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.