Are you lucky?

[Versión en español aquí.]


If you know me, you know I have a tendency to work quite hard. I’m not the type of person that remains focused in just one thing for a very long period of time unless it is absolutely necessary, but rather I find it quite pleasant to simply change activities whenever I get tired of something (for example, changing programming for reading papers). I also take quite a number of small breaks to avoid getting tired, or go do some sports. That sort of routine allows me to work for very, very long periods of time without getting burnt out. And so, it has always been my go-to whenever I had to study a lot. (Pro tip: Never use breaks for surfing Facebook, as you’ll never really decompress from whatever you were doing!)

Why do I tell you this? Because, in fact, I do work hard, and I do work a lot. So whenever I achieve something, I honestly feel that I deserve it, and that I really put in the effort to get it. There is just one problem: it is too easy to go from ‘I worked hard to get it, so I deserve it’ to ‘I got it simply because I worked hard’. Can you notice the difference?

The second sentence establishes a causality relation: since I worked hard to reach my goal, I reached it. The first one doesn’t: since I worked hard to reach my goal, I know that I deserve the achievement. Take a look at them again. The second sentence implies that the reason you reached your goal was your effort. And so, simply by reversing the relation, we realize that it also implies the opposite: you didn’t reach your goal because you didn’t work hard.

Well, I’m pretty sure something about my reversal is making you feel uneasy: certainly we are all aware of the fact that there are a myriad reasons why you might have worked hard, yet never have reached the goal. Maybe your competition was even better (should you have worked harder?). Or maybe you worked very hard, but on the wrong things (“Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.”). Maybe your plan wasn’t good enough. Whatever.

What about luck? Did it come to your mind with the others?

Working hard enough

I have noticed that among the most successful people I know, there is quite a tendency to focus on the second idea (causality) instead of on the first one (worthiness). And there is another crucial difference between these two ideas: causality seems to make us blind to luck. When you feel that you achieved something because you worked hard to get it, it also makes you think that it was only due to your hard work. Maybe the day you achieved it you were perfectly conscious of that lucky-but-crucial moment where something unexpected gave you the last push you needed. But a year from that moment you’ll have forgotten about it. You will probably still remember it, yet omit it completely from the narrative of your achievement.

In logical terms, you have gone from effort being “necessary but not sufficient” to “necessary AND sufficient”. That is, you now equate effort and reaching the goal as being equivalent.So now, almost unconsciously, you start assuming that whoever achieved things did so due to their hard work, and whoever didn’t, didn’t precisely because they didn’t work hard.

Coming back to the first idea, once you reach this point, something funny happens: you end up assuming that if someone didn’t achieve their goals, or if someone didn’t get quite as far as you did, it was because they didn’t work hard (or hard enough). In other words: because they didn’t deserve it. You see? Much like a straw man tactic in a debate, the original idea has been turned upside down by jumping to a similar (but not equivalent) idea, and then, once that one has been subverted, jumping back to the original one (now corrupted).

Take a moment to think about it. This is the kind of attitude you’ll see in many accomplished people (or in descendants of the accomplished ones): if I am where I am it’s because I deserve it; I worked my ass off for it (OK!). Similarly, if you are where you are, it’s precisely because you deserve it: you didn’t work hard enough (KO!). Checkmate. The difference is subtle, but they are not equivalent ideas.

The role of luck

I like this small excerpt from the book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’:

“Luck plays a large role in every story of success; it is almost always easy to identify a small change in the story that would have turned a remarkable achievement into a mediocre outcome.”

Daniel Kahneman, the author of the book, uses the idea of this quote throughout the book to highlight some random moments where being ‘at the right place, at the right time’ made all the difference in subsequent events. He even shows you a couple of examples in the story of the research that got him his Nobel prize!

I could also think about many examples where luck changed the course of my life, or the outcome of some of my endeavors. From simple exams where I got lucky (for example, once, the magical idea to solving the problem came to my mind after 1h and a half of basically staring at the ceiling thinking ‘daaaamnnn I’m going to fail!’), to random encounters that later proved to be essential connections to get me to where I am. I’m sure you can think of many of your own as well. (And I actually hope that you pause for a minute here just to think of some examples.)

One of the most cited examples is that of Google: Larry Page, one of its two founders, tried to sell the search engine for around 1B$ in 1997. The deal didn’t materialize… and well, here we are.

Wrapping up

The whole goal of this post can be summarized in one sentence: it doesn’t matter how (un)successful you become; never forget that it all amounts to the work you put in, and how lucky you got. But especially, never forget about the luck part: there are countless people who worked just as hard as you did, yet never got to where you are.

Stop for a second, and appreciate how lucky you are. Recall those random moments that somehow shaped your life and your character. Recall those random moments that, in the end, allowed you to reach your dreams.

Working hard is a necessary condition for success*. But most of the time, it’s not sufficient.If you let me adapt a quote from Pablo Picasso:

“Good luck exists. But it must find you working.”

Good luck.


[* Okay, not always, but you get the point!]

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