What if Luck Matters More than Effort?

Roll of the dice?

How would you live if success in anything were mostly luck, not effort? It’s an interesting question to ask, because I’m not sure it’s hypothetical.

Life being mostly about luck isn’t as fatalistic as it sounds. But, living would require a different perspective. This is article is a thought experiment on what that perspective would need to be.

What is Luck?

I think if the statement, “success in life is almost entirely luck,” were proven true, it would depress most people. After all, it seemingly takes our self-determination out of the picture. A world where effort doesn’t help you win more than the slightest degree feels profoundly unfair.

But, in truth, I think how you feel about it would depend entirely on how you define luck.

Consider gambling on coin tosses. The specific outcome of any coin toss is entirely dependent on luck. However, assuming the coin is fair, the probability of it landing as heads or tails is fixed. If I offered you a bet which cost $1, but paid $10 if the coin landed on heads, you would happily accept.

I sometimes play poker, and it’s a perfect example of a situation which, at the level of individual outcomes is almost entirely based on luck—you either get good hands or bad ones. However, viewed from the level of probability, it becomes a game of mostly skill.

This kind of first-order luck is often called risk. It’s a situation dominated by randomness, but since the odds are known in advance, you can develop a strategy to take advantage of it.

But first-order luck is a rarity. How many people could possibly calculate the odds of success before starting a relationship or choosing a career?

Risk, Uncertainty and Navigating Randomness

Consider now a type of second-order luck. This is where there is not only randomness in the specific outcomes themselves, but also in your knowledge of the probabilities of those outcomes. This is often called uncertainty.

An example of this might be deciding your major in college. Within each major, there’s a probability of success. Joining the improv troupe may have a small, but unknown, chance of landing you a major television role. You don’t actually know the odds of landing that gig before your choice.

But even second-order luck isn’t a hopeless situation. Just as in the poker game, you can adopt a strategy which may lose on the individual outcomes, but tends to win eventually. Paul Graham writes an excellent article about being upwind, as a way of navigating these situations of uncertainty.

So far I’ve walked through the first type of luck: randomness in outcomes, but knowledge of the odds, and the second type of luck: randomness in outcomes and ignorance of probabilities, but knowledge of the possibilities. It’s easy now to see a third possible case, random outcomes, unknown probabilities and unknown options.

Thinking about this third-order luck, it doesn’t seem terribly far-fetched. How many of us make life decisions where we not only lack knowledge of the outcome and probabilities, but are also unaware of many of the options?

When I started my business, I had no idea that running a course online was a possible avenue of success. So, from the perspective of the original me, starting the business five years ago, I was making a bet on third-order luck. Not only did I not know whether I would succeed or my odds of success, but I wasn’t even aware of all the options that could result from my decision.

But, if you’ve read up to this point, I hope you see that even this situation isn’t hopeless. When the possibilities are unknown, it makes sense to adopt a strategy which seeks them out. Living in such a way as to expose yourself to the idea of as many possibilities that could exist.

Is there 4th, 5th or 17th order luck? Where the possibilities of the possibilities of the possibilities are unknown? I don’t know. But my guess is that, even in those cases, the situation wouldn’t be hopeless. It would, however, require a different perspective on life.

To me, the situation in the poker room is the anomaly. Real life has more orders of luck. The last, third-order case, is probably closer to the situation most people find themselves in. After all, if you’re choosing a partner to marry, you definitely haven’t tried all the possible options, yet people still manage to make a decision.

Do We Unconsciously Ignore the Importance of Luck?

Whenever I listen to life advice from someone who has achieved great success, there is a certain flatness to it. Successful entrepreneurs tell people to go out and start businesses. Basketball legends tell people to practice incessantly. Movie stars tell people to not give up on their dreams.

The flatness of the advice, I feel is that, in hindsight, we strip away a couple orders of luck. Things that were originally uncertain and unknown feel like destiny. How much of their success was an excellent strategy and how much was just a dumb bet on an unusually good hand?

This hindsight, as our collective wisdom passes inevitably from people looking backwards, results in a bias towards more determination than perhaps actually exists. Not only do we strip away orders of luck in our collective wisdom, but we pretend that they don’t actually exist. Effort is praised more than strategy.

Even if this bias isn’t universal, and effort still matters a great deal, I think it probably makes sense to navigate the world as if there is more luck than less of it. Again, this doesn’t need to be fatalistic. Knowing the world has a couple orders of uncertainty, calls for a different strategy of living, not nihilism.

How to Navigate a Mostly-Luck World

This section could fill a book (and already has), but here are a few of my thoughts on how your life strategy changes when you live in a mostly-luck world:

I enjoy poker because it trains you to emotionally divorce yourself from the outcomes of a particular hand, and commit to a strategy. Winning a pot doesn’t mean you played well. This is a life lesson about ignoring the randomness of outcomes and focusing on the strategy of the game.

I’m sure there are similar lessons to learn once you start examining life from the perspective of multiple layers of luck. Strategies develop which only make sense if you assume a few orders of uncertainty. The implications I’ve written above are just a handful.

Are Our Lives Dominated by Luck or Effort?

My feeling is that real life is a hybrid of the extreme picture I painted earlier and our more common intuitions. Some decisions we make are clearly buried within several layers of luck. Who to marry, which career to pick, where to live, what to do with your life are all tangled in a web of uncertainty.

However, there are others which are more straightforward. I’m currently working on a fitness goal which is almost entirely effort. It’s not nuanced strategy, it’s showing up, every day. Some goals are also more luck or effort depending on the scale you examine them. Choosing a major may be luck but succeeding within the major is mostly effort—the two aspects are inseparable.

Which do you feel dominates life? If luck does dominate, then how do you adapt to it? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

Image thanks to dearoot

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  • http://www.timelessinformation.com Armen Shirvanian

    Hi Scott.

    As is often the case, you have hit on a specific section of a topic that I either think about regularly or have wondered about at some time.

    I have also noticed that flatness that is provided by some folks who have ‘made it’. The information provided as to what to do will be like a step 4 and step 5 in a process where step 1 and 2 were originally handed to the person, and the person reading is wanting to know how to do step 2, for example. I see this regularly.

    I’d say we ignore the importance of luck so that we can view what we do as though it is a reasonable path, and that we have a destination that isn’t unable to be obtained. If we accept the importance of luck, then we also have to accept that we may have already missed out on huge opportunities in the past when luck was working for us and we didn’t realize it.

  • Sam

    Of course you already know this, but as Pasteur said: Luck favors the prepared mind. Cal Newport has had a number of posts about how someone has spent months/years building certain kind of skills, and then happened to be in the right place at the right time to get the opportunity of a life time. Had these people not already built the skills that were important, they would certainly not have been able to get the chance, or possibly do wonderful results with it.

    Building skills is something that the individual does, and this has very little to do with luck, just like you point out in the success of your major. Identifying competent people who can guide or teach you things is certainly a skill that can be learned. Being in the right place at the right time is mostly luck, and where the right place and time is depends on what skills that you have built before. If you’d like, you can view the last step as a coin flip. There is nothing that is preventing you from flipping the coin multiple times though, and once again we’re back on the hard work part — keep flipping the coin until you win. Even people who you believe are completely uninteresting/irrelevant can sometimes provide a great deal of help: what matters there is that you show up to seize the opportunity that might appear.

    Armen points out that we have probably missed some incredible chances already, and I’m convinced he is right. Should we dwell upon this? Doubtful, more chances will probably appear. He also rightly points out that dumb luck has probably worked for us sometime in the past — be grateful for this and prepare better for the next time.

  • ah

    it more look like that effort is only a necessary condition for success,
    luck is also a necessary condition for success,

    but effort + luck => sufficient for success

  • ah

    thanks for let us know the Paul Graham article about being upwind……

    very good article!!!

  • http://stepanp.com Stepan

    Hi Scott, that was a very insightful post.

    The beautiful thing about luck is that everyone has the same probability of getting it. Because of the plethora of opportunities out there, I think it’s reasonable to assume there everyone is presented with luck that can change their lives throughout their existence. However, the reason everyone isn’t a multi-millionaire is that they lack the skillset to capitlize on their luck. for example, I was chilling with a friend yesterday when we met a beautiful girl at starbucks. She flirted with him, but when we finished our coffees. he didn’t ask for her number. He ewas lucky to have met such an amazing girl that shared similar interests as him ( they both liked cross-fit, painting and martial arts o.O), but his of lack of awareness prevented him from an interesting relationship. That is why I think having a strong skillset and continuously reflecting is essential to success, even in a world dictated by luck.

  • http://www.briangerald.com Brian G. Murphy

    I think about this a lot too and agree that you’re on to something.

    I’d add, that often factors inherent to us but outside of our control affect the odds. I’m a white male with two upper-middle class parents who have law degrees. That stacks the odds for just about anything I might want to do in my favor. If I send in a stellar resume, I don’t have to worry that I won’t get called back because of a “foreign sounding” name (which, according to research happens). If I land the job, I won’t be paid less simply because I am a woman (which also happens).

    So while hard work certainly matters and luck plays a part, so too does privilege: the privileging of some types of people over and above others by society. It’s important for me to remember that I have a path of much less resistance than most other people and to work (as best I can) to not take advantage of that but rather to encourage a world where hard work (and maybe a little luck) are all you need.

  • http://www.Mazzastick.com Justin | Mazzastick

    Luck certainly does play a part in our fortunes. I know a guy that decided to sell his business right before the economic crashed happened because his daughter encouraged him too.

    Well good thing because if he didn’t, his business would of tanked, and he wouldn’t have gotten the $10 million.

    I asked him about earning money, he said start a business and save your money. Real flat advice.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny Lewis

    “Luck” is just a different kind of effort. 😉

    What brings success is not the randomness of throwing dice, but (in terms of “luck”) it’s being in the right place and the right time, which IS something you can influence to happen more frequently. People sitting at home on their sofas don’t chance upon “lucky” situations for a very good reason.

  • http://mount-nirvana.com Etienne douaze

    Hi, Scott,

    Thanks for this article! I think you should read the book: “The game of life and how to play it”.


  • Chloe

    What I learned from playing cards is that you significantly increase your probability of winning if you have a strategy and if you take the time to count the cards.
    Of course, you can’t anticipate the hand you will be dealt (I would call this “chance”, not luck!) but then you actually have to play that hand (doing the best with what you’ve got, which is what I call “effort”).
    So if you are dealt a lousy hand, you have to put in more effort, but if you have a great hand, things usually flow smoothly.
    This is when the notion of “merit” comes in. An easy win with a great hand and little effort is definitely a pleasurable experience but true and lasting gratification comes from your own ability to make the most of a not-so-great situation.

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  • Mike

    The more you repost the link to this article on Twitter, the higher the chance I’ll eventually cave in and read the article. I’d say your effort far exceeded luck in this small example.

  • Kenth

    You play poker? 😀

  • http://www.scotthyoung.com Scott Young


    I only post links to my articles once on Twitter. So it seems that other people retweeting my article was indeed more luck than effort. 😉


    Yes, but I wouldn’t consider myself anything more than an average player.


  • http://www.evamotch.com Eva Motch

    I got my job by randomly applying to a ton of Craigslist ads. I was actually looking for freelance work, and the ad was unclear. The name of the company wasn’t in the ad, and if I hadn’t been open to going into an interview and finding out what they did, or if I only applied to companies I could easily research, I wouldn’t have this great job. It was luck, but I had to put myself out there.

    I design baby clothes (and, randomly, also do web design) for http://www.bonbebe.com.

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  • amol

    but sometimes efforts r of no use , wen luck dosent support u. luck and efforts r two sides of coin(success) neither of them cant be under estimated…..both r equally needed to make two sides of coin(success)…..

  • amit

    If steve jobs or Bill gates would have born somewhere in africa would they ever be successful ? chances are very low

    there are many people in this world who work very hard but not everyone gets success and thats one reason we have very few billionaires and this goes to show that in this world things are already planned and selected few have the opportunity to get success

    if hardwork gave guarenteed success then there would be no difference between rich and poor and we would have everyone on same level and world would never be able to funcation

  • Admon

    if for you to have a success means to be abillionare – this is an evidence of your specific culture

  • evodeulb

    I think it’s important to keep in mind what is out of your control, for the most part you can chuck it up to luck.

  • Words Don’t Come Easy

    I would add zero-th order luck: your genes. It’s easier to get later “luck” in life as a tall dark handsome guy than an ugly short balding one. Those aren’t independent events like coin tosses but similar to the house edge a casino has against you.

  • Words Don’t Come Easy

    And the other guy who bought the business is reaaaally unlucky. I’m that sort of guy. I’m the unlucky owner of Fortis and Nyrstar shares… Never touch the stock exchange.

  • Words Don’t Come Easy

    And that skillset is the luck from the genetic lottery. It always boils down to luck.