Luck is obviously an important consideration if you’re aiming to be successful at anything.
But what does it mean for someone successful to be lucky? I can think of three main ways.
The first is when the element of chance occurs before that person comes into the world. This kind of luck is pervasive and common. The child of rich parents becomes rich herself. The person born with extreme intelligence becomes a professor. You’re beautiful, and thus become a famous actor.
This kind of luck speaks to an unfairness that exists in this world. Where we are born. Who are our parents. What abilities, talents, fortunes, genes, beauty and other privileges we’re given in greater or lesser amounts than others.
The second kind of luck occurs after, but it is still impossible to predict or control. Getting a lucky audition that propels you to stardom. Happening to invest in a company before they hit bit. Winning the lottery.
The third kind of luck also occurs after you’ve come into the world. However, the outcomes you experience are entirely deterministic. The reason some people succeed and others fail, however, is success is confusing and difficult, so what you may lack is skill and knowledge.
Serial entrepreneurs, who successfully start multiple successful businesses, in my mind, fit this third idea of luck. They know something others do not which allows them to succeed even though success appears to be based heavily on luck to outsiders.
How Unfair are The Three Types of Luck?
Depending on the perspective you adopt, and your purpose for talking about luck, all three of the above are quite unfair.
Certainly accidents of birth result in great unfairness. Warren Buffet famously remarked that his greatest piece of luck was to have been born in the United States.
Having won this “ovarian lottery” allowed him to become a rich investor. Had he been born to a poor farming family in the developing world, he would not have become the world’s richest man.
Obviously luck caused by pure randomness is also unfair. But so is luck caused by difference in knowledge. Those who gain access to the right environments, mentors or situations may get into feedback loops which allow them to learn their way to success, while others are excluded.
Still, although this birds-eye view of luck from a perspective of fairness is one way of looking at it, that’s not the only way.
What Luck Means to You
The first kind of luck is unfair, true. But in another sense, it has already been rolled for you. Knowing who you are, your abilities, advantages and disadvantages, you already have good information about how lucky you were.
From this perspective, I believe it is fair to say that who has the intelligence to become a superstar scientist is based a lot on luck. However, I also think that once you consider who you are, it switches to being mostly based on hard work. Why? Because once you’re in a position to consider this goal, then the residual variation is based a lot more on your effort, tenacity, ambition, etc..
This means, for an individual pursuing goals in the world, I think luck is not nearly as large a factor as it is for considering the issues of society-wide fairness. This is because the kinds of dreams and goals we have, are often unconsciously constrained into the things we at least plausibly have the prerequisites for.
Luck from Intrinsic Randomness Versus Insufficient Knowledge
Once you’ve gotten past all the luck (or unluckiness) you must have already passed through merely by existing in the world, the two further types of luck suggest very different approaches.
For luck based purely on chance, there’s little you can do. The only rational thing is to diversify your options, take more chances and pick a path that has a level of risk and expected outcome you can stomach.
However, many areas of success depend a lot more on luck of the second type, where the process generating different outcomes is deterministic, but often difficult to master. In this case, doing everything you can to immerse yourself in the environment, learn more, and perhaps more importantly, last long enough for the effects of learning to kick in, becomes essential.
The Attitude You Should Take in Life
My feeling is that these different types of luck should suggest a few things to you:
1. Humility and compassion.
Because much of luck in the world is of the first type—being endowed advantages (or disadvantages) that are baked into who you are as a person—there will be considerable unfairness in society.
As such, we should always strive to be humble in our successes and compassionate to those who struggle (including ourselves).
2. Adjusting our ambitions to our endowments.
This happens automatically. I don’t think that I need people who feel like they struggle to “dream less,” because millions of years of evolution have hardwired exactly that. When we see we are good at things, we increase our ambitions. When we struggle, we decrease them.
If anything, our sense of possibility is likely too narrow. It is overly informed by our past experiences and doesn’t leave enough room for change.
However, given that this process occurs naturally, it also suggests that, within the range given to us by our experiences, luck matters a lot less. While I’m never going to be an NBA player because I’m neither athletic or tall enough, that was never a dream of mine. But starting a business was something I thought I might be able to do, and given that this lay with the range of possibilities given my starting point in life, whether I actually did it or not was based a lot less on random chance than on doing the work.
3. Smooth future-oriented luck out by replacing it with learning.
Whatever luck remains in your future, as opposed to already having been given to you when you came into the world, this is something you can try to minimize by learning more about how the world works (so you can take control over the deterministic portion of this luck) and taking enough chances (so you can reduce the variance on the stuff that really is random).
The combination of these two things to me suggests a picture where we admit the broader role of luck in society, and don’t implausibly suggest that we ourselves came to everything we are from identical starting points, yet at the same time don’t see our future goals and ambitions as being primarily occurring because of random chance, instead of hard work and mastery.