Do you believe in luck? Through the ages many people have believed in a supernatural force which could bestow good fortune. Whether it was a lucky rabbit foot, lucky underwear or, as in the case of the Romans, the goddess Fortuna.
However the concept of luck has changed. Alain de Botton writes in Status Anxiety:
“As man’s power to control and predict the behaviour of his environment has developed, so the concept of luck or of guardian deities has lost its potency.”
As some of us realised it’s probably best not to believe in a goddess who clearly has trouble getting dressed in the morning, and so the concept of luck moved from being prescriptive to descriptive.
In the descriptive sense of the word, luck is used to describe a situation where a person is affected by a random event over which they have no control. The effect of the event can be good or bad depending on the intention of the person.
When it comes to talking about events it’s helpful to borrow an idea from risk assessment. We can define events in terms of being:
Deterministic - an event which can be predicted time and time again as the process is exact e.g. measuring the length of a table.
- Random - an event which cannot be predicted usually because the process is unknown or inexact e.g. rolling a dice.
When it comes to random events it makes sense that some people will encounter more than others throughout their life, and we could say they are luckier. Or in the case of Tsutomu Yamaguchi extremely unluckier:
On the 6th of August 1945 Tsutomu Yamaguchi had finished a business trip and was preparing to leave Hiroshima. At 8:15, whilst Yamaguchi was walking to the Mitsubishi Shipyard, the Americans dropped an atomic bomb 3 km away.
Yamaguchi on waking up after the initial explosion:
“When the noise and the blast had subsided I saw a huge mushroom-shaped pillar of fire rising up high into the sky. It was like a tornado, although it didn’t move, but it rose and spread out horizontally at the top. There was prismatic light, which was changing in a complicated rhythm, like the patterns of a kaleidoscope. The first thing I did was to check that I still had my legs and whether I could move them. I thought, ‘If I stay here, I’ll die.’”
Skip back to May 28th - a Target Committee led by Major General Groves Jr was asked to nominate specific targets for bombing. They nominated five targets: Kokura, Hiroshima, Yokohama, Niigata and Kyoto.
However on July 25th Kyoto was removed from the list. In the words of U.S. Army Intelligence Service officer Edwin O. Reischauer:
“The only person deserving credit for saving Kyoto from destruction is Henry L. Stimson, the Secretary of War at the time, who had known and admired Kyoto ever since his honeymoon there several decades earlier.”
You could say that the people of Kyoto were extremely lucky not to be targeted. Their fate was firmly in the control of President Truman who upheld Stimson’s decision.
Unfortunately for Tsutomu Yamaguchi, Nagasaki was put on the target list in place of Kyoto. On the 9th of August, three days after the Hiroshima bomb, Yamaguchi was back in his hometown of Nagasaki. After being treated for severe burns he reported to his company director:
“Well, the director was angry. … He said: ‘A single bomb can’t destroy a whole city! You’ve obviously been badly injured, and I think you’ve gone a little mad.’ At that moment, outside the window, I saw another flash and the whole office, everything in it, was blown over.”
An inexact process created an unpredictable outcome which meant Yamaguchi was in the wrong place at the wrong time twice. Assuming he was intent on not being hurt when he went to work those days, he was on the end of some extremely bad luck.
Make your own luck
As random as luck is we humans don’t like to give up control. Alain de Botton continues:
“While it is granted that luck maintains a theoretical role in shaping the course of careers, the evaluation of people proceeds, in practical terms, as if they could fairly be held responsible for their biographies.”
This begs the question - can we make our own luck? Martini seem to think we can:
In the video the ‘successful’ version of this chap is being confident and impulsive. He takes a chance and it pays off (I’m not sure if the women feel that way). Of course it’s marketing, so Martini aren’t going to show him tripping over whilst running for the car.
Luck is an attitude. You have to be in it to win it. Winner’s make their own luck. The harder I work, the luckier I get. And to quote Randy Pausch:
“We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.”
All these phrases are well intentioned and are basically saying that if we put enough work in toward a particular goal, we can try to move events from being mostly random to being mostly deterministic. To quote Risk Quantification by Condamin, Louisot and Naïm:
“Knowledge is the reduction of uncertainty - when we gain a better understanding of a phenomenon, the random part of the outcome decreases compared to the deterministic part.”
However we still can’t write off random events and luck. A nice example from Risk Quantification is that of calculating risk of a machinist:
“When working with a specific device or machine, the possibility of a misuse leading to an accident depends both on the experience of the user and on the complexity of the device. ‘Experience’ and ‘complexity’ are the key drivers for this risk. However, these drivers are not sufficient to create a deterministic model. If we know the user is ‘experienced’ and the machine ‘simple’, this does not mean there is no risk at all. Several other factors can interfere: the user may be tired, the machine may not have been reset properly by the previous user, etc. The occurrence of risk is still a random event, but the probability of this event depends on the drivers.”
By working to turn an event from being mostly random to mostly deterministic we’re relying less on luck for a successful outcome. In fact the more work we put in to make the event deterministic the more a successful outcome is certain and an unsuccessful outcome would be unlucky!
Luck and talent
A great example of how luck plays a part in success is through ‘regression to the mean’. This is the phenomenon whereby if a variable is extreme on its first measurement it will be closer to the average on the second measurement, regardless of any causal explanation. It’s also the reason I’ve not been able to replicate a top ten place in the addictive snake game slither.io and why it’s unlikely that Leicester City Football Club will win the Premiership again next year (they won this year’s with odds of 5000/1).
Daniel Kahneman writes about regression to the mean encountered in a skiing competition in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow:
“Each athlete has two jumps in the event, and the results are combined for the final score. I was startled to hear the sportscaster’s comments while athletes were preparing for their second jump ‘Norway had a great first jump; he will be tense, hoping to protect his lead and will probably do worse’. The commentator had obviously detected regression to the mean and had invented a causal story for which there was no evidence. The story itself could even be true. Or perhaps not. The point to remember is that the change from the first to the second jump does not need a causal explanation. It’s a mathematically inevitable consequence of the fact that luck played a role in the outcome of the first jump.”
As Kahneman puts it:
Success = talent + luck
Great Success = a little more talent + a lot of luck
People aren’t always willing to accept that good luck might have played a part in their success which is understandable as they might feel it undermines the work they’ve put into whatever they are trying to achieve.
Kahneman has another example where he looks into the success of mutual funds.
“The successful funds in any given year are mostly lucky; they have a good roll of the dice. There is general agreement among researchers that nearly all stock pickers, whether they know it or not–and few of them do–are playing a game of chance.”
Kahneman studied the investment outcomes of 25 anonymous wealth advisers when he spoke at their firm. He was prepared to find a weak existence of persistent of skill but was surprised to find that there was no existence. In this case Success = Luck. Understandably the advisers refused to believe it.
“The adviser's own experience of exercising careful judgement on complex problems was far more compelling to them than an obscure statistical fact. When we were done, one of the executives told me with a trace of defensiveness, ‘I have done very well for the the firm and no one can take that away from me.’”
The case for luck
Have you ever thought that there was a particular decade of music from which the majority of songs were brilliant? With me it would be the 80s and I didn’t even grow up with that music so I can’t play the nostalgia card. I have an 80s playlist on which I would be hard pressed to find a rubbish song. Where as with today’s music (excuse me whilst I put on my pipe and slippers) there’s loads of rubbish being played on the radio.
The problem is that I’m succumbing to survivorship bias. There are actually plenty of terrible songs made in the 80’s. Just look at this:
The 80s may have even been the most boring recent decade for music. However as new generations are presented with new music, the worst songs from the previous generation get faded out of existence and the popular songs survive. They end up getting added to an 80s hits playlist which I end up listening to, succumb to survivorship bias and mistakenly think that the playlist is a representative sample of all 80s music.
What’s this got do with luck? I hear you ask (get on with it). Well survivorship bias can be found in many things we analyse from books to machinery, business and people! When we look for stories of people to aspire to and inspire us, we won’t be looking for the stories of people failing. We look to the stories of success and that's what we get fed through media, interviews, documentaries, biographies and books bestowing advice.
By ignoring the people who worked hard, haven’t had good luck and have not been successful we begin to realise that although our heroes may have done something special they were also pretty lucky. By acknowledging luck in success it helps ‘ground’ the people we aspire to and make our beliefs a little more realistic. When we set out to succeed, the chance of failure due to events out of control needs to be a possibility.
Luck also counteracts the downsides of Meritocracy. This is basically the belief that a person’s success, status and power is defined by how talented they are rather than their class or privilege. With a meritocracy, instead of passing power from parent to child, the power is passed to the most able and talented person. By promoting equal opportunity for education anyone can succeed as long as they work hard at improving their talent. Not only that but their success will be deserved unlike those who gain success through inheritance.
If you need confirmation that this system works just have a look in the biography section of your local bookshop. You’ll find many rag to riches stories of people knuckling down, defying the odds and succeeding, or maybe that’s just survivorship bias?
Alain De Botton talks about the problem with Meritocracy:
“If the successful merited their success, it necessarily followed that the failures had to merit their failure. In a meritocratic age, justice appeared to enter into the distribution of poverty as well as wealth. Low status came to seem not merely regrettable, but also deserved.”
Meritocracy might work in a perfect world where Success = Talent but this isn’t the case.
Take the story of Fella, a student living in poverty in Oklahoma who wanted to become a doctor, but was unable to get a scholarship to fund first-rate college education. Katherine Boo writes:
"Fella was an A student at a good math-and-science high school, and a state champion in church oratory. Corean [his mother] had hoped that his achievement would bring him scholarships and a first-rate college education. But as Pastor Young, a former high-school basketball player, observed from his pulpit, colleges recruit inner-city boys with athletic talent, not inner-city boys with good grades. (The vast majority of black students at selective colleges are from middle- or upper-class families.) Fella wasn’t big enough to be a serious college football player. ‘It’s fun, I like it,’ he said. ‘But the human brain, the science of it—that’s what amazes me.’”
Fella ended up getting a job in a warehouse and stayed in Oklahoma to attend college.
Without luck Fella failed to get a scholarship because he wasn’t talented enough - therefore he deserves his failure. Why should he be helped? Fella even believes this:
“I don’t know about any colleges, really," Fella said, “though if I don’t get scholarships I can’t blame anyone but me. They say the money’s out there. I just can’t say for sure where it is.”
With luck in the equation we realise that Fella was unlucky to have been born into poverty and that he doesn’t deserve what happened to him. With this view people who are in a position to help might be more likely to.
Luck is an important factor of success. It changes the way we view people’s achievements and our own achievements. It affects the way we view people’s status and our desire to help them.
I don’t think we can create our own luck. I think we can put ourselves in a position to experience more random events (over which we have no control) and which generate both good and bad outcomes. We can experience more luck.
Or we can work towards something to make it more certain. We can make our own certainty.
But luck is as much a ‘thing’ as the word green. It exists as a noun to describe random chance over which we have no control. However we do control how we deal with the unpredictable and much of that is down to perspective.
Tsutomu Yamaguchi may be one of the unluckiest people - a combined total of 109,000 - 226,000 people were killed in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. However, maybe Yamaguchi was extremely lucky to have survived and lived to a ripe old age of 93.