Most of mine and your success is luck. Let me explain why.
Say you put infinite monkeys in front of (strongly built) typewriters and let them type away. There is a certainty that one of them will come out with an exact version of the Iliad. Should we give the monkey infinite bananas to reward its achievement?
No, the monkey was obviously lucky, not skillful.
And yet, this is exactly what we do in American society by rewarding those who succeed with complete disregard for if it was from skill or luck.
I call it The illusion of meritocracy.
For an illuminating example, a financial investor with 5000 people in their newsletter sends an email predicting if the stock market will rise or fall next quarter. To 50% of their subscribers, they send out a mail saying rise, and to the other 50% they say fail. After the market results come out, they send another email to the 50% of the list they sent the correct prediction to and do it again with a 25/25 split. Finally, after six rounds of this, they send a sales email to the remaining 40 people trying to sell a consulting service. All 40 people accept, thinking they have found the next investing god.
Luckily, this practice is illegal when done on purpose, but it's done all the time without intent in the investment market.
And it's done at a larger scale in American society because we fail to differentiate between luck and skill.
Why Do We Believe Skill Matters More Than It Does?
The question then becomes, why do we believe skill matters more than it does?
We don't realize luck matters more than skill for five main reasons:
- We believe in the American Dream
- We suffer from the Hidden data problem
- We suffer from Survivorship bias
- We commit the Fundamental attribution error
- We mistake correlation for causation
We Believe In The American Dream
In American society, we are taught to believe that hard work and dedication will lead to success.
This is the foundation which our entire country is built upon. Back when America was founded, it held quite a lot of merit. In turn, we still want to believe it to this day.
The American Dream keeps us holding onto the illusion of meritocracy.
We suffer from the Hidden data problem
Hidden data are questions without answers or variables without observations.
In success, the hidden data are all the times we succeeded because of luck. We rarely notice these times because there was less struggle for us to overcome. This phenomenon is called the Headwinds tailwinds effect in which we are vastly more aware of the obstacles we overcome--headwinds--compared to the obstacles we avoid out of luck--tailwinds. In addition, when hearing about successful entrepreneurs, we rarely hear about the hundreds of thousands that fail rather than succeed.
They are hidden, which in turn leads us to overestimate the degree the entrepreneurs that succeeded did so out of skill.
We suffer from Survivorship bias
Something always seems obvious, looking back upon it.
More broadly, this is known as hindsight bias, but when done on a specific subgroup that passes selection pressures, it's called survivorship bias. Those that survive (or succeed) in a career seem to have done so from their actions. But returning to the hidden data problem, we fail to see all the people who didn't survive.
Therefore, we falsely attribute the survivor's success to their skill.
We commit the Fundamental attribution error
When we fail at something, we tend to attribute it to getting unlucky.
However, when others fail at something, we attribute it to their lack of skill. This is called the Fundamental attribution error. We believe our own successes are more a result of skill compared to others.
As a result, we overestimate how much our success in life is due to skill.
We Mistake Correlation For Causation
Just because two variables are trend related to each other doesn't mean that one of them causes the other.
Correlation doesn't mean causation. However, when we succeed in an endeavor, we can't help but feel that our hard work caused our success. That's the only variable we can control.
We assume that because we work hard and then become successful, our success must be casual of our hard work.
Why Should We Recognize Our Luck?
Why should we care about luck's role in our success more than skill in the first place?
Because it makes us better, more empathetic, humble human beings.
I'll be the first to admit, a large LARGE amount of my success is due to luck. Here are a few reasons:
- I was born a white male with no physical or mental abnormalities
- I have two loving parents and a brother
- I got into Cornell University, surrounding myself with other driven smart people
- My father gives me access to his camera equipment for YouTube
- My parents pay for all of my education and my editing for YouTube, so I don't have to get a job on the side of schoolwork
- I naturally don't have the highest urges to splurge on pleasurable pursuits
Recognizing the ways I'm lucky doesn't invalidate my success; I still work incredibly hard in all my avenues of life.
Recognizing my luck puts my success in context, which makes me a better human being.
It humbles and makes me more empathetic by putting others' success in perspective. I no longer feel above people like two years ago. I feel the urge to raise them up.
I want to help them.
Skill Still Matters In Life
I'm not saying skill doesn't matter in life.
It all depends on the degree of randomness inside of a career. For example, it's almost impossible to have an unskilled pianist. You can't randomly play amazing piano, but you can have an unskilled stock trader like illuminated initially.
And paradoxically, skill is becoming increasingly crucial as AI becomes more widespread.
AIs like ChatGPT are creating a paradox of abundance. The quantity of bad information is increasing as people with no skill use it to write. However, the quality of good information is also getting higher as people who know how to think are using it to bolster their work rather than replace it. In effect, the quality of creative work is getting higher while at the same time, the quantity of bad work is getting higher, creating a paradox of abundance.
To stick out in this abundance, you need to have a unique voice, a set of skills combined with your unique perspective that create something no other human has. In effect, you need to work hard to stick out.
Luck might be more prevalent in your success than you think.
But skill is still essential.
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