Polity by Rob Salmond


Lady luck smiles more than we think

The Atlantic has an excellent article about the undervalued role of luck in people’s success. It argues most successful people, in addition to working hard and being talented and righteous and all that, have also got as far as they have due to good helpings of dumb, blind luck. 

The article shows that if we aren’t careful, we subconsciously underestimate luck’s role, think ourselves more important in our own success than we actually are, and as a result are unreasonably stingy about sharing our success around.

It’s an account that resonates with me.

Like many readers, I’ve had the good luck to be born into a loving family living comfortably in a bountiful part of the world at the most healthy, prosperous time in human history (well, up to now anyway). Of course, that’s true for a fair few people around New Zealand, but my luck goes well beyond that.

I was an unremarkable Johnny-come-lately to debating. I made my high school’s top team, but nothing beyond that, and we didn’t win anything.  As a squad, we were a bit of a shambles.

Nonetheless, I rocked up on a shoulder-shrugging whim to Victoria University’s debating society trials for Easter Tournament.

By a stroke of luck, the trial topic was one I knew especially well.

By another stroke of luck, it was a topic my better-qualified opponent didn’t know well at all.

By a third stroke of luck, the selectors were feeling bored and risk-acceptant that day. They selected me as the last person into the team, also on a shoulder-shrugging whim.

After that, my team went on to win an unofficial “luckiest draw in the history of draws” award at Easter Tournament, as we made the semi-finals before being firmly put in our place.

But the defeat was too late. I’d been accepted into the fold of the Vic debating crew, which boasted all manner of smart people who celebrated each other’s academic prowess as well as their drinking prowess.

Without that string of lucky breaks, I would have stayed a middling debater. I’m sure of that. After that initial success, however, my interest, experience, and talent snowballed, and I ended up less than four years later with a world ranking in the teens.

That gave me much improved self-confidence which meant I got elected to things around Vic, and a better academic record, too.

Without that lucky break and its consequences, I’m certain I would never have won either my first job at MFAT, nor a Fulbright Scholarship. I wouldn’t have developed the quantitative skills and social science knowledge I now leverage to make my living.

And it all stemmed from a string of dumb luck.

It’s important for us to remember that. It’s the flip-side of “there but for the grace of God go I.”

It's important across lots of issues. In today’s Herald, for example, Liam Dann has an excellent piece about the housing crisis where he acknowledges the blind luck that smiles on a generation of Aucklanders who bought their homes before the prices started to skyrocket. They’re getting rich just by sitting on their chuffs. It's important to acknolwedge that.

Sadly, however, the science suggests most people would rather believe a story-of-self in which they’re always the downtrodden hero, never the lottery winner:

Wealthy people overwhelmingly attribute their own success to hard work rather than to factors like luck or being in the right place at the right time.

That’s troubling, because a growing body of evidence suggests that seeing ourselves as self-made—rather than as talented, hardworking, and lucky—leads us to be less generous and public-spirited.

…it’s a short hop from overlooking luck’s role in success to feeling entitled to keep the lion’s share of your income—and to being reluctant to sustain the public investments that let you succeed in the first place.

Without effort, we create biased fictions that explain our own success. The psychological experiments described in The Atlantic and elsewhere confirm this. Too often, we think good things happen because we’re awesome. We think bad things happen to us because we’re unlucky. But we think bad things happen to others because they’re not awesome like we are.

And there’s the rub. 

Lazy thinking about their own life can lead people to embrace lemon-mouthed arguments that rich people are rich because they deserve it and for no other reason; sharing the fruits of success is immoral and should be stamped out; people who aren’t successful must therefore be lazy; and so on.

Those arguments persist only because successful people wear rose-tinted glasses when they look in the mirror. Let’s get those glasses off, and see the world as it really is. 

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