Is Success Due to Hard Work and Determination — Or Is There a Lot of Luck Involved?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Getty Images

Five leaf clover

In a commencement address he gave at his alma mater on Sunday, author Michael Lewis  — best known for the nonfiction classics Moneyball and Liar’s Poker – told the assembled graduates something that many of them most likely had no interest in hearing: That success in this world isn’t entirely a matter of hard work and merit, but that the mysterious mystical force known as “luck” plays an enormous part. And that they were some of the luckiest souls on planet earth.

Lewis, as he told the crowd, graduated from Princeton in 1982 with an art history degree, seemingly primed for failure in the post-grad job marketplace. He’d only recently decided he wanted to become a writer, and had no idea how to make this a reality. Then, as he told the graduates on Sunday, he had an extraordinary stroke of luck:

One night I was invited to a dinner, where I sat next to the wife of a big shot at a giant Wall Street investment bank, called Salomon Brothers. She more or less forced her husband to give me a job.

At Salomon Brothers, Lewis was in a perfect position to watch Wall Street “being reinvented” right under his nose. Within a year and a half he had more than enough material for a book – so he quit his fortuitously gotten job and wrote that book, Liar’s Poker, which became a bestseller.

“All of a sudden people were telling me I was born to be a writer,” Lewis continued.

This was absurd. Even I could see there was another, truer narrative, with luck as its theme. What were the odds of being seated at that dinner next to that Salomon Brothers lady? Of landing inside the best Wall Street firm from which to write the story of an age?

Lewis’ theme is an old one in the literature of success in America. Horatio Alger, the author of countless 19th century “boys books” with titles like “Ragged Dick” and “Struggling Upward” relating inspiring tales of good-hearted street urchins climbing their way out of  poverty to modest wealth and respectability, is largely remembered as someone who celebrated hard work and persistence above all.

But that’s not quite right. Alger’s heroes had both “pluck” and “luck.” Indeed, the subtitle of “Struggling Upward” was “Luke Larkin’s Luck.” His stories, like Lewis’s own, emphasized the importance of being in the right place at the right time – being given an opportunity to impress a wealthy mentor, and taking full advantage of that opportunity. (Tip: If you see a horse-drawn carriage running out of control and about to crush someone, leap forward and pluck that person from danger, especially if he or she looks rich.) Hard work alone and good moral character weren’t enough, but neither was pure luck – you needed a bit of both.

Even today, many want to believe that we live in something close to a pure meritocracy – that, aside from a few lucky outliers like the various members of the Kardashian clan, those who succeed in America have earned their success purely through hard work and determination. As Lewis pointed out last week:

People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck — especially successful people. As they age, and succeed, people feel their success was somehow inevitable. They don’t want to acknowledge the role played by accident in their lives.

Over on the social media site Reddit, one angry commenter calling himself drgk seemingly set out to prove Lewis right on this point.

My hard work in school gave me the qualifications. My hard work networking got me the internship. My hard work networking after my internship got me the job. My classmates who didn’t have as much “luck” basically finished school, sent out resumes and then called it a day and moved home to mommy. … Luck doesn’t exist, any more than God or faeries.

Mr. drgk’s comments are a perfect illustration of what psychologists like to call the “illusion of control.” People like to feel they are in control of their lives, and that what they do matters more than luck or chance. Psychologists have shown, though a number of ingenious experiments, that in situations where both skill and luck play a role, people have a tendency to overestimate the importance of their skills. Even when they have no control whatsoever over the outcome, people often act as if they do; that’s why people like to pick their own lottery numbers.

But even those who are willing to accept the role of luck are sometimes unwilling to admit that luck isn’t exactly evenly distributed in American society. Sure, Lewis took full advantage of his good luck in being seated next to the wife of a Salomon Brothers bigwig at that dinner party nearly three decades ago. But he was also lucky to be invited to the party in the first place – the sort of thing that happens a lot more often to Princeton graduates than it does to most of the rest of us.

As Lewis told the graduates:

[Y]ou are the lucky few. Lucky in your parents, lucky in your country, lucky that a place like Princeton exists that can take in lucky people, introduce them to other lucky people, and increase their chances of becoming even luckier.

Though Lewis didn’t put it so baldly, he was talking about the advantages of class in America, where fortune deals out its cards from a stacked deck. As I pointed out in a previous column, research by economist Tom Hertz demonstrates how rare it is for those born poor to go from “rags to riches,” with only 1.3% of those born into the poorest 10% managing to “struggle upward” into the top 10%, while nearly one third of those born into the top 10% are able to hold on to their class position.

Lewis could have mentioned this interesting factoid in his address. Perhaps he felt he was already pushing his luck with the assembled crowd.


Someone could work very hard, be progressing, and then have the bad luck of becoming chronically ill, &  unable to work. If Stephen Hawking had been blessed with a talent for playing football, instead of a brilliant mind, hardly anyone would know of his existence. Looks, intelligence, health, personality all play their part in what makes us, us, and will colour our ability to progress.  Our emotional/mental health will have an enormous effect on our ability to succeed, after all our mind is who we are, you can think yourself thin, and decide to stop smoking etc but if your mind is "broken" in some way, it is virtually impossible to think your broken mind fixed, because you need your mind to already be fixed to think your mind fixed!

Some people will have certain abilities, but there are things they need to fix about themselves in order to move on and prosper, they may start to make a list of all they need to do but then realise it reads a bit like the song "there's a hole in my bucket..." and the first thing they need to do, depends upon the last thing they need to do, which they can't hope to do until they have done the first thing, but that depends upon the last thing so....

Yes, luck plays a major, major, major role, if you REALLY think about it!


I think that this is the general consensus, that "original luck" - what family you're born into makes a huge difference in the opportunities and connections you have (and thus, your "luck.") But it still makes sense to me why most people want to hold onto the idea that hard work does make a difference in the outcome. And...of course it does. Hard work gives you a much greater chance of being successful than if you just decided to rest on luck. Of course, I think people who follow things that give them joy end up having better luck because they'll find themselves in places and with people who are doing things that they feel they would be lucky to be a part of. Putting yourself in those places automatically ups your "luck."

A lot of people have weighed in with their thoughts about this on StoryShelter:


I'm a fiction writer. I had $4,000 dollars revenue from sales last year on a little over 3,000 sales.

My sales by day, this month, are 1,0,0,0,0,0,1.0,0,0,0,1,0,0, for a total of 39. I know exactly how  I have that many sales in the first half of the month. No luck, advertising.

I track my data closely and am a former data analyst with GEICO (7 years). If you were to guess how many sales I'll have for the month of March, what would it be? 50, 72, 78, maybe 90?  Nope...not even close. I would estimate that I'll be between 900 - 1200.

900 - 1200? Are you kidding Meeks?! You must be expecting to get lucky.

Nope again.

On the 19th I'm running a 99 cent Countdown deal that will go through the 23rd. I have two ads on the first day of the special (EreaderNewsToday & FKBooksAndtips). I would expect to get 300 sales on the 19th, based upon my data from tracking previous ads on books one and two of the series...the special is on book 3.

I don't know how many sales I'll get on the subsequent for now, let's assume zero (though we all know that won't happen)

On the 23rd I'll be running a free day promotion through Bookbub for the second book in my mystery series. I ran a special on book one Nov 5 and gave away 34,000 copies. My category has 100,000 more subscribers than it did in November, and thus, I expect to do well again.

Free books are NOT sales, though. The post-Bookbub bump is real as are the sales.  I would project 580 sales at full price, which takes me to 880 total by the end of March.

880 will get me over 900 for the month. The extra four days of Countdown deals, which I've assumed were at zero, will get me closer to the 1200.

Has there been any luck thus far? I don't see any, just planning and executing it through advertising.

That's what I can reasonably say will happen based upon my knowledge of advertising over the last year. But, I have very little data since Dec 25 of last year that would factor in the millions of new Kindle owners, so my numbers are conservative.

Could I get to 5,000 this month? Sure. Would it be luck? No, it will be from the unknown results of those four mystery days.

Let me explain...I've read that there is a point where a book starts to do well enough, for a long enough period, that Amazon includes it in their email blasts. Do they randomly pick books? No, they pick ones which they know are doing well and being enjoyed.

I've also heard that if one maintains a top 300 - 400 ranking on a book for four days (this is only rumor) that Amazon starts to include the book.

Let's say it's close to the truth. On the 19th my book, Henry Wood: Perception will have 300 + sales, which should get it ranked in the top 400.

This will then likely get the book to show up on the Count Down Deals page that highlights books which are doing really well.

On the 20th, with the book ranked well on the Mystery & Thriller list, Crime list, and Countdown Deals page, there will be sales...possibly quite a few. Let's say there are 300 more? I don't know if there will be or even if it is likely, but it is certainly within the realm of possibility.

300 sales on day two will cause the book to rise further, because of the added benefit given to it from the 300 books the day before. That makes two days in the top 400.

What if it keeps up its steam and makes it through four days? What if Amazon includes my book on day 5 in an email blast to 100,000 or 1,000,000 people on day 5?

There will be sales!

It could be enough that my book gets sticky in the top 400, maybe the top 200, or if the Amazon blast happens, in the top 100. Well, if the top 100 happens, then we all know that's more exposure.

Have you seen any luck thus far? You may think you have, but it is just math. I don't know the benefit of the Countdown Deals page. If I did, I could tell you with some precision the likely hood of the last scenario happening.

All my novels have between 9 - 167 reviews, the weakest is an average of 4.3. I'm confident that all those sales mentioned above will yield more reviews and among that group of new readers a few fans that will read all future Henry Wood books, maybe all future Brian D. Meeks books.

I will continue to build my audience. I'll publish four more novels this year. And my sales will continue to grow. Will I make it to the mythical magic four days in the top 400 this coming week? Probably not. Will I eventually make it? Definitely...I just can't say win. I can say it won't be through luck.

Of course, luck is possible. I've applied to be part of the Amtrak Residency program. I have no idea how many people have applied. I would consider myself lucky if I got picked and that could be tremendous exposure...but would THAT even be luck?

Nope...they have a panel of judges looking at the writer's work (for quality) and the writer's social media savvy. I've spent four years building my social media platform to its current state. Is it good enough, is it in the top 24? I don't know, but if I get picked it won't be because I won a lottery, it will be because of the work I've done building it and it will be because I did it well enough to be among the top 24. (They're picking up to 24 people)

What if I get picked? What if the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today and Des Moines Register all run articles about the program and my involvement? Will that be luck? Possibly...but more likely it will be excellent PR from Amtrak and a sales job to those outlets to cover their new program.

Are there authors who get luck? Authors who write poorly, can't tell a story, have flat characters, and still win a Pulitzer despite having novels that are less appealing than a pile of cat sick?...all because they have lots of friends in important places...sure. Luck is possible, but I don't believe that it happens very often.

It's just my opinion, but I do know one thing for sure...I've just written my blog post for tonight! Yay! 

Note: While I don't agree that luck is a major factor for most authors, it may be the case for traditionally published authors because they don't have nearly the control needed to drive sales.

p.s. I loved Liar's Poker and Moneyball. Michael Lewis is a fine writer and has deserved every bit of success in my opinion.


haha, my boss is right when he tells me at my year end review that I am lucky to have my job, in lieu of getting a COL raise, even when Ive been given the highest rating allowed


Wow, no comments at all. People really don't want to hear about luck. It's depressing to think you're probably going to stay in your social class. Good article btw.