argument isn't that success is due entirely to luck. It's that you'll never know how much of that success is due to luck. It may be a lot or it may be a little.

But you do. If you make an iphone app and it's an overnight success, you got lucky (the non-luck part is the years of experience that it took to make the app). However, if you slowly build your user base and continue to add new features for years through many failures/successes, beyond the normal 10% or less luck in every-day life, I wouldn't consider it lucky.

Again, it seems there is this trend on HN to make it seem like anyone remotely successful got "lucky". Even worse is blurring the line between luck and hard-work so you can make it seem like their accomplishments aren't as important.

In the case of an app that grows over time: isn't there an element of luck at play every month in the user base? Maybe you just got lucky 12 months in a row, and then you were successful enough to show up on the front page of the app store.

You can tabulate the odds of experiencing random radical growth 12 months in a row. It will happen to some portion of the population. If everybody is flipping coins, then 1 person out of 4000 will flip 12 heads in a row.

I am not arguing that most success is due to luck, or even half of it. I just think the statistical argument is interesting to explore.

Nobody wins the lottery without playing, and playing requires some level of work to manage the variables (when to buy, where to buy, what to play, how much to spend, etc.). Why does a lottery win have to be pure luck? Why is it not fair to say those choices you made are what lead to the success? Heck, if you work hard enough, you might win several times[1]. The contrast you are trying to highlight is just not clear to me.

[1] http://macedoniaonline.eu/content/view/18821/61/

Nobody finishes their PhD without enough food to eat as a child so they don't die before they reach age 12. It is luck that you were born to your parents. It is luck that you are still alive despite the hundreds of dangers and probabilistic events that could have killed you every day since you were born. What you do with your luck that you have is up to you. Working hard doesn't prevent you from getting hit in the head with falling tiles.

"This isn't just false humility. It's false humility with a point."

This is why I like Lewis' writing. Liar's Poker had a huge influence on me at an influential age.

There's always a sense that he's playing the same game that he's writing about. And not in a George Plimpton sense. But he's often got a message to deliver that other players will not touch. The message always seems worth hearing.

I interpret his reference to the Berkeley study as not one that explains "luck", but of one that explains how life is role-based. People take roles and play them, as if "all the world's a stage". It is. We are all willing to go along either as the audience or in our appointed roles. What I think Lewis means to say is that the assignment of roles, the "casting" if you will, is often arbitrary.

I only wish Lewis had made this longer. There is so much more to say. Not only do people not like success explained as "luck" but they insist on success being attributed to "brilliance", "genius", "hard work", etc. In this case, when the cause of an effect is not clear, we are very quick to find one that suits our purposes.

Re: making it longer. I think it was pretty much spot on in terms of length. This is a speech at graduation/commencement, nobody wants to hear someone yammer on and on and on. He had a point, which he illustrated with 3 concise examples (Liar's Poker, Moneyball, the Berkeley study). He could elaborate, certainly, but I don't think this was the forum for it. Maybe he'll find a venue in which to elaborate at some other time, but I think this pretty much perfect.

You are right, of course. Perhaps I momentarily forgot the context. I am reading his words on HN, not listening to them at a commencement. Big difference.

I confess I have not read Moneyball. I mistook it as the work of a baseball fan and not a metaphor for something more than an appreciation for baseball. My mistake.

It's time for me to read it.

If you want people to remember what you have to say, make your point, and get off the stage.

Similarly I've long noticed a connection between brevity and stature. In speech, writing and behavior. With sales by the way it's always important to get your ass out of dodge after getting agreement from the customer, lest they change their mind.

Getting out of dodge.

Maybe this is why he was brief: His point is a potentially unpopular one.

It is just a very interesting topic. One that few who are successful would dare to explore in depth.

It would be interesting to hear how his brief remarks were received. Did people like what he had to say?

"Always leave them wanting more" isn't just advice for show business.

Talks in most TED categories are ranked better when they're longer. http://www.ted.com/talks/lies_damned_lies_and_statistics_abo...

"Better" implies enjoyment, among other things. It does not mean the message stays with the viewers.

I had a great time reading the following group of related books.

How To Beat the Dealer by Ed Thorp.

You might think this is lame and outdated, but it will clue you into how bond traders think. In fact, Bill Gross of pimco was so inspired by the book that he went to Vegas and became a gambler (before pimco but OTW). That book also is the holy grail for card counting. It will up your blackjack at least, and prepare you for the next book.

Liars Poker by M.Lewis

Lewis actually mentions Thorp, b/c Thorp went on to become a wildly successful trader throughout the 90s: he even called out B.Madoff as a crook in the early 90s (dude knew his finance games and clearly the SEC did not), and Thorp developed a lot of arbitrage trade strategies that are common today. All of this and more as M.Lewis clues you into wallstreet cronies and big bond trading, insider talk about salmon smith barney, and just how sketchy that industry really is ...

Ok now you know a few things about wallstreet and trading, now go to:

The Big Short by M.Lewis

Lewis again with an awesome breakdown of how/what of the credit bubble and various characters betting against that massive momentum as it builds. Really this book is about personal fortitude: having a vision as a trader and sticking to it, even when the rest of the world is betting against you, even when your vision implies the rest of the world is d0000med in an almost end-of-money kind of way :)

Now move into an interesting layer of finance, which all of us Hackers will enjoy ...

The Quants by S. Patterson

This has the making of a great movie if only hacking were interesting on film (too bad its not really like Hugh Jackman in Swordfish!). Buffet: "beware of geeks bearing formulas" ... exactly and this book is all about the buildup of these trading systems and the people behind them, the little bill gates (relative to bank-account) characters that run those giant quant funds ... And just questions on layering probability and the feasibility of trading into this complexity.

Read on ...

You either forgot to add or will likely enjoy Fortune's Formula by Poundstone.

FYI there's a new book by Scott Patterson coming out next week called "Dark Pools: High-Speed Traders, A.I. Bandits, and the Threat to the Global Financial System" which looks interesting.

The power of fortune is confessed only by the miserable, for the happy impute all their success to prudence or merit. - Jonathan Swift

Tangentially related, Joseph Heller -

Destiny is a good thing to accept when it's going your way. When it isn't, don't call it destiny; call it injustice, treachery, or simple bad luck.


He was a self-made man who owed his lack of success to nobody.


Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. With Major Major it had been all three. Even among men lacking all distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who met him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was.

His point is essentially the one developed at length by Malcolm Gladwell in "Outliers." Namely, that great successes are almost always dependent on a uniquely fortunate set of events that the person is able to exploit well, rather than their success being the result of genius.

If two random people were given equally fortunate sets of events in their lives, would they both exploit those events to reach the same level of success? Or could it be said that genius is recognizing those fortunate events when they come your way?

They wouldn't, because at least gene has its role. Life events + genes + free will => destiny. The role of the first two are pretty self-evident. I'm not sure about the role of free will, if it exists.

This reminds me of a topic the guys from the TechZing podcast talk about pretty frequently, increasing your luck surface area. Jason Roberts has a short post about it on his blog that sums it up pretty well (http://www.codusoperandi.com/posts/increasing-your-luck-surf...). This concept has resonated with me and for the past couple of months, I've started to do things with the hopes of increasing my luck surface area.

I came here to say this. It's important to realize the size of luck's effect on our lives, but the next step isn't just to shrug and say "oh well, I guess I wasn't lucky."

There are in fact scientifically proven ways to increase one's chance for getting lucky. I highly recommend Richard Wiseman's book "The Luck Factor" which goes into this research: http://www.richardwiseman.com/books/luckfactor.html

I had this discussion with my father today and he finally conceded to me that I am partially right (he hates being wrong). The fact that you were not born in a war torn country, the fact that you had good role models, the fact that you weren't born with a mental or physical handicap, the fact that you met your long term business partner at some random get together. Are all luck. Now that doesn't mean you should give up on all of your activities, because if you don't try at all you have a zero percent chance of success at that point. Even getting to the point where you have this work hard mindset is luck.

The point I take away is a little bit beyond just realizing that you're lucky. That's important, and the people I've met that I consider truly successful (ones I would consider as role models), generally realize this.

However, I think we can take this further...the only variable that we have under our control is effort. Since luck is an outside force, you might as well maximize this one variable that's still under your control so that you have the best odds.

The old Louis Pasteur quote that sums it up is "Chance favors the prepared."

A lot of what happens to us in life is a matter of chance (called luck if it's in our favor). But if you aren't ready to take advantage of it, it will come to nothing.

Effort, but on what? Simply expending effort won't get you anywhere. As the moneyball example shows, you can help luck on it's way with maths and data.

Although I suppose if efficient market hypothesis is true, then even where you direct your effort must be luck.

Some businessmen feel obligated to "give back." Who says they've taken anything?

Paul Graham responds, "They've taken something from chance."

It should be obvious to anyone, that when you have more wealth than 99.5% of the world, you owe the rest of the world.

But not so many understand or realize that.

Next time, they shall be born alone, let's see how many hours they survive.

People feed you. Build stuff for you. Make your life better. And most of them, don't gain much from it. Usually, they just die younger.

>>It should be obvious to anyone, that when you have more wealth than 99.5% of the world, you owe the rest of the world.

Unless you are a king, dictator or some force of evil. Building 99.5% of the wealth in the world will mandate you to build empires of business, solve problems, provide employment to millions of people around the globe.

That much doesn't happen merely by chance.

Agreed. But it doesn't happen merely by hard work either. If it did, my dad would be richer than Paris Hilton.

So they should give back to chance? How does one do that? It may be a nice turn of phrase, but sound like completely meaningless if one takes a minute to think about it.

One should be charitable because it's human to be compassionate to your fellow human being, not because being successful automatically puts you in debt to the God of Chance, which debt should be repaid or else. And not because by being successful you stole your success from somebody else.

I have gotten successful by being 'unlucky'.

Post my 10th Standard(10th grade) I failed to secure a seat in a good college, though I had good marks. I went to a sub par college by any measure. I met some amazingly hardworking people in the college, who were just motivated like crazy to prove to the world that going bad college doesn't change anything in life. We worked hard, very hard. Studied like crazy. I can't remember if we ever slept for more than 5 hours a day the whole year. I did great in my pre university exams.

During the entrance exams I got 'unlucky' again. The bus I took to the examination hall got punctured and I arrived to the hall 15 minutes late. I lost precious rank and again went into a average college. I met some great friends, we hacked in our free time. We did part time jobs in start ups. We installed modems for ISP's. I learned tons compared to other people in my age.

Then again due an average college I failed to get a job in a software company straight out of college. I went to a call center. I got trained to deal with sales calls, technical support, I learned to talk in American accent, I learned to work late nights, I learned how to resolve issues quickly. My other friends went to work at top software companies here in India.

I started coding in my spare time during the day and work in call center at the night. I got a job in a software company 9 months later. Again I got placed in a support project by being 'unlucky'.

I started automating stuff, hacked like crazy day and night. I got a break in another unit in the company. All my other friends went to foreign onsite locations and were seeing the world. I went to work in development project.

I got 'unlucky' again, I fell ill. Lost 35 kgs of weight due to a bad diagnosis of Tropical Sprue. I was put in as a back up guy for one of our client which happens to one of the largest web companies in the world today. I got back my life, and health slowly.

I started working like crazy again. I did stuff with and editor and a interpreter they had never seen. They were happy, they decided to hire me full time. I happened to land in a company any guy here would dream to work.

In this journey of getting and having chains of repeated back luck, I have gotten rich, got a little success and doing good by gods grace now.

If I had gotten 'lucky' at any stage. I wouldn't be where I'm today.

In other news, most of my friends who get tons of opportunities, chances and crazy twists of destiny in their favor are no where despite all they got today.

Moral of the story I learned so far: You can't win against Karma! No way! It will get to you sooner or later. So just do the right stuff and relax.

PG posted an interesting speech a while ago by Richard Hamming. It was about what makes the most successful people so successful. I really like his take on luck.

"I claim that luck will not cover everything. And I will cite Pasteur who said, ``Luck favors the prepared mind.'' And I think that says it the way I believe it. There is indeed an element of luck, and no, there isn't. The prepared mind sooner or later finds something important and does it. So yes, it is luck. The particular thing you do is luck, but that you do something is not." http://www.paulgraham.com/hamming.html

Maybe this is why people believe in religion rather than things happening with no rhyme or reason.

Michael Lewis meet Quora; Quora meet Michael Lewis: http://www.quora.com/Wealthy-People-and-Families/Why-dont-so...

The question I want answered is:

How do you optimise for luck?

I've come to the conclusion that one most work very hard on something with a scalable market value for a long period of time.

You continue to do this (repeatedly if need be), until you either, in order of likelihood:

  a) Quit

  b) Die

  c) Get lucky
How does one optimise for luck? How can one work "luckier" - not smarter (which is necessary but not sufficient for success)?

Bill Gates is a very smart man, I'm sure, but I highly doubt that he was the smartest, or the hardest working at the time he founded Microsoft (many people that run/found companies are very hard working/intelligent - but most fail).

If I recall correctly the founder of Digital Research and the creator of the CP/M operating system Gary Kildall (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gary_Kildall) could've become Bill Gates.

Apparently Bill Gates bought a clone of CP/M for ~$50K and sold it back to IBM with a blanket license for ~$100K, whilst holding onto the rights to exclusively sell to other manufacturers without IBM's permission.

The IBM PC blew up all the sales records, and quickly became the dominant PC platform.

The market was soon flooded with reverse engineered copies created by manufacturers hoping to ride the IBM wave by producing clones that were cheaper.

Every single one of them required an operating system that was compatible with IBM.

And who had the exclusive license to sell them the software IBM used?

I just want to know how does one get lucky, if that isn't such a stupid question to ask.

I have the feeling that anything up to some arbitrary limit (60K-150K a year) you can state that skill may probably have been a major component. But anything above that, and I'm pretty sure you are in very lucky territory. Does this make sense, or is everything mostly luck, and just a teensy bit of skill?

You have some facts about Bill Gates wrong. Not only is he smarter than other smart people but he's also harder working than most other hard-working people. It was generally accepted among his classmates that he was the smartest in his class at Lakeview and one of the smartest at Harvard.

Also, you could say that Bill Gates got lucky with the CP/M OS deal, but he was shrewd enough to give himself the advantage in the majority of the contracts he made with others. Luck did play a huge role in Microsoft's success but their success was multiplied by Bill's intelligence, hard work, cunning, and competitiveness.

You could rephrase that sentence:

Bill's intelligence, hard work, cunning, and competitiveness played a huge role in Microsoft's early success, and this success was multiplied manifold later on by extraordinary luck.

Once again I never said it wasn't necessary - the intelligence or the hard work. I merely indicated that it isn't sufficient for success above a certain level.

Your first statement is unverified, and probabilistically wrong. I heard a similar story that he dropped out because he couldn't take the advanced math classes, and that he was no longer the smartest person in the class. See everyone can do this!

Smartest at Harvard or Lakeview does not equal smartest at starting a company (also unverified - I'm sure there were people that were smarter/more hard working).

It's a sad realisation that in many areas in life (outside of pure competition such as sports), it's not about what people did, it's more about who they were, who they knew, and where they lived.

Liberating for some, but depressing nonetheless.

I agree that intelligence, after a certain upper limit, isn't required for success, and in fact an abundance of it at the upper levels may actually work against success.

Bill Gates stopped pursuing math because he realized at Harvard that he wouldn't be the best at it. He was actually taking graduate level math courses in his undergrad sophomore year.

source: http://askville.amazon.com/read-Bill-Gates-toughest-math-cou...

Anyways, I agree that smartest doesn't mean best at starting a company. Intelligence + Hard Work + Competitiveness + Connections + Luck all play a role. Bill Gates had all of them. Most people are lucky to have 1 or 2.

edit:: I guess the reason I'm replying to you is I get the sense that you think luck played a significant role in Gates' success. It may have, but if you read up on Gates you will learn how significantly better equipped he is for success: high intelligence (i'd guess in the top 10% in his class at Harvard if not higher), ridiculous work ethic, ridiculous competitiveness.

Luck plays a role in all success stories but I submit that Gates would be very successful even without it.

Agree. Luck is very important, always has been, always will be. I just want people to acknowledge that. Have no worries, I do work extremely hard, I just wondered if there was a way to optimise for luck. Work is like the kernel of truth that you put out there, which needs to be really very good, and it is then multiplied by the society around you. But just understand that luck is and always will be the defining factor in people's lives. Randomness is constant, relentless and universal - don't forget that!

Mary Gates, Bill Gates' mother, was on the same board as John Opel, the president, chairman and CEO of I.B.M. They discussed her son's company and Mr. Opel mentioned Mrs. Gates to other I.B.M. executives. A few weeks later, I.B.M. took a chance by hiring Microsoft, then a small software company, to develop an operating system for its first personal computer.

So a discussion Mary Gates had with John Opel while they were both serving on the board of United Way of America resulted in an IBM contract being placed with her son Bill's company Microsoft to create an operating system for IBM's first personal computer.

So that's a no then :D.

Reminds me how ludicrous the development of intelligent life was (evolution is the Bill Gates of science theories - mostly luck, lots of time, and a bit of skill haha!).

You need the right planet, with the right sun, lots of water, an atmosphere, a moon, a stable surface, an iron core, plate tectonics, snow ball earth -> oxygen/ozone, organic molecules from the oort cloud, and that meteor that killed the dinosaurs (with no subsequent extinction events since).

Sounds like the beginning of a bad sci-fi series!

I'm sure I missed things out, but it was a series of ridiculously unlikely events. Reminds me of a Simpson's episode on time travel - kill a mosquito, end the world :D.

Que sera, sera!

Other way to look at it is, He had to build a company first.

How would Mary Gates be of any help to him if he hadn't built the company?

Her influence was a multiplier and not the only reason for his success.


But it was the main reason you or I even discuss him right now, which implies that it was one hell of a multiplier.

My problem is that the ratios are very distorted: 1% work vs. 99% luck. Work is necessary but not sufficient is all I'm saying.

Hence how would one optimise the multiplier (whilst obviously working on being just plain good), if that is at all possible.

I don't deny this at all. There might be a lot of people who are as hardworking and ready with something to give them a multiplier. But they might have somebody like Mary Gates as their mother.

My problem is people taking that as a reason to not do the base work at the first place.

I know of people who hunt 'luck' stories whole day to prove why they being lazy is OK. And not just that, now they expect to get equally 'lucky'. And when they don't they call it 'injustice', 'unfair' and things like that.

Here's what Paul Graham has to say in How to Make Wealth: Millions, Not Billions (http://paulgraham.com/wealth.html):

> If $3 million a year seems high to some people, it will seem low to others. Three million? How do I get to be a billionaire, like Bill Gates?

> So let's get Bill Gates out of the way right now. It's not a good idea to use famous rich people as examples, because the press only write about the very richest, and these tend to be outliers. Bill Gates is a smart, determined, and hardworking man, but you need more than that to make as much money as he has. You also need to be very lucky.

> There is a large random factor in the success of any company. So the guys you end up reading about in the papers are the ones who are very smart, totally dedicated, and win the lottery. Certainly Bill is smart and dedicated, but Microsoft also happens to have been the beneficiary of one of the most spectacular blunders in the history of business: the licensing deal for DOS. No doubt Bill did everything he could to steer IBM into making that blunder, and he has done an excellent job of exploiting it, but if there had been one person with a brain on IBM's side, Microsoft's future would have been very different. Microsoft at that stage had little leverage over IBM. They were effectively a component supplier. If IBM had required an exclusive license, as they should have, Microsoft would still have signed the deal. It would still have meant a lot of money for them, and IBM could easily have gotten an operating system elsewhere.

> Instead IBM ended up using all its power in the market to give Microsoft control of the PC standard. From that point, all Microsoft had to do was execute. They never had to bet the company on a bold decision. All they had to do was play hardball with licensees and copy more innovative products reasonably promptly.

> If IBM hadn't made this mistake, Microsoft would still have been a successful company, but it could not have grown so big so fast. Bill Gates would be rich, but he'd be somewhere near the bottom of the Forbes 400 with the other guys his age.

So "luck" largely took Bill Gates from millions to billions, a 100x to 1000x multiplier.

>>So "luck" largely took Bill Gates from millions to billions, a 100x to 1000x multiplier.

I never denied that. I am just saying you have to first make to those millions.

And making millions is not easy.

Does anyone have a link to the experiment mentioned in this speech?

There were five cookies, not four. The fifth cookie was left untouched, just as the norms dictate. It's the fourth cookie that the "leaders" went for. The study was done in 1998 and the original paper hasn't been published, but the researchers describe it in a later paper (2000, pdf): http://gsbapps.stanford.edu/researchpapers/library/rp1669.pd...

That's right. 5 cookies, so that someone could take the 4th cookie without feeling too guilty about taking the last one. I guess the last cookie usually went uneaten.

The study, "Power and the Consumption of Resources", by Ward and Keltner, is an unpublished manuscript. There's no link I can find to the actual study online, but everyone talking about social power quotes from it.


A quick parable: You sense a random opportunity, work your ass off, and turn it into a great success.

False narrative #1: This success is solely due to your hard work!

False narrative #2: This success is solely due to luck!

I haven't read ML's books (yet) but I think this speech leans too heavily on narrative #2.

I think he's intentionally focusing on the luck aspect because I think his audience (Princeton undergrads) is used to the first narrative. As sort of an outsider (I'm a graduate student here), I sometimes get the sense that a fair amount of undergrads here are a bit too self-important. Certainly there are many awesome, down-to-earth people here too, but there are also a lot of people who are caught up in the fact that they are Princeton students and that by itself perhaps makes them better than students of "lesser" schools. I think in particular, Lewis' last full paragraph should be the take away for these students. Yes, they are very gifted and they may deserve every bit of benefit that comes their way, but they should also remember that there is at least some part of that they didn't/can't control. Acknowledging and being humbled by that will go a long way in life.

As a Princeton '12 who saw the speech live, I entirely agree. I'd add that this was the Baccalaureate ceremony, which was historically the part of graduation that featured an extensive sermon... in other words, a part that is designed to be humbling in every respect.

It's a superlatively false narrative to image that "sense random opportunity" is the only (or even common) scenario and that "work your ass off" is its only response.

I don't think he is saying anything is "solely" anything else. Just that it's unlikely that #1 is the full explanation.

Luck favors the bold. She favors those who experiment and take risks. That being said those bold experimenters aren't guaranteed luck, but they have a much higher chance of it; instead of failing 9 out of 10 times, they'll only fail 8 out of ten times.

This really surprised me:

> They entered the room bearing a plate of cookies. Four cookies. The team consisted of three people, but there were these four cookies. Every team member obviously got one cookie, but that left a fourth cookie, just sitting there. It should have been awkward. But it wasn't. With incredible consistency the person arbitrarily appointed leader of the group grabbed the fourth cookie, and ate it. Not only ate it, but ate it with gusto: lips smacking, mouth open, drool at the corners of their mouths. In the end all that was left of the extra cookie were crumbs on the leader's shirt.

I regularly have shared meals with my team and friends (mostly Brits), and this would never happen.

I'm very, very suspicious of this claim. In any situation I've been in like this, the leader has been almost overly gracious about sharing or outright giving to the non-leaders.

Luck is too broad a term.

I suggest that success is down to two components: alpha, and creativity.

Creativity is whatever value you create with your own talents and your own hard work.

Alpha is whatever opportunities come your way, which you need to seize to benefit from.

Obviously some people are just born in a better position to capture/generate alpha. And also you can work at gaining a better vantage point for seeking alpha. But seizing it still takes skill (and most of it goes unrealized), and people can be rightfully proud about that (as long as they don't confuse the alpha component with the creativity component, which would be somewhat tiresome).

A similar sentiment is expressed wonderfully tersely in Lemony Snicket's notes on Occupy Wall Street.


There may not be a reason to share your cake. It is, after all, yours. You probably baked it yourself, in an oven of your own construction with ingredients you harvested yourself. It may be possible to keep your entire cake while explaining to any nearby hungry people just how reasonable you are.

I think this is why a lot of Hollywood actors tend to be liberal on economic issues. They may be rich and famous, but they also got the "big break" that many of their fellow actors did not get. Brad Pitt may be handsome and a good actor, but there are a lot of handsome and good actors. Only one of them got to co-star with Tom Cruise in Interview with the Vampire.

Entertainers are liberal because narrative is a very Liberal Art. Data, myth and legend are more on the Conservative axis, although there are mighty quantities of overlap.

I always enjoyed Neil Young because he was always both liberal and conservative and mostly both at the same time. Artists who truly serve the muse will be like that.

Being born talented is luck in itself. Without talent there's no true achievement, success. Random fortune, lottery win at best.

I like that talk. Well written, honest and to the point. It doesn't even involve morality. It doesn't tell you not to take the cookie because, you'll take it anyway (well, most of you anyway).

It just tells you not to fool yourself.

Am I the only one who initially read this as "Don't Eat Fortune Cookies," and didn't realize my mistake until going back to read the rest of the title?

Anyhow, it was a very great and inspiring read.

Would realizing they are lucky benefit the lucky? In the cookie experiment Lewis wrote about, the randomly appointed leader would then not take the cookie so effortlessly.

He's telling the students that they, being Ivy League graduates, will have many opportunities to exploit their positions, and is telling them to be aware of this and exercise some humility by remembering that luck has largely brought them where they are.

Indeed, and that might result in better relations with the other members of the group, in turn resulting in more productivity, leading to greater accomplishments and benefits later on. It's been thousands of years since short-term greed was the ideal way to do things, basically since humans organized into real civilizations, but it's hard to get people not to be greedy, so we just design our economy around it instead (i.e. capitalism).

I will be reading Mr. Lewis' next book, and not because he's lucky.

1) I don't eat the cookie, I just read the fortune.

2) You only get one fortune a day, so the 2nd would be a waste.

3) My instinct as leader would be to let the other two split it or "first come" - whichever is quickest.

4) Nevertheless, the 2nd "alpha" cookie always tastes better.

And that is exactly why whenever someone wants book recommendations here, I always recommend Max Gunther's two books about luck. That.

My success and failures in life have had nothing to do with luck. I've been both lucky and unlucky at various times, but none of them have determined my level of success over the short or long term to any significant degree.

At the same time I've had periods where I worked hard and was focused and passionate about what I was doing, and periods where I was not passionate, unmotivated by a crushingly poorly run organization and did not work very hard.

The periods where I was focused, passionate and working hard were the more successful ones, and successful enough to carry me thru the down times as well.

Luck may have put Michael Lewis at Goldman Sachs, but luck didn't determine his level of success. After all, his success comes from writing books, not being a goldman boy. Sure he wrote his first book about that period, but that book took a large amount of focus, passion and effort to create.

That said, I certainly find myself occasionally jealous of people who seemingly lucked into great success. If I'd never applied myself, and thus never had success myself, I'd probably think that luck was the actual determinant of success.

Edit to add: In this post I deliberately talked about my personal experiences. I didn't make a broad sweeping statement that luck doesn't determine success or failure for everybody. However, clearly people object to the political incorrectness of not supporting the ideology that argues "luck determines success, therefore the rich should be taxed to pay us! we just weren't lucky!" Note that I did not address that argument, I just talked about my experience. But because my experience is inconsistent with the distorted view of the world, it is "politically incorrect" and thus should be kept from the eyes of others, lest they be influenced, my post has been made visually unreadable. I find this anti-intellectualism distasteful.

The point of the speech wasn't that you shouldn't apply yourself.

Your hard work, passion, and focus likely correlate with your successes. But that doesn't mean you weren't also extremely lucky to be in a position where those factors (things that you have more control over) were so able to tip your chances.

Edit: Firstly, we should all be able to voice unpopular opinions without getting silenced by the crowd. I may have disagreed with your analysis, but I voted up your response nonetheless.

Secondly, to respond to your edit. I think you are not quite correct in stating that your down-votes are due to the fact that "people object to the political incorrectness of not supporting the ideology that argues 'luck determines success, therefore the rich should be taxed to pay us! we just weren't lucky!'"

There is a difference between those who do not apply themselves and believe success is entirely down to luck, and those who work hard and dedicate their lives to the pursuit of something more, never to achieve the kind of successes that others take for granted. It is the latter group that you are failing to acknowledge, which is perhaps why you are seeing so many down-votes. I wouldn't simply attribute it to "anti-intellectualism."

>It is the latter group that you are failing to acknowledge, which is perhaps why you are seeing so many down-votes. I wouldn't simply attribute it to "anti-intellectualism."

That group, if it really even exists, is completely irrelevant to my point and thus there is no reason I should need to acknowledge it, other than political correctness. Remember, my comments were about my experience and to a lesser extent, Lewises.

Downvoting my comment-- which was on topic and well written-- because I failed to endorse a politically correct point of view (e.g.: the existence of that group, or its significance) is the very essence of the anti-intellectualism I was describing.

So, I agree with you that this is likely a probable cause of the votes, but we disagree as to their meaning.

You know what the sad thing is? I actually crafted this post carefully to only talk about myself, and Mr. Lewis, specifically to avoid being down voted for being politically incorrect. But the intolerance on Hacker News for anything that isn't ideologically leftist is very strong. Obviously my self-censorship instinct was not strong enough.

Meanwhile, of course, people can make snotty comments about other political ideologies and they get way up voted, even when their comment adds nothing to the discussion. (not to mention the thinly veiled name calling, and disingenuous attacks that are also common here.)

This is nothing you can change, and I'm not really attempting to pursuade you of something here. I'm just lamenting that anti-intellectualism is so prevalent in society and so common on this site. I know it was not always that way. But the reddit.com/r/politics crowd has invaded and like there they are eager to silence anyone who thinks different.

I downvoted you for reasons having nothing to do with political ideologies. You are far too quick to call people "intolerant" and "leftist".

I downvoted you for saying "My success and failures in life have had nothing to do with luck," which is certainly false. Using one of the examples from the HN comments, you didn't die as a child, and that has certainly contributed to your success.

Yes, we seem to disagree about whether there exists a category of people who a) work hard and b) are not "successful" and, if so, are even relevant to the discussion.

This world-view may boil down to left vs. right, or populist vs. libertarianist, or what have you, but to claim to know why you saw so many downvotes seems a bit presumptuous when there might be plenty of other explanations.

For all I know, people were turned-away by a perceived arrogance in your opening statement, which has less to do with politics and more to do with tact.

Just because something takes focus, passion, and effort doesn't mean there's not luck involved. Basically every major success story comes out of the intersection of those qualities; either one, on its own, typically just gives moderate "success" (e.g. comfortable middle class life), which is really not worth discussing in this context since it's more just the norm in life (at least in the modern western world).

It's really even deeper than that, though. Even having the chance to apply yourself involves a lot of luck. Many people simply don't have the mental capacity to go to Princeton, through nothing they ever did except being born to parents with certain genetics. Many others are born with outstanding abilities that no one ever knows about because they had the misfortune to be born in sub-Saharan Africa.

By all means, be proud of the work you put in to your success. But acting like the rest of the world had nothing to do with it won't make you many friends.

Basically every major success story comes out of the intersection of those qualities;

I just wanted to let you know, I'm going to quote that, poorly though since it's out of context as it is.

"Every major success story comes out of the intersection of luck and ability." - dan-k

Has a nice ring to it.

Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity - Lucius Annaeus Seneca


If I'd never applied myself, and thus never had success myself...

You're discounting the possibility of applying yourself and still not having success, which is really the whole point. Your argument is that those who fail will be more likely to blame luck, while Lewis' point is that those like you who succeed are more likely to overly credit their own effort. You're probably both right to some extent, but given that human physiological traits have a Gaussian distribution and wealth is distributed according to a power law, it would seem Lewis' view is closer to the truth.

If you're trying to avoid anti-intellectualism, I'd avoid using the term "politically [in]correct"; in the discourse of modern American politics, these words are little more than a red herring used by conservatives to snidely insinuate that a progressive opponent cares more about controlling language than about real-world oppression and bigotry.

People don't downvote you because what you're saying is "politically incorrect", whatever you take that to mean, they do it because they disagree with what you're saying[0]. Don't confuse those.

[0] Which is a practice I don't support, for the record.

This is exactly the blindness he talked about.

I'm always fascinated by downvoting on HN. I'm guessing you expressed what you felt "my success and failure in life had nothing to do with luck" and people are saying by downvoting that you are wrong!!! Why? You didn't say "people's success or failure" you said "my success or failure". In this case the downvoters are being parental and telling you to grow up and have a better understanding of the way the world works.

Or maybe it was this which they saw as factually incorrect: "Luck may have put Michael Lewis at Goldman Sachs, but luck didn't determine his level of success." but didn't want to take the time to correct you so others not as informed could learn.

Anyway, you said this: "I certainly find myself occasionally jealous of people who seemingly lucked into great success."

People normally refer to jealousy in a negative way. Personally I think it's a powerful motivator.

I'd say he's being downvoted for responding to the title, but not the content of the speech. Maybe the first reference to Goldman was a typo, but then repeating and insisting on that mistake? (Why not go back and check?) Calling the speech an article. People will conclude nirvana at best skimmed it. If you haven't read and understood the material, don't comment on it.

"then repeating and insisting on that mistake"

As they say in medicine, would it change management? Lewis worked for an investment bank and that is what was in his head when he made even the repeat mistake. Nobody is relying on that info to make a decision. Even Lewis is willing to write a parody (which was skimmed by people who would believe he worked for Goldman). To me, yes, it is a mistake but not a reason to down vote. Look everyone draws the line at a different point and for different reasons. Had he written "when Gates started Apple with Ballmer" that of course would be different.

"Calling the speech an article. "

Same with this. Ok it was a speech and not an article. But does that really matter that much?

I read the speech. I also read Liars Poker. I knew Lewis had worked at Soloman Brothers, but somehow in the years since I read the book "Goldman" replaced "Soloman" in my head. So this is a typo.

Of course that I named a different firm (equally hated) than the correct one doesn't change the content of my article.

It is a post hoc, ergo proctor hoc argument to evade the obvious reason. The actual reason has been presented as an argument by the majority of the respondents so, anti-intellectualism.

s/b Salomon Brothers

You may now resume proving Lewis's point, that "People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck."

So just how much more "lucky" is Warren Buffet than a thousand other capitalists? If you took away every penny he owns and made him 25 again, do you really doubt he would be able to earn it all back?

Warren Buffet is a known anomaly.

His value investing and stock picking ability is pretty much unparalleled.

At the same time, he IS lucky to have done what he did, at the time he did.

Even if one single person like him existed before or at the same time as him, he would have had trouble finding deals to invest in.

EDIT: not to mention the things he did wouldn't have been possible at many other junctions in time. His skill set - value investing, would have been impossible if he wasn't born in the era he was.

Warren Buffett admits he was lucky. I don't doubt he would do very well. I have doubt he would do as well, his performance would revert closer to the mean.

I think you changed the framework of the discussion.

While within your framework you are of course, correct; at the same time, its framework is at odds with what everyone else in this thread are discussing. As a result you are being downvoted.

Not because of anti intellectualism.

I can give a very simple explanation of how luck is a part of the equation of success for anyone who has ever been born. The distribution of opportunity is clustered in certain locations. It is not even.

To be born in a country with equal opportunity, libraries, free education, water, electricity, non dictators. That is lucky.

Wealth arguably follows a log normal distribution. This means all the benefits combine multiplicatively, so that even seemingly small differences in the positive will combine to give a substantial advantage.

the downvoters are being parental and telling you to grow up and have a better understanding of the way the world works

Anyone who insists that luck has no role whatsoever in their short or long term success or failure either needs to grow up, or share their secret for how they chose the circumstances of their birth.

Downvoting should be reserved for comments that violate site guidelines, but many people prefer to censor opinions they disagree with rather than address them. If you disagree with a post, write a response or upvote an existing response that already articulates your argument.

Perhaps you were lucky to be in a situation where you had the opportunity to work hard and it could make a difference.

A lot of people are born with very limited opportunities. If you were born a healthy male in France in 1895, you were probably dead or maimed at 23, regardless of how hard you or your parents worked.

Where were you born?

.. All of you have been faced with the extra cookie. All of you will be faced with many more of them. In time you will find it easy to assume that you deserve the extra cookie. For all I know, you may. But you'll be happier, and the world will be better off, if you at least pretend that you don't.

Lewis didn't work at Goldman...

Your parody detector is broken. Michael Lewis didn't go to Yale, either...

Seriously, did you read the commencement speech? Makes it pretty clear which school he attended and which bank he worked at.

"parody detector is broken"

No it's not.

See from my above comment:

"Or maybe it was this which they saw as factually incorrect: "Luck may have put Michael Lewis at Goldman Sachs, but luck didn't determine his level of success."

The Bloomberg article you linked to as evidence was satire.

that was satire. he only worked at Salomon.

Isn't it so disappointing that on all of your comments on HN, you are consistently discriminated against and censored? I mean, it's obviously done because of the politically correct anti-intellectual crowd on HN, whose only recourse is to write ad hominem attacks on your character. Since you're obviously always correct and you have a perfect grasp of the world and the way it works, isn't it annoying to deal with all these stupid morons who have different -- and therefore obviously idiotic -- views of the world?

Did Lewis work at Goldman? Have you read Liar's Poker? How are you qualified to comment on his career?

Did you read the article? He talks about how he got his goldman job as a result of a series of events that started with him happening to be sat next to the wife of a goldman employee.

Yes, I did read Liars Poker. I think its kinda funny that you question whether I am qualified to comment on his career, but a little bit of research shows he worked at goldman for awhile, wrote the book and has been a writer ever since. In other words, his success is clearly in writing.

It's really hard to avoid the perception that you haven't read the article, or the book, or done the little bit of research you're referring to, since Michael Lewis never worked at Goldman; not only did he never work at Goldman, but the whole last part of Liar's Poker is about the famous and epic collapse of the firm he did work for, and about him leaving finance after the collapse occurred.

Its really hard to comment on Hacker News without getting a reply from you where dishonestly exaggerate what I have said to try and impunge me. (which is, frankly, ad hominem)

The fact of the matter is that "Goldman" had replaced "Soloman" in my head in the intervening years and so I typed the wrong thing.

I think its hilarious that you guys are trying to shut me up and attack me because it is such a plain admission that you cannot actually make a counter argument, and thus you must evade and engage in the standard issue ad hominem and censorship approach. Hilarious and sad.

It's a really great book, is all.

You seem to be consistently confusing Goldman Sachs and Salomon Brothers.

Can you quote the portion of the article where it says he sat next to the wife of a Goldman employee?

Say what? The word goldman doesn't appear anywhere in the speech.

You mean Salomon Brothers?

I don't see any luck in the "dinner" refered in the article neither in any of the examples. All those events have been predicted by the people who fight hard for building a society where those kind of events precisely became the default instead of rapes and pillages.

Btw, excelent movie.

Among other reasons, it is disingenuous. Was it only luck?

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