Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

Does Luck Matter More Than Skill?

January 2nd, 2013 · 47 comments

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Luck Over Skill?

The most provocative business title I’ve read recently is Frans Johansson’s The Click Moment. In this book, Johansson argues the following:

  • For activities with clear fixed rules — such as sports, chess, and music — the only way to succeed is to put in more deliberate practice than your peers. Johansson uses Serena Williams as a key example: her dad started her practicing tennis absurdly hard at an absurdly young age.
  • For activities with rapidly evolving rules – such as business start-ups or book writing — success comes when you change the rules to a new configuration that catches the zeitgeist just right. Johansson uses Stephanie Meyers, author of the Twilight series, as a key example. Meyers, in Johansson’s estimation, is not a good writer. Her first Twilight book reads more like fan fiction than a professionally-scribed genre novel. She had not, in other words, spent much time in a state of deliberate practice. But this didn’t matter. Something about her new take on vampire tales hit the cultural moment just right and earned her extraordinary renown. The lesson, according to Johansson, is that luck plays the central role in success for these activities. If you want to do something remarkable,therefore, you have to keep trying new things — placing, what he calls, purposeful bets — hoping to stumble into an idea that catches on.

Here’s the obvious follow-up question for Study Hacks readers: how do these ideas square with my skill-driven philosophy of building a remarkable life?

Schwarzenegger’s Serendipity

I gained insight into this question from another book I read recently (and found surprisingly engrossing): Arnold Schwarzenegger’s new autobiography, Total Recall.

At a high-level, Schwarzenegger’s story seems to validate Johansson’s serendipity-fueled vision of success. The young bodybuilder’s ascent in movies required several lucky breaks:

  • being brought to LA — of all possible cities — to train in Joe Weider’s Gold’s Gym;
  • meeting a writer, Charles Gaines, who was writing about the bodybuilding subculture at the time, and who helped introduce Schwarzenegger to many important players in Hollywood; and
  • starting to take acting seriously just as the the 1980s action movie trend generated a sudden need for larger than life characters who knew how to film a movie.

There was no way Schwarzenegger could have planned this rise to stardom. Serendipity played a big role.

But does this mean that deliberate practice and the striving to become so good they can’t ignore you is not so important? Schwarzenegger would disagree. Throughout his autobiography, he kept emphasizing that you “have to do the reps” — a reference to the unavoidable importance of putting in the hard work required to do something well.

When you dive deeper into his story, you notice that this dedication to skill-building plays a supporting role behind all of his lucky breaks:

  • he was brought to LA because he was the most promising bodybuilder of his generation, a status he achieved by starting his serious training at least two years earlier than most elite competitors, and adding a new level of intensity to his workouts;
  • when he arrived in America, he hustled: starting at least four different businesses (real estate, mail order, seminars and construction), taking night classes, and shadowing Joe Wieder on international business trips. His smarts and ambition is what helped him gain access to Charles Gaines’s circle of influential friends; and
  • when he began acting, he worked really hard at it. He took classes and trained intensely for small roles throughout the 70s, eventually winning a Golden Globe for “Best Acting Debut in a Motion Picture” for 1976′s Stay Hungry. In other words, Schwarzenegger wasn’t picked out of nowhere to star in 1982′s Conan the Barbarian (his big break). He was, at that point, a world famous bodybuilder who could act and was well-known in Hollywood circles. From this perspective, he was the obvious choice for the role.

The Serendipity Equation

The combination of The Click Moment and Total Recall has helped me developed a more nuanced understanding of how skill and luck interplay in the quest to do something remarkable. Being a math geek, I find that equations help me better capture the relative importance of different factors, and with this in mind, I came up with the following:

<success of a project> = <project potential> x <serendipitous factors>,

where <project potential> is a measure of the rareness and value of your relevant skills, and the value of the serendipitous factors is drawn from something like an exponential distribution.

In this equation, there are two variables.

  • The first is the potential of the project. The more rare and valuable your skills, generally speaking, the more potential you have for the project to succeed. This is something you control.
  • The second variable captures serendipity. You cannot predict or control this factor, but you can expect that really big values are really rare (hence the approximation to an exponential distribution).

This equation helps explain examples like Stephanie Meyer. Her project potential was low because she did not have much skill as a writer. But her serendipity factor was huge, swamping her low potential.

At the same time, the equation tells us that Meyer’s example is not a generally replicatable strategy. The huge serendipity factor she enjoyed is rare. You could launch 1000 low potential projects in your lifetime and never encounter anything close.

Objectively, the best strategy for success, given this equation, is to combine a commitment to increase your project potential as much as possible (by sharpening your rare and valuable skills), with a commitment to keep launching a steady stream of such projects and seeing them through to completion, increasing your chances of encountering high (though perhaps not Meyer’s-level) serendipity.

Without serendipity, your skill alone might not create the results you crave. At the same time, however, without a high project potential to multiply, the type of serendipity you can realistically expect to encounter if you try enough things, also won’t generate these results. You need both.

If you believe that something like this equation is true, then this approach of becoming as good as possible while trying many different projects, maximizes your expected success.

Indeed, we can call this the Schwarzenegger Strategy, as it does a good job of describing his path to stardom. Looking back at his story, notice that he tried to maximize the potential in every project he pursued (always “putting in the reps”). But he also pursued a lot of projects, maximizing the chances that he would occasionally complete one with high serendipity. His breaks, as described above, all required both rare and valuable skills, and luck. And each such project was surrounded in his life by other projects in which things did not turn out so well.

Summary: You cannot count on luck or skill to generate remarkable outcomes in isolation. The most consistent path to meaningful accomplishment seems to be a combination of the two. Pick a small number of things and become so good they can’t ignore you. Along the way, however, keep taking your growing skill out for a spin, launching related projects, one after another, carefully studying the outcomes to see if you stumbled into something big.

######

For more examples and tactics regarding this idea of launching exploratory projects in the search of breakthroughs, see chapters 13 and 14 of SO GOOD. For more on building rare and valuable skills, see chapter 7.

47 thoughts on “Does Luck Matter More Than Skill?

  1. Rohan Rajiv says:

    Little bets seem to be the under lying thread..

  2. Arseny says:

    Great point! Luck is extremely important, but in most cases luck itself is a skill, and a trainable one.

  3. Daniel says:

    I once saw a billboard that read “luck is when preparation meets opportunity”. Opportunity doesn’t lead to success if you’re not in a position to take advantage of it. That’s where “being so good they can’t ignore you” comes into play. It prepares you to take advantage of the opportunities that come your way.

  4. Josh Earl says:

    Great post. Most people base their business ventures on the serendipity factor and overlook “doing the reps.”

    I’d add, however, that it’s often possible to increase your odds of finding a project with high serendipity potential by looking for unmet demands. Perhaps Meyers picked up on an interest in vampires among a demographic that had been overlooked by other authors in the genre. If that’s the case, the question wasn’t whether she’d succeed, but what the magnitude of her success would be.

    The better you know your market, the less luck comes into play.

  5. Nitin says:

    I agree. Success involves work of the right quality being at the right place at the right time, and so, we should aim not only to be good at what we do, but also to try and maximize our susceptibility to good fortune with respect to our goals. Louis Pasteur once said “Luck favours the prepared mind.”

    … But is it just a matter of putting your eggs in different baskets? I insist it is more of a question of being receptive to opportunities, as well, which is not a trivial matter. It takes a rather creative mind to recognize opportunities when they arise.

    This is an interesting article I found which deals with luck and attitude in everyday life, and whether it’s valid or not, it convinced me of one thing — taking advantage of luck in your particular field has a lot to do with having a keen awareness of exactly where you are with respect to project potential, and KEEPING IT IN MIND when you’re away involved in something else. The ‘keeping it in mind’ part is as important as the ‘involved in something else’ part (otherwise it’s not luck). I seriously doubt Arnold would’ve got anywhere if he was focussed enough on his bodybuilding to never leave the gym, or even if he forgot completely that he was a bodybuilder when he was away. He had to have a subroutine running somewhere in some corner of his mind, waiting to seize the opportunity when it came.

    I’m not quite clear on how this interacts with deliberate practice and its emphasis on focus. I’m sure that relation is something worth thinking about and studying.

  6. Great post Cal. I’d like to throw in a strategy advocated by Nassim Taleb, author of the Black Swan and Antifragile.

    He advocates applying a “barbell strategy” to many areas of your life. This entails being very conservative in many areas of your life mixed in with some high risk, potentially high payout activities.

    For investments, this means placing the vast majority of your capital in cash or cash like instruments, say 90% of your assets. The last 10%, the 10% you could lose without too much pain, should be placed in high risk ventures (start-ups, biotech, investments with very high risk but virtually unbounded payouts). This way you preserve much of your capital while still being able to capture huge gains.

    For exercise, he highly recommends doing low stress activities like walking 90% of the time with the occasional very heavy weight lifting or sprints thrown in.

    It’s a way to take advantage of black swan events and randomness, a condition that he calls being anti-fragile.

    I imagine it applies to a career in the sense that the conservative, safe end of the barbell would largely amount to skill building and mastery. Get very good at things that you know you’ll get some reward for.

    On the “risky” or serendipitous end, you should do things like start projects, connect with people in different industries, etc. These things aren’t very risky but could have potentially unlimited payouts.

    I also believe that the more mastery you develop, the more people will want to be around you. You will be able to take advantage of the “halo effect” which will lead to even more opportunities that could lead to huge payouts.

    I think the supplement to your Career Craftsmen manifesto would be “make sure you put yourself in a position to get lucky.” I think 99% of this luck will arise from being exposed to people that you wouldn’t normally meet.

    Great post!

  7. Evan says:

    It seems that the success of a project “for activities with rapidly evolving rules” requires a few things of the project launcher.

    Find out what “putting in the reps” means with respect to your field
    Use deliberate practice to become “so good they can’t ignore you”
    After surpassing the beginner skill level in a field, don’t solely focus on deliberately practicing to acquire skills. Take time out on a consistent basis to put your skills to work and create something.

    In terms of So Good They Can’t Ignore You, the last step listed above would be dropping a cow into the world, and letting the world decide if the cow is going to be purple or brown.

    I like the argument that we may not be able to guarantee success on a project, but we can maximize the potential for our projects to succeed…and this is a nontrivial task. Great post.

  8. CarlosFM says:

    Don’t depend on biographies too much. They will naturally try to find a linear thread (the culmination appearing inevitable) in what was surely a more chaotic and tentative life.

    The biggest weakness of planning is the plan (or what left out).

    That said, enjoying your blog.

  9. Carl says:

    Aahnold had his first leading man role back way back in 1969 — the cheesy “Hercules in New York.” OK, so they dubbed his voice, but he was the lead. He had a second leading man role in 1979 — “The Villain”, which is still worth watching.

  10. Casey says:

    Have you read The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb? Right along with this post. There are cemeteries full of Arnolds who put in all the time and hard work, if not more, and simply weren’t lucky enough to become superstars. We don’t hear their story because they aren’t lucky because statically most people aren’t.

  11. Paul Tune says:

    Cal, Michael Mauboussin studied this to a certain extend, albeit from an investment point of view. In his white paper “Untangling Skill and Luck”, he discusses domains where deliberate practice leads to the greatest probability of success, while other areas are highly dependent on luck, with most domains lying somewhere in the middle e.g. investing. Liked his work because it’s backed up by numbers. That being said, he suggests that skill and the process of achieving an outcome highly matters, as it does help in overall improvements.

  12. jlcollinsnh says:

    outstanding article and analysis of the luck v. effort balance. something I’ve wrestled with but never defined quite so well.

    I’ll be adding a link to this post in my own on the subject. Bravo!

  13. Michael says:

    Let’s not forget another serendipitous factor for Arnold, he was born with superior muscle building genetics. Sure he had developed an amazing work ethic to support his natural gifts, but in the end great athletes are both BORN and MADE.

    http://www.sportsscientists.com/2012/03/10000-hours-vs-training-debate-no.html

  14. dmfdmf says:

    I don’t recall who said it but I once read that one mark of genius like Newton or Einstein was being able to see better than others which problem is “ripe” for solving. Of course this is only obvious in retrospect, once the genius has shown the way. Also, of course, the genius must also develop the skills to actually solve the problem. Work on a problem too soon or beyond your potential and you die in obscurity. Work on a problem too late and you’ll either be scooped by someone else or your results will be seen as mundane and/or obvious (nothing inherently wrong with that as that is the fate of us non-geniuses). So in a sense serendipity is somewhat self created too.

  15. Sara Martin says:

    This question reminds me of your writing about the “impact instinct.” Impact is a function of how your work is received by other people. For a project to have impact, it has to be packaged and positioned so the outside world can connect it to serendipitous opportunities you could never anticipate or arrange.

    In other words, your project has to be communicated. Marketed. People who do the reps and produce something valuable have to take one more step towards impact and luck. They have to act like a homing device – broadcasting their work out to the world like soundwaves until they locate their targets (or their targets locate them).

  16. Nan Watts says:

    Thank you for this post. It is timely for me as I begin a new year.

  17. Chet Frame says:

    This same question is worked through by Taleb in, “The Black Swan.” CarlosFM’s point above about linearity of histpry is another concept that Taleb dissects. Good post!

  18. Nan Watts says:

    I forgot to mention that I was glad to find your book. It offers valuable perspectives for my work. I have shared it with colleagues, friends and my kids who are in college and creating their lives post college.

    Thanks!

    Nan

  19. Brett Warner says:

    I don’t think it’s any surprise that there’s a great degree of luck in any endeavor. I think the problem is that most people never put in the hours so that if luck strikes they can capitalize on it.

    Using your twilight example is great, I’ve seen writers that have been trying to write a novel or at least talk about writing a novel over a time span of years with still nothing in their names. She actually got something out there. Now your odds of achieving her success are extremely slim, but if you don’t finish the book your odds are zero.

    I’ve started reading a lot of biographies lately and it seems like the majority of the people that truly make it do have some great strokes of luck, but they also do a hell of a lot more than the average person does.

  20. Excellent post Cal-

    I completely agree with your point that we should focus on maximizing project potential because that is the one factor in our control. It’s more or less the spark and the serendipitous factors are the fuel that determine whether the project ignites.

    I think this also leads to a really important point about learning things from successful people. I believe that others can teach you how to maximize the project potential but can not guarantee you will achieve their same level of success.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  21. Kirn says:

    Cal – I broadly agree with you but I think the idea that Stephanie Meyers is a bad writer but just got really lucky is too simple. Isn’t it more likely that her writing is *skilled in certain ways*, different from literature, that made it so ripe to take off with a teenage audience? If it’s really just fan fiction, well, fan fiction has a very different aim than literature – it’s often wish-fulfillment and allows readers to place themselves in the story. I think it fits better with your previous thoughts around this topic to assume that writing this kind of fiction is its own skill and that Meyers is actually superb at it, even if she’s a bad writer by literary standards. Clearly luck played a big part, but if you had predicted at the exact same time she did that a vampire teen romance novel would be a smash hit, could you have rivaled her impact by writing your own? If I’m wrong, what other examples are there of someone having almost no skill at their chosen pursuit but just getting really, really lucky – and are we maybe just failing to see the true skills of those people?

  22. qznc says:

    I like to compare this to Poker. Obviously skill plays a big role in Poker. Nevertheless, in a 10-player poker game, the most skilled player maybe has a 15% winning chance. It is only over time that skill pays off.

    For another variant, in the startup community the saying goes “overnight success takes years”. There are nice stories of overnight successes, but they usually have put in years of hard work before.

  23. Raj says:

    So how do you explain Timothy Ferriss’ book reaching the NYT bestseller list and doing better financially than yours? I’ve read them both, your is full of much, much more valuable advice. Ferriss’ is a regurgitation of all the crap he’s published in his two previous useless books(except for the dieting advice which he just culled from Rob King and Loren Cordain’s paleo method books). I’ve never used a thing from Ferriss’ books whereas I’ve used and achieved a ton of stuff with concrete results to show from your work. And yet, Ferriss is the marketing hype genius par excellence. He also seems to want to plug into the zeitgeist thing more aggressively since food and culinary arts are so topical right now –what is even more ludicrous about his book is that he claims the learning strategies he expounds can help you become 90th percentile in any endeavour you choose in less than a year! Seems Ferris has found the true secret: hype and marketing trump skill, deliberate practice and luck.

  24. Rare says:

    Trust in Allah and tie your camel.

    I guess the essential thing that you need to pay attention here is that you need to create opportunities. No matter how good or bad your skill is, just let other people see and evaluate it. Schwarzenegger and Meyer could’ve fared the same if they did not at least try to “launch 1000 [whatever] potential” projects.

  25. Ryan Tiong says:

    To Raj,

    Marketing is a skill and Tim Ferriss is VERY skilled at that. He has also honed his writing skill, teaching , management (he has a team of researchers etc), his rolodex, and etc etc.

    Of course, I should say that i don’t know him from Adam. however, I am a student of marketing.

  26. J Dilla says:

    I’m curious as to whether placing small bets in a wide variety of pursuits, as did Schwarzenegger, would detract from the singular, specialized focus necessary to becoming ‘so good they can’t ignore you’ in a single domain. For example, while Arnold focused on bodybuilding and acting, it seemed he cast his net quite wide in terms of the types of business ventures he pursued (real estate, construction, etc.). You cited his ‘smarts’ and ‘hustle’ in this regard. How should one go about deliberately practicing those skills? Thanks, I’m a big fan of the book.

  27. Prasanna says:

    Luck = Prepared State + opportunity. Prepared state is being prepared for utilizing an opportunity, which obviously needs deliberate practice , focus etc which is being said in your blog.

  28. weak stream says:

    I think the way to look at this is that “luck” is not something that is possible to pursue. You can’t ‘try’ to find a dollar on the sidewalk. Therefore ‘luck’ is the element to ignore completely. Arnold and Steve Martin weren’t trying to get lucky. They were developing ideas they thought were unique and then getting as much exposure to their idea as possible. American Idol tries to push this ‘lucky break’ idea by convincing people that all they need to do is sing in the shower for six months then ingratiate themselves to a ‘panel’ and that’s it. A lottery mentality. But if you can’t find a way to get exposure to your ideas directly then, yeah, luck will be the only way. It is so extremely rare that it happens like this that luck should be a concept we all ignore. People that really have something unique will ‘find a way’ to get exposure.

  29. Mike Cane says:

    It still seems to me that people are constantly “discovering” everything that Max Gunther wrote about in the 1970s in books like The Luck Factor and How to Get Lucky. The words are different, but the concepts are the same.

  30. Alex says:

    In my opinion, arguably your best post since I started reading last year—really resonated with me. Bravo!

  31. Artin says:

    It takes a lot of hard work to be “lucky”.

  32. Wade says:

    Great post. I recommend reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success. It touches on these same key points and gives many examples of how being in the right place at the right time with the right skill set has developed some of our biggest business leaders and sports stars.

  33. Paul says:

    I think serendipity plays a big role in your successes. But skill, hones your senses into recognizing these once in a lifetime opportunities.

  34. Rare says:

    It’s not ‘rediscovering’ some other guy said before. It’s rephrasing it in as many ways as possible so that the larger population can understand it. At the end of the day, it’s the same thing, but understood from a different perspective – it’s progress!

  35. Fantastic post, very insightful. I’d add to the “Many Pies” aspect of the Schwarzenegger Strategy, the “Fail Fast” mantra , as exemplified Here.

    @Josh Earl:

    “it’s often possible to increase your odds of finding a project with high serendipity potential by looking for…”

    There’s your first mistake. I Think you’ve slightly misunderstood the concept of serendipity.

  36. Tyler says:

    If you believe that something like this equation is true, then this approach of becoming as good as possible while trying many different projects, maximizes your expected success.

    Love that part.

    Yoy

  37. Karla says:

    Thank you for pointing me to this book! I interviewed the author for Psychology Today.

  38. Nigel says:

    Luck – yes I have it – but, funny thing….the more I practice, the luckier I seem to get.

    Tiger Woods

  39. Chris says:

    Hmm.. You’ve encouraged me to read up on Schwarznegger’s autobiography. The guy has actually had quite an incredible life when you actually think about it!

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