Success: Is it luck or hard work?

What you need to know:

  • The question here is whether there is a causal links between action and outcome

Persons A and B have upcoming job interviews. A prepares and rehearses. B doesn’t do as much - whether by choice or circumstance, we don’t know. Then what? You may guess right - person A gets the job, person B doesn’t. If you guessed right, you are like many people. You believe there’s a cause-and-effect relationship between actions and outcomes. But is there?

On the story goes; Person A is grateful for the job and happy about the effort he put in preparation. Interestingly, person B too, is fairly unruffled by his outcome. He says: “it was not meant to be”. Let’s focus on person B a little bit - is it true that it was not meant to be? We cannot know. It is a belief, and like any belief, it is not substantiated by facts.

But there are two interesting perspectives here. Person B may say that to relieve himself from the discomfort of thinking that there could be a different and better outcome if he prepared well. But also, he may truly believe that his outcome was fated – no matter what he did, prepare or not, he wouldn’t get the job. Is he right? Is he wrong? Again, we cannot know.

Let us look at a real-life scenario. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook once said: “success like mine only happens with luck”; and added, “that’s a huge problem we need to fix”. This view means that success can happen by luck, but it should not be that way, perhaps because not everyone will meet good luck. On the other hand, Peter Thiel, Facebook’s first investor said, “luck is just an excuse for not working hard enough”. From this perspective, success is an outcome of hard work: Luck is not, and should not be in the equation whatsoever. Which perspective is right? Maybe there is no right or wrong.

These scenarios bring an important question that we face in daily life - what do we often attribute our success and failure to? Is it luck? Or is it hard work and taking the right actions?

Richard Branson wrote in his book, The Virgin Way, about a golfer who made an amazing and rare shot that made it into the hole in the final round of the British Open. “What a lucky shot!” The commentary team shouted. But a retired champion commentator in the broadcast booth disagreed: “Lucky! What do you mean ‘lucky’?” He added: “do you know how many thousands of hours we all spend practicing shots like that? He was trying to put it in the hole and he succeeded. Let me tell you, he worked long and hard on getting that lucky!” In this perspective, indeed, diligence is the mother of good luck.

The question here is whether there is a causal links between action and outcome. Did person A get the job because he was well-prepared, and vice versa for person B? Are there cases of people who don’t prepare and get the job; and those who prepare but don’t get the job? Where is the lie? And what’s a man to do when they do everything in their power but don’t get the desired outcomes? This debate reminds me of the book Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts. The author argues that the game of life is more like Poker than Chess. While Chess often works by ‘one mistake, one goal’; in Poker there are many other factors, in addition to, or even regardless of your actions, that determine your outcome. The author relates those other factors to luck.

Back to you - what is your take? How much of your outcomes do you attribute to your actions and inactions, good decisions or bad; and how much do you attribute to something beyond your control, like luck, or fate?

Some people are more self-deterministic. They attribute much of their outcomes to things they can control, such as action or inaction. Others are more fate-deterministic – they say, it was meant to be; or it wasn’t meant to be. But there is a catch - laziness tends to be a happy dweller of the fate-deterministic side. Does it feel like we are ending the week on a very philosophical note today? If up to it, have a philosophical next week. Cheers!