What makes success?

I’ve spent my share of time considering what goes into being “successful” – however that term may wish to be interpreted (career success, success in relationships, success in sports, etc.). Most of us can admit that success is the result of some parts skill and some parts luck. But at what proportion do luck and skill combine to generate success?

Our initial tendency is to overweight the role of skill when we experience success. If I did well, then surely I deserve the credit for my superior skill, not randomness or chance. However, we conversely lean toward overestimating the role of luck when we experience failure. If I fell short of my goal, then surely some outside force of chance just didn’t “go my way.”

Let’s focus on that first statement: our tendency is to overweight the role of skill when we experience success. When we hear the most popular song in the country, or read the #1 bestseller, we are tempted to attribute that ranking to the superiority of the item. Clearly, the author of the #1 bestseller must be one heck of a writer!

In actuality, skill is just one of many factors which can influence success. Mike at Talking Philosophy has a good write up of research done by a Princeton sociologist describing how small differences in initial positions can lead to tremendously different final rankings. Essentially, a very small advantage (compared to other books) upon the release of one book can lead to an avalanche of success once the momentum of crowds takes over (a phenomenon known as the bandwagon effect). Even simply signaling to consumers that one book is regarded as “more highly ranked” can be sufficient to generate a very wide advantage in terms of success.

To be fair, the research doesn’t claim that success is 100% luck:

Lest it be thought that chance is the sole factor, Salganik found that quality does have some role in success—but much less than one might suspect. Based on additional experiments, he found that succeeding with a work of poor quality is rather hard but that once a certain basic level of quality is achieved, then success is primarily a matter of chance.

Mlodinow confirms this tendency in judging Hollywood executives’ ability to green light blockbuster films. In the case of Paramount’s Sherry Lansing, who oversaw the emergence of Forrest Gump and Titanic for Paramount, her success was largely attributed to skill. Her ability to choose winners was deemed outstanding for a stretch … until she and Paramount experienced several years of below par performance. Lansing was let go as having lost her “hot hand” at picking winners.

The more likely explanation, to Mlodinow (and now myself), is that luck played a much larger role in her success – and her failure – than other Paramount executives were likely to admit. Countless stories of doomed scripts becoming hits and sure things flopping suggest the prominence of chance in the process. So in the end, we may not have to bear the full responsibility of each of our failures, but whether we’d like to admit it or not, we also can’t fully take credit for each of our successes. Luck is out there, shaping the world much more than many of us think.


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