4: Luck

The problem with history is that it only happens once. Explanations about why things happened can never be tested.

When I was younger, the only people on television were famous people. When interviewed, they explained how hard they'd worked and that they'd always known they would be famous. It was only with the arrival of reality TV that I got to see how many people were certain they would be famous and yet never made it. Following the work-hard-and-be-certain method didn't guarantee success, rather a selection effect meant the people who failed were invisible, a sort of celebrity dark matter.

There are other problems with recipes for success. Another is that they are protected from critiscism because people don't follow them perfectly and any deviation can be pointed to as the reason for failure. I often hear this when extreme and agile programming projects fail and it is suggested that they did not follow the methodology perfectly. But successful projects also break some of the rules. What if a large factor is simply luck?

As the writings on power laws by people like Clay Shirky show, there will always be people promoted to celebrity ("Freedom of Choice Makes Stars Inevitable") and this may not be completely based on merit (whether quanitifable or not). Popularity breeds popularity and a superstar is not neccessarily the best at something. During Britpop there were other bands with songs as good or better than Oasis, but only one band had 2.6 million people apply for tickets to see one of their concerts. The very popularity of Oasis became a selling point – it was great to be listening to a band that everyone else was, to hear the songs on radios and in clubs. 

There are, of course, books about how one can work to gain importance in a networked world, such as Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point, but that still doesn't guarantee success. One of the funniest books on music ever written, The Manual by the KLF ("HOW TO HAVE A NUMBER ONE – THE EASY WAY"), is not going to work if everyone follows it, since there can only be 52 number ones in a year, although it did work for the band Edelweiss. Not everyone gets to be the best.

History only happens once, and writers can offer explanations without worrying about contradiction. There was a recent article in Wired, The Story of Steve Jobs: An Inspiration or a Cautionary Tale?, which looked at this issue of interpretation. Was Jobs' success down to his personality or not? Should one emulate his bad behaviour to be as 'great' as him? What if it comes down to luck?

A recent article by Martha Gill in the New Statesman, First the Worst, Second the Best, discussed research from the Said Business School that concluded "we should be more careful about dismissing the failed and praising the exceptional", suggesting that luck, particularly early in a career, was a major factor in success. Gill suggests we should not aim to copy 'greatness' but instead "we should strive to copy the second- or third-in-command"

(While written as a self-help tome, Richard Wiseman's Luck Factor is an excellent book on the psychology of luck. Wiseman suggests that luck is a skill and can be honed, giving clear examples of this. Of course, even being lucky won't allow everyone to have a number one record)

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One thought on “4: Luck”

  1. Will Hutton is also very good on this in his book “Them and Us”. Essentially saying that it’s fine to have a free market as long as you bear in mind that people don’t succeed or fail solely based on hard work. There’s a massive element of luck as well. So essentially he’s trying to write a fair economic policy based on factors other than purely economic whim-of-the-market factors.

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