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Why are some people so much luckier than others? (ninjasandrobots.com)
72 points by eatitraw on July 29, 2014 | hide | past | favorite | 59 comments

Some people are so much luckier than others because nobody writes articles about Bob Jones, the failed actor, even though the Bob Joneses outnumber the James Garners by orders of magnitude.

I'm now convinced survivor bias needs to be taught in kindergarden and every year thereafter.

That's a really great point. However, I think there's still a lot of value studying a guy like James Garner and people who are the best.

I've actually studied acting for years. I've seen a lot of terrible actors and people who are good and struggle to get parts.

On observation. One of the biggest things to being a good actor or at least not a terrible actor is to learn that acting is much more about reacting. Learning to listen. Stop reciting lines, and instead LISTEN to the other people on stage and their needs and desires. Then react to those. A good actor could forget all their lines and still get through a scene because they can just react in character to what's going on around them.

James, as you can imagine from this article, was awesome at just listening. He didn't start out as a great actor but this quality definitely helped get him there.

On taking chances. I know some good actors who are baristas right now when not acting. When James needed money as a starting actor he was helping other actors recite lines, cleaning actors dressing rooms, even washing their cars. Which do you think will get you more possibilities for "luck", making coffee for random Joes, or helping Marlon Brando with lines?

But I agree with you that there are a lot of people trying and they'll never be as successful as James. But I also know a lot of people who won't ever as successful as they want because they do so little to find new opportunities. Also, the article wasn't titled, how to be as successful as James Garner, but was meant to point out some things Wiseman has found "lucky" people (not necessary James Garners) doing that "unlucky" people aren't.

This really is a very important point. The fact that James immersed himself in the world in all respects(day job and as an amateur) likely increased his chance of success.

If you were asked on the spot to name the names of a few acquaintances(not people you know, only people you know of), you'd probably name those who pepper your life most often. Now if those people made it known that they're fisherman or actors or really into painting or programming or etc. Then the next time someone asks "Hey you know of any good programmers? You know of anyone interested in painting? You know...etc"; you'll be able to say yeah I know a guy, he washes my car every other week. It works out for you(because you recommended a person) and it works out for the other person because they get a shot at doing something they love.

James Garner allowed himself to seep into the consciousness of as many people as he could so they'd associated him with what he loved; smart move.

A corollary may be that the more people that know what you love, the more you become a person who loves that thing; both personally(mentally associating yourself as an actor/writer/programmer/etc) and professionally("Yeah, James he's an actor. Ben wants to be a painter. Sheila is trying to be a cartoonist").

I think part of the point of the article is to point out how a potential Bob Jones could also consider himself lucky. He may have failed to get that acting part, but he has met so many interesting people and had a wonderful opportunity to grow as a person. Can you believe he got to meet Bill Murray face-to-face? He also just met this lovely woman at a casting call, and is taking her out this weekend. He feels so blessed to be given so many opportunities in life. He sees himself as lucky: He's got family, friends, his youth, his health, and he's growing every day.

There's this TED talk on "manufactured happiness", where they talk about people who experienced devastating opportunity losses and considered themselves happier because of it. It then talks about the concept of the hedonic treadmill, how no matter what happens good or bad in a person's life (barring traumatic experiences that cause mental disorders), a person will, over time, return to a baseline happiness level. This is shown to be the case with people that have won the lottery, and with amputees.

The article shows how people that consider themselves lucky are empirically more observant, more focused, and more grateful. The article also explores the possibility that people considering themselves lucky could cause those individuals to be given more opportunities. For me, the answer is an obvious yes: The Secret is bullshit, but exuding a positive, loving, grateful vibe to those around you, even in the face of personal hardship, causes more good things to come your way, simply because people notice you more and want to be around you.

Re: Bob Jones of the world

"Wiseman also found lucky people go out of there way to try new things and meet new people."

You need to factor in looks as well. No doubt a good looking man or woman has an easier time getting people to like them (both men and women). And that helps a great deal with luck. Not insurmountable by any means. But a big plus. I'm not talking about looks landing you a job (or an agent approaching you) but just looks being a way to make more people want to hang with you or help you or invite you to a party where you meet others (could say the same thing about being funny or any number of qualities that people differ on).

Example: I helped a woman with some business things that I met in a Starbucks. She was attractive. I didn't do it to "score" with her (she was married and much younger not saying I wouldn't have wanted to of course) but simply because she was pleasant to look at and seemed approachable. And it made me feel good to be around her. I can't say that I would have been so nice if she were not as attractive as she was. Or older.

Your observation applies to James Gardner but not to the results of the tests presented in the article.

Sure. And there's no reason why things went so differently for James Garner than they did for Bob Jones. Just luck.

If you don't think there are actors right now trying just as hard as anyone in history to get a break, and not getting it, I don't know what to tell you.

I guess the point is that looking at the .01% of successful people and ignoring all others who didn't succeed will give you a very biased view of what's necessary to succeed.

People, especially with the libertarian thinking so popular on hn, don't like to admit that maybe they had little or nothing to do with their success.

No one lives in a bubble.

"Little or nothing to do with their success" is a bit far in the other direction.

NPR has this segment where they say there were only about 1000 people in the world who were in a position to start Microsoft like Gates was. He's very lucky in be in that 1000. But of those 1000 only 2 founded Microsoft. The rest didn't want or bother or care or see it.

Did that NPR report account for the fact that his mother knew the head of IBM from the Red Cross? Had that not been the case it's really a stretch to think that Gates would have made it to where he is today. (He would have been successful no doubt but on a much smaller scale.).

The collective "HN" is really obsessed with the topic of success and intelligence.

Almost in the same way that I would imagine teenage girls are obsessed with why some girls are popular and they aren't.

People, especially with the socialist thinking so popular on HN, don't like to admit that maybe human beings aren't fungible.

Vacuous rhetoric is a waste of everyone's time.

I'm not sure what studying failure can tell you about what's necessary to succeed. "Don't do this", maybe.

If you examine those who have failed alongside those who have succeeded, and are unable to find an explanatory variable, related to personal contribution, that cleanly distinguishes the two groups, then you might conclude that external factors (i.e. "luck") have a role to play in success.

If you don't examine the failures then you can't determine if this is the case, and you might fall foul to the logical error of survivorship bias, as has already been mentioned.

edit: changed "an important role" to "a role", given that lack of a "clean" distinction could be of any magnitude.

I rather like the Techzing guys' take on this, called "luck surface area," because it tracks with my experience and is actually weaponizable in a way that "be more observant" is not.


If you for some reason want to get into a guild protected by a scouting system, then your priorities should be a) identifying what the scouts are looking for and getting good at it and b) getting in front of as many scouts as possible as often as possible.

There exist many opportunities which HNers want which resemble "a guild protected by a scouting system" if you squint at them, by the way.

Perhaps instead of "fortune favors the bold," Virgil should have written "fortune favors the observant." I consider myself extremely lucky in life, but reading this article, I'm recognizing just how much of my luck has been a direct result of my being bold, highly observant, or both. Great piece.

I'm higly unobservant and my life I would say has been very "unlucky" :D Great article. Something for me to work on:)

Some people are just lucky. You know that person at work or school who always seems to win drawings, etc.

Oh, I like that. Thank you very much!

People who believe life is not fair and nothing will go their way, will always find reasons not to act. People who believe good things are going to happen to them will always take action and have more luck.

In other words, the more chances you take the luckier you get. Life is a numbers game.

Hero worship + survivor bias + "I did it all myself" autobiographies = "there's no such thing as luck, it's all hard work".

Hey, is there anyone here who was born in a first world country, grew up speaking the world's pre-eminent language, was born to parents in the richest 1% of the world population, grew up eating an ample supply of extremely nutritious food, and received a first-rate education while still a child? Anyone here like that?

Hey, is there anyone here who feels the need to self-flagellate in public over imagined sins, but not to read the article before trying to contribute to the discussion? Anyone here like that?

It turns out that about half of all people are luckier than the median. And ~2.5% are two sigma luckier than that.

It's a weighted random number generator. Some people make their own luck, and some have luck thrust upon them. Some people work hard and never get lucky.

Obligatory XKCD applies here too: http://xkcd.com/904

"The harder I work, the luckier I get" --Henry Ford.

And this really is the answer... Luck is created. You'll never win the lottery if you don't buy a ticket, you'll never create Facebook if you don't create a business, and you'll never meet to girl of your dreams if you don't ask girls out...

On the flip side, nobody should expect to win the lottery just because they bought a ticket. Same goes for all of the other scenarios. Statistically you could expect that no matter how hard you work, you won't "make it."

The fact that you may not make it to the 99th percentile doesn't mean you won't see any success. Not everyone who starts a business will make billions, buy many make enough to live on. Especially more traditional businesses. Most people will get married. And most won't win the lottery, but that's not really putting in work anyway.

Right, the point is more to make sure your definition of "making it" is not essentially "win the lottery."

No, of course not. But those that put in enough work, are observant, etc... can make it to say, the 80th percentile. Then of those, the most talented might make it to the 95th. And those who have connections, or funding, or the right idea, might make it to the 99th. But either way, achieving success and being 'lucky' means putting yourself in the position to achieve success and be lucky...

Chasing girls is a great example. The guy I've known who has been with the most girls has also been turned down more than anyone I know...

Do you have numbers to prove it? Because... to many of us, it seems that by far the largest indicator on whether you will make it to the 80th percentile, is if you started there.

Numbers to prove success is possible? There are numbers that show inherited wealth peaks and then declines, there are numbers show that most who have multiple billions of dollars earned their money (as opposed to inheriting it), but I don't think it necessarily matters.

Most individuals aren't entrepreneurs, most are content to work for someone else on a hamster wheel and blame their lot in life for their lack of success.

So I have no doubt people who grew up wealthy or at least well-off are more successful, since their parents taught and showed them that success is possible.

If you grew up in a household where your parents ran the rat race and told you that success is to get a degree and run the rat race, odds are that's what you've done...

I'm curious to know of the actual numbers you are referring to.

I am not convinced you are wrong. However, I am also far from convinced you are right. There is a lot of faith in "work hard and you can become rich." Especially if you are trying to imply this can get you "multiple billions of dollars."

Now, I personally think "rich" begins well before "multiple billions." I also don't think the world is split between entrepreneurs and people content to work for someone else on a hamster wheel. Truth is, as in many things, it is much more complicated.

So, yeah, do you have any good links to the numbers you are referring to?

I don't have any particularly large sampling with which to draw statistics from, but here's an article which uses Forbes lists to draw some stats: http://www.chicagobooth.edu/capideas/magazine/summer-2013/bi...


I'd guess it's harder to poll millionaires since most don't own enough of a public company for it to be reported.

Regardless, stats do a poor job of presenting possibility, and my guess would be most poor stay poor, if for no other reason than a defeatist attitude they inherited...

How would you propose to test this "defeatist" attitude hypothesis?

More interestingly, how would you reconcile it with the core hypothesis of this article. That is, that people can create their own luck.

Also, many of the numbers in those articles are... interesting. To call Bill Gates a "self made" individual is rather... cute. He is far from a poor family. Pretty much everyone they have that is a "self made" rich person came from "upper middle class" families. (The articles words.)

This is concerning, as a large part of the problem that many fear in this nation is precisely how far the gap has grown between "merely middle class" and "upper middle." Consider, the vast majority of the "self made" rich people it lists are people that had early access to technology. Something that was decidedly situational related. Sheer numbers wise, it is on the level of winning the lottery.

That's how it looks from the perspective of lucky hard working person. There are also "The harder I work the more I get screwed" people and "The less I work the more money I have" people but those don't make for good quotes.

Actually, "The less I work the more money I have" is one of my personal favorites, I think it's a brilliant quote.

Sometimes what people call luck may be observation, preparation, positioning or things of this nature....yes, that's true. These are things that can be controlled. I'm sure we have all met people who believe they have simply gotten unlucky while it's obvious to the outside observer that their actions resulted in the consequence they consider bad luck.

But, there is an element of random chance that exists outside our control and always will. This is what I call real luck and there isn't any use in trying to explain "why" because there is no "why" that we can understand. It's just a flip of the dice from our perspective. These kind of articles should really differentiate and stop lumping behavior in with luck. They aren't the same.

> But, there is an element of random chance that exists outside our control and always will.

Certainly. But - statistically speaking - this would affect everyone the same way, positively or negatively. You're talking about chance, not luck as a property or attribute that someone can have more of than someone else. It might seem that way, depending on your sample size, but that's not really how it works.

Maybe what you are calling luck I call chance.

Just for fun I looked the word up. It turns out that either definition can apply.

I just take exception to the idea that everything is in our control. It isn't. Some events our out of control and often we don't even see what's coming.

> James had a reason to be relaxed. He and his brothers grew up in a home of mental, physical and sexual abuse. ... If that wasn’t terrible enough, James grew up during The Depression in Oklahoma, meaning he, his family, friends and neighbors battled things like the Dust Bowl. ... James didn’t worry about much because nothing could be as bad as the life he had already lived.

Considering this is a crucial step in the thesis, I would like to see some evidence that this correlation (between a miserable childhood and lack of anxiety in adulthood) actually exists. It might sound rational to look back over your life, realize that the worst parts are probably over, and thus not worry about the present or future, but I highly doubt this is how most people actually behave.

As my family includes many sufferers of anxiety of varying degrees, I've done quite a bit of research on the subject (in addition to personal bouts with mental health issues of that type, going through psychotherapy, etc.) and this James fellow is definitely the exception rather than the rule.

Typically childhood trauma like what the article mentions is much more likely to lead to mental issues (usually something like anxiety + depression) in adulthood.

So yeah, take that one with a grain of salt. It was a silver lining for this guy that he had such a horrible childhood but that is a dangerous part of the thesis to not mention as being very abnormal.

Thanks for reading my article! And thanks for the insight here. I really wasn't trying though to make it part of my thesis that you should have a terrible childhood in order to create a non-anxious state to make yourself more observant, or that you should give your own kids a terrible childhood to make them more successful.

But it was to show how relaxed James was, and it also seemed to stem from how he interpreted the terrible things that happened to him. I thought those stories could help some of us realize that if we could re-interpret some of the bad things that have happened to us the way James has, we could probably become more observant too, and hence spot more opportunities.

Also, Malcolm Gladwell has some interesting bits in his latest book, David and Goliath, about how childhood trouble like dyslexia can turn into opportunities. I'm going to butcher the research if I try and bring it up now, but there's some neat bits there if you haven't read them.

This is a topic I have been thinking about quite a bit. here are my thoughts:

Good and bad things happen to all people. When a good thing happens, you can recognize the opportunity and seize it, or you can ignore it. The article mentions attributes this to attentiveness, and that is surely part of it. I also tend to attribute it to a mixture of intelligence and fortitude. If a person is a go-getter and is intelligent, he will make more out of fortunate situations than their counterparts. On the other hand, when bad things happen, "lucky" people tend not to fixate on them and work on forgetting them.

If you agree with me at this point, the next part is just a numbers game. If you are the type of person who always takes the same route to work, always eats at the same restaurant, goes to the same part, and vacations in the same spots, your chances of anything (good or bad) happening to you are limited. If you do diversify, take new roads, discover new places, and meet new people, you increase the number of things happening.

So in general, people who are positive, go-getters, and like to vary their routines and people they interact with will be considered luckier than the rest.

Best post on luck, similar to this one, is by Paul Buchheit, "Serendipity finds you" - http://paulbuchheit.blogspot.com/2010/10/serendipity-finds-y...

And the best book IMO is by Michael J. Mauboussin, "The Success Equation: Untangling Skill and Luck in Sports, Business, and Investing" - http://www.amazon.com/Success-Equation-Untangling-Business-I...

Way better than Nassim Nicholas Taleb's work, he's got his head up his ass way too much and makes too many hyperbolic remarks.

Isn't there a basic math aspect to this?

Everything like looks, basic intelligence, rhythm, musical ability, sportsmanship are distributed among people according to a (mostly) uniform distribution.

I would believe you can say the samething about luck.

Now don't get the wrong idea that I advocate people to be bums waiting for the "luck" to happen to them. Not everybody who works their ass off(while being smart) is successful. We can quote a lot of examples from history to see this isn't the case.

And then there are people like Kardashians, who got to where they are, by what?

Actually, physical attributes are probably distributed closer to a Gaussian distribution - most people clustered around the average, with a small number of exceptionally lucky and exceptionally unlucky people in the tails of the distribution.

I would agree with you that in some vague sense, we might be able to think of a "luck distribution" with similar properties; however, it's not obvious what exactly that would mean in terms of what is actually being measured. Wealth? Happiness? Recognition in their field? All of these in the short run? The long run?

Yeah, you are right. It is Gaussian distribution.

We have to come up with an accurate definition of luck, and a way to quantify it. It is a function of work put in and the results obtained. And we have to define how to quantify work.

Another way is to think of world with no luck in it. How would it affect us? Would the world be the same?

I remember reading somewhere that the question, 'Why are you lucky?' is used by companies during interviews. The question is supposed to say a lot about a person' attitude, self-confidence, self-worth, etc... The conclusion was why would anyone want to work with someone who perceives themselves as being unlucky. (Does anyone have a link to this article?)

Has anyone had to answer this question during an interview? Do you think it's a question worth asking?

Tangential to this article, but chance events which effect an individual's life circumstances tend to be subject to feedback loops, where more of the same become more likely, in the sense that someone in bad circumstances (possibly partly attributable to bad "luck") has an increased range and likelihood of events that could make those circumstances worse. Same story with beneficial events, mutatis mutandis.

I can relate to this somewhat. My grandmother always said I was lucky in life, and joked that if I walked up to a bus stop then three buses would turn up. I do consider myself to be observant to the point of distraction (I am also forgetful, lacking common-sense, and lazy).

Of course, I've not measured just how observant I am against anyone else, and it's just a hunch, so I could be talking shit. Enjoyed the article!

I'm similar to you. I notice potential problem situations amd opportunities way before friends and family do. I'm also lazy but also very particular.

With regards to coding it means that the lazy part of me wants to write as little code as possible, but the particular part of me is pedantic about making it both elegant and neat (I have a thing about consistent coding styles).

I am also very forgetful (terrible remembering birthdays for example) but more recently I've come to notice that I'm forgetful with regards to things that, in all honesty, I don't find important to me. Hence others are disappointed when I forget their birthdays bit it doesn't really bother me if I don't celebrate mine.

See also: last month's discussion of the Commencement address by Bill and Melinda Gates https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=7954266

"Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity." -Seneca

After US Airways' 1549 "lucky" ditching Capt. Sullenberger said that "for 42 years, he's been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training. And on January 15 the balance was sufficient so that he could make a very large withdrawal". So you might say that he got lucky, but you never see a student pilot with 4 hours flight time being this lucky.

He is also a glider pilot. I always hope when I am flying that the pilots fly gliders or Pitts Specials.

I always recall Larry Niven's RingWorld and that amazing statement about probability (The Puppeteers breeding "lucky people").

So he was lucky to be observant and positive. Heh.

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