How Much of Success Is Luck?

Success is an unpredictable thing. Anyone can prepare for success, but even if you have everything going your way, there may be something there that just doesn’t click. What is it? Why can’t just anyone reach that plateau?

It’s because that last ingredient is luck.

Sometimes, success is a factor of being in the right place at the right time – like a lottery ticket. The stars align, and sometimes, everything you’ve been working for just works. Other times, people are born lucky, with a “small loan of a million dollars” to jumpstart their success.

It’s entirely possible to work your way up to greatness from nothing, of course. Sometimes, though, pure effort just won’t cut it.

In this article, we analyze just how much luck plays into success, and whether it’s possible to make it big without luck on your side.

Luck vs. Skill

Success isn’t all luck. We can guarantee that straightaway. If you have luck alone going for you, you will eventually be held back by your lack of skill, preparation, competency, or something else. Emerging studies are starting to point to a delicate combination of the two as the secret recipe.

Even if you have all the skill and knowledge you could ever want, it may still not be enough for success. However, if you have all luck and no talent, you will also come up too short.

However, this also brings up an interesting question: are the most successful people the luckiest? How exactly do luck and skill play off of each other? Is the rigorous journey to get there even worth it if you can’t guarantee a win?

The link above is to a study that was done to try to answer some of these questions. What they found was that, under the circumstances they set out, the result ended up much like today’s society, with a small percentage of the population holding most of the wealth.

The results of the experiment above have some interesting consequences. They suggest that success really does depend on luck, at least to some extent. However, they also indicate that the scope of your talent does not necessarily equate to the size of your success. According to the study, even mediocre units who had a lot of luck in their lives were able to reach high levels of success.

Essentially, the results of the study suggest that the luckiest people are indeed the most successful. However, a talented person with a small amount of luck can make more out of it than an unskilled person who’s just as lucky.

Keep in mind, though, that this is only a study. Although it’s well-done, we can only speculate on how well the research parallels real-world happenings. In the real world, there are more variables at play, like the person’s adventurousness, willingness to accept opportunities, and even their name.

The Matthew Effect

Essentially, what the Matthew Effect boils down to is that the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.  However, this can be applied to our metrics, too. Do the lucky get luckier? They do – the lucky get luckier because they have the means to pursue more opportunities, while the unlucky are unable (or unwilling) to accept some opportunities because they don’t have the means or the confidence.

Additionally, in our society, things like grants and honors are more often given to people with past success than to those who are just starting out. It’s a regrettable flaw in our system, but one we must deal with.

Fortunately, progress is being made as people become aware of how counterproductive it is. In the same article from earlier, the team who ran the previous study ran another with the introduction of funding.

The results of this study show that funding only successful individuals is one of the least efficient methods for promoting recognition of talent in society. Instead, distributing much smaller grants to everyone is much more effective in boosting the most talented individuals.

We’re working on it, but these outdated funding practices are not something we can change right away. However, this is where you come in. Humanity itself is more than just a metric.

Luck on Luck on Luck

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “I’d rather be lucky than good.” It was coined by a baseball player by the name of Lefty Gomez. According to what we’ve discussed so far, in our current society, being lucky is indeed better than being good.

With the way success in the US works today, luck has a compounding effect that tends to alienate those who aren’t already lucky. Just like we mentioned earlier, those who already have a measure of success have access to more opportunities or funding than those who don’t.

Businesspeople who already retain a large sum of wealth, for example, have an easy time buying out smaller corporations. If an opportunity comes along where one of these smaller corporations becomes very desirable, that mega-corporation can snatch it up right away with their available funds.

Think about the cryptocurrency boom that happened a short time ago. The boom was an entirely luck-based event, and many people who had never sold off their cryptocurrency benefited based on luck alone. However, larger entities that were keeping track of current trends were also able to buy up large amounts of the currency and benefit.

However, chance isn’t something that our society likes to address. In the US, we fantasize about the American Dream – the self-made man; the land of opportunity; the country so full of success that anyone can become great. That may have been true at the time the term was coined, but nowadays, it’s not that easy.

We have it better than most other countries, yes, but it’s not the land of the self-made man as much as it was anymore.

Luck has pervaded our American Dream in a way that’s not reversible. In our country, anyone can make something of himself and live comfortably. However, is that what people today consider to be a success? For some, earning fifty thousand dollars a year is all they want.  Others, though, aim much higher. At that point, they start to hit a glass ceiling.

The term “glass ceiling” was popularized in the nineteen-eighties, and is mainly used today in reference to women in corporate management jobs. However, it applies to our situation, as well. Once a person rises above a certain level of success (in this case, we mean in monetary value), luck starts playing a bigger role. That barrier must be “broken through” by opportunity for people to rise higher.

Different Levels of Success

To properly analyze how the nuances of luck and success play together in our society, we need to evaluate how people define success. After all, different kinds of success are affected differently by chance and opportunity. For example, for someone who thinks owning three cars is the ultimate success, money will play a significant role.

However, for someone else who wants to make a difference somewhere, such as with volunteer work or spreading a message, success is altogether different.

The company Thermosoft covered a study of two thousand Americans that asked what they considered to be their vision of success. The things these people want to find themselves successful are as follows:

  • A stable marriage
  • Working fewer hours, but making more money
  • More vacation time
  • A shorter commute
  • A degree
  • More good friends
  • Higher home value
  • Higher car value
  • The ability to donate more money to charity

These statistics may not precisely represent the general population, but it seems to be a reasonably accurate representation of most middle-class Americans. According to the study, most Americans are not looking to reach the high levels of success that require a lot of luck. The people evaluated in the study, by far and away, would prefer to be “above average” rather than wildly successful.

What does this mean for our findings? Well, for one, not as many people – surely not everyone, as the luck-skill study we mentioned earlier suggested – even want to get past the glass ceiling. If this is the case, then luck may not play as big a part in things as we thought.

It’s very possible that the opportunities are out there for the people in the simulation (and in real life), but they just don’t want to accept them because of the work or risk involved.

A little luck is still necessary for smaller goals, such as getting a promotion within the company you work at. However, there seems to be a linear “luck scale” at work when dealing with different magnitudes of opportunities. For example, our previous scenario of being promoted can depend on a few different matters of luck and skill.

If promotions are going out within the company, there are obviously a few things you can do. If you put on the best performance of all the workers being considered, that’s a strong point in your favor.

However, things like personal preference, pay negotiability, or whether they need you more in your current position are out of your control. You can make yourself as ready as possible for it, but ultimately, much of the process is out of your hands.

Maybe there is a lot of luck required to reach the upper echelons of society, but the fact that most people don’t usually want that changes our data significantly. It means that there isn’t necessarily a lack of opportunity for these people. The refusal of these opportunities could be at play, too.

Desire for Advancement

Some people like to argue that life for the one percent is easy. While they do indeed have the money to buy whatever they might need, most of their lives, potentially barring those who inherited their wealth, are not easy. Luxurious, yes, but many tough decisions come with being in charge of significant wealth – for running a company, even more so.

Moreover, most people don’t have any desire to be in those positions! We envy the lives of the rich and famous in theory, but according to the last section’s study, we don’t actually want to be where they are.

However, what happens when we reach that “above average” benchmark that we’re striving for? Will we want just a little bit more, or will we be satisfied? It’s part of human nature to want what we don’t have, especially if we see others with it.

Most of us simply have a desire for a more comfortable, happier life. Very few people actually desire the hard-earned success that the world’s top businessmen have.  What does this mean for our statistics? Can we accurately measure the role of luck in success under these conditions?

Maybe not. Just like for winning the lottery, accumulating wealth can take a little luck. However, working hard is an equally viable option. In today’s workplace, managers of responsible, successful businesses know how to see potential in the tiers below them.

Not every business runs optimally, but if you aren’t recognized for your hard work or potential where you work, you will be elsewhere. Promoting those who will work hard for and provide skills to the business is part of a successful business plan.

The question here is, just how far do you want to advance? Is earning ten-thousand more per year enough for you? Do you believe a higher salary is worth the increased stress of being promoted?

Luck is at play everywhere in our day to day lives. Predictably, it would be a part of success, as well. So far, we’ve theorized that luck plays a scaling role, where it’s less for smaller opportunities and more for bigger ones.

Day-To-Day Luck

We have days where we’re unlucky, like the day when you distractedly pull through a red light only to be stopped by a cop moments later. We have some good days, too, such as when your boss praises your excellent work or when you buy a scratch ticket worth a few hundred dollars. How much does luck play into our daily lives, exactly?

According to The Scientific American, the answer is an immeasurable amount.

  • To begin, the fact that your genetic material was the one to develop and grow from your parents’ is a miracle in and of itself. The odds for you being born are about one in four-hundred trillion or more.
  • On top of that, you managed to grow and develop into an adult, and you were born into the USA. If you had been born into an undeveloped or developing nation, your chances of success would be much lower!
  • Even luckier, if you were born into a loving, nurturing, middle-class family, you already have a leg up on most of the world’s population. If that family was able to help put you through college, add an extra helping of luck.
  • Lastly, you were born into the modern era. If Jeff Bezos were born one-hundred years ago, Amazon would have never even been a notion in his head.

Most of your luck comes from your probability of being born. If even one different sperm had made it to the egg, it wouldn’t be you living on this earth right now. The same thing goes for each of your parents! The probability that you came to be the way you are, and your parents, and their parents, and so on also did boils down to odds of next to zero.

So next time, if you feel like you’re an unlucky person, think about the chances involved in you being alive on this earth, in the US, with access to modern amenities and conveniences – not to mention clean, healthy food and water! If you think you’re an unlucky person, perhaps you just used up all of your luck on existing in the first place.

That begs the question, though: are some people allowed more luck than others? Is everyone allotted the same amount of success when they come into existence, or do people with no luck and lots of luck keep the balance on opposite ends of the spectrum? Is the distribution of chance more like a line or a probability curve?

Let’s revisit the study we mentioned earlier. The study is called Talent vs. Luck: The Role of Randomness in Success and Failure. The study itself is a bit hard to digest, but essentially, what they propose is that randomness (opportunity and luck) play a significant role in who ends up at the top of society.

We’ve already theorized that luck seems to play a more significant role in bigger events, so it would make sense that those who ended up higher on the ladder had more luck than those below. In fact, this is exactly how the study plays out. In a scenario where talent was evenly distributed and luck was randomized, the results replicated how only a few people seem to rise to the very top.

However, we have no way of proving that talent is evenly distributed in our society. We also have no way of quantifying whether luck is genuinely random. Silly things can influence the amount of opportunity that comes your way over your lifetime, and we have research to prove it.

Paris Hilton, for example, was born into her wealth. You could argue that it was luck that she was born into a wealthy family, of course, but studies have definitively proven that seemingly-unrelated variables like the month you were born can influence your success.

Increasing Your Luck (Or Skill)

Luck is often considered an ephemeral, unreachable thing. Indeed, the way the cosmos line up for specific opportunities is more or less out of our reach. There are some tips and tricks out there that are thought to increase your luckiness, though. Some of them may be worth giving a try if nothing else is getting you anywhere.

Ray Kroc, the man that turned McDonald’s into a worldwide franchise, famously said this: “Luck is a dividend of sweat. The more you sweat, the luckier you get.”

If what he says is true, it might not just be straight luck that can get you to your loftiest goals. If the relationship between luck and hard work that he proposes exists, then there may be ways to increase your own luck by working hard.

In the above study on talent versus luck, they evenly distributed talent but unevenly distributed luck among the “people” in the study. However, what if luck is evenly distributed? This makes the results much more interesting: if luck is distributed evenly, the most talented individuals will rise to the top, according to the study.

We don’t currently have a study that proves that luck is distributed evenly among us. However, it’s undeniable that having more skill or talent increases your ability to respond to opportunities that come your way.

In this way, a person who doesn’t develop their skills and talents might have a lot of opportunities come their way, but someone that’s worked hard on improving could reach the same success level as the mediocre person who has more luck.

This has significant merit for those who want to earn that extra ten thousand per year, or for those that want to buy a better car or bigger house. You may not be able to increase your luck, per se, but if you can prepare and be better equipped to embrace it when it comes your way, you can guarantee that you’ll get more out of it.

What Can You Do?

People have studied luck. It tends to be a bit hard to pin down, but it does have some known connections to other things. By exploiting these connections, you can organically increase how lucky you feel, just by getting more out of what comes your way. We’ve listed some of these connections below.

  • One: accept more opportunities. We noted earlier that a lot of people don’t really desire to hit the highest levels of society, so they’re reluctant to take risky chances and try new things that might put them at risk. If you want to be luckier, create it by expanding your horizons.
  • Two: believe that you’re lucky. This goes hand in hand with the above point because people who believe they’re unlucky are much less likely to accept risky opportunities. If you think you’re lucky, you’ll have more confidence in your new ventures, and you’ll find that there are more ventures available than you first thought, too.
  • Three: set clear, achievable goals for yourself. Create something concrete that you’re working towards. Instead of entertaining a vague sense of “I’m not successful enough,” set a goal for working an extra five hours per week. Small changes like this help you feel like you’re working towards something tangible and reachable.
  • Four: surround yourself with like-minded people. When you have people around you that also want success, you’ll find that you feel extra-dedicated to be successful, too. The same applies in the opposite direction: if you hang around people that believe they have no prospects, that same mindset will start to become your own.
  • Five: keep an eye on your karma. Karma is an ancient tradition rooted in Indian religions, and it states that anything you do will eventually be repaid to you. Good deeds will be paid with good luck; evil deeds will be paid with bad luck. Even if you don’t necessarily believe in karma, it’s true that what goes around does tend to come back around. Make friends rather than enemies.
  • Six: do more things. Read more books to educate your mind. Accept more invitations, even to things you don’t think you’ll like. You never know who you’ll meet there. Polish your best talents, and learn more skills where you’re lacking. Whether you become a master of one or a jack of all, people will recognize your adeptness, and you might see more opportunities open up as a result.

According to everything we’ve found, there isn’t really any sure-fire way to increase your luck (although we’ve given you all the suggestions we can). However, that doesn’t mean you won’t be lucky. You might feel like you have fewer opportunities that come your way than others, but in actuality, the fact that you’re alive today and reading this goes against all known odds.

You can increase your opportunities by your own effort. If there really is a correlation between luck and hard work – if you’re willing to put in the effort to seek out any opportunity coming your way – you can increase your success!

However, this approach is not for everyone. Most people will be satisfied with doing just enough to make them above average. Or, maybe they’ll want just a tad more after doing that, too. Wherever your desires take you, remember that where you end up will be dependent on the work you put in. If you’re not afraid to jump into the vast world out there head first, you may find some fantastic opportunities just around the corner.

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