Why ‘Luck’ Is a Dirty Word to So Many Successful People

This fatally flawed narrative is how we end up on the worst side of capitalism—with a frightening level of arrogance

Google CEO Larry Page holds a press annoucement at Google headquarters in New York on May 21, 2012
Google CEO Larry Page at Google headquarters.

I recently watched a television discussion which attempted to tackle the question, “are we waging a war on young people?” Most everyone on the show was a young twenty-something, trying very hard to make their dent in the world with increasing difficulty—one was working four different casual jobs to make ends meet, one had been fired after expressing to his employer he’d like to go to university and work different hours, and another had been trying to buy a place to live for 18 months, continually frustrated by investors outbidding her and her husband. And then there was a 25-year-old-entrepreneur, who had little sympathy for any of them. She’d built a successful company employing a lot of people, and couldn’t work out what the problem was for her peers.

The entrepreneur credited her success solely to her own hard work and ingenuity, never acknowledging the things that went right for her. When another guest told of having to work four jobs, she said “you should have chosen a better industry.” The other guests were stunned at such a ludicrous answer, as was I.

Isn’t it funny that people will look back and credit their younger selves with this kind of magical foresight, while condemning everyone else for making a poor decision? They don’t realize that for every one of them who struck out on their own, and had success because the winds of fortune blew their way, there are a thousand other people who chose the wrong industry, the wrong company, the wrong university degree and are now paying the price, trying to make the climb back up (or even just trying to get on the ladder).

And yet they always throw the word just in there. “If you just worked harder, if you just chose the right industry, if you just burn your ships and go all in, you could be where I am.”

This is the worst kind of survivorship bias. It’s sad and delusional. In Black Swan, Nassim Taleb remarks on the phenomenon: “We sort of look backwards on our lives, and try to tell ourselves a story that’s somewhat related, that make us seem sort of better than we were, smarter than we were, more prophetic than we were.”

To look at this from another angle, there are very few investors in the world who can time the market. Even Warren Buffett takes a long-term strategy, rather than following trends, and every time he has tried to time the real estate market, he has lost money. Yet people who gain rapid traction and success in the business world—like the woman above—so often credit only themselves with making the right choices. Never in a million years will they admit they were just lucky in choosing the right thing at the right time, which was the right match for their skills. This is not to discount their hard work. Still, for some reason they believe that acknowledging luck was also involved invalidates all of their efforts.

Larry Page of Google (GOOGL) is performing a similar kind of mental gymnastics now, in a slightly different way. As Ryan Holiday notes, Page now judges companies on whether or not they are trying to change the world. This is despite the fact that neither he nor Sergey Brin created Google for such a reason—they created Google as part of their Ph.D. research project. It was only after it became gigantic that they began to turn their eye to solving some of the great problems and trying to change the world.

It’s a case of Page retroactively applying the current narrative of his life as though he thought that way from the beginning, and that it was the reason for his success. He now (unfairly) applies this mindset to everyone else, and judges them for it. Page and Brin were simply solving the right problem at the right time, because they had the right skill set. That combination of factors tells us there was some luck involved, even if it was only at the inception of the company. Two years later, and someone else might have done it.

This is the danger of equating career status with worth.

It sounds so insulting, doesn’t it? As though it’s just a case of boiling everything down to the right place, at the right time. It’s jarring and odd to hear because we’re so used to seeing those in the millionaire/billionaire club as superhuman, as intellectual giants we look upon in awe, while wondering why we can’t be as good as them. There are podcasts and articles devoted to breaking down their habits and morning routines—as though we would have everything we wanted if we just did what they do. The narrative has been built that they are so much better than us, that they have some kind of Promethean fire inside them that the rest of us lack, so it seems wrong to credit so much of their success to timing or chance encounters.

There is a wonderful TED talk by financial manager and author Bill Gross on this subject, in which he goes into what makes startups successful. According to Gross, the number one factor isn’t people, it isn’t hard work, and it isn’t investors. It is exactly what I was just talking about: timing. The most critical part of being successful as a startup comes down to the good luck of having the right product, in the right market, at the right time. Have the best people with the wrong idea, at the wrong time, and it won’t matter if you work around the clock. Have the right idea at the right time, even with average people working for you, and your odds improve dramatically. Yet so few people that have had this luck will ever admit to it, and will instead credit themselves for their amazing business acumen.

Many people who have struck it big developed a narrative in their minds that all of their success and position in life boils solely down to their ingenuity and hard work. When challenged they’ll bite back. It’s similar to when real estate billionaire Sam Zell said that the one percent are there because they work harder, and everyone else should stop bitching. TV host Bill Maher rightly called out such lunacy, asking Zell, “Do you really think you work harder than a coal miner that spends 12 hours a day underground?”

For those who have made it to where they wanted to be, it’s easy to continue believing in the narrative and assuming that anyone who doesn’t have your level of success just hasn’t put the work in. After all, if you’re a good, hard-working person, and it’s true for you, then it must be true overall. This is how we end up on the worst side of capitalism, when we believe a person’s position in the world is due solely to their work ethic. One needs only to read Malcolm Gladwell’s fantastic book Outliers to see there are dozens of factors—many of which are down to something as random as when we were born—to realize that such a narrative is fatally flawed. It’s little wonder we have such high levels of dissatisfaction when the statistics show so clearly that not everyone gets to have the level of success they’ve worked for.

Philosopher Alain de Botton has spoken at length about the fact that, once upon a time, people on the bottom rungs were called “unfortunates.” People who literally had not been blessed with any kind of fortune by God. Now that we live in a society which we mistakenly believe is purely meritocratic, these people are no longer unfortunates, but losers who haven’t worked hard enough. Likewise, at the top of the ladder, those people are deemed to be there merely because of their own skill and hard work. Don’t dare imply that luck played any kind of part, or you will be looked down upon as the worst kind of person—jealous and lazy.

This is the problem with climbing to the top in any field—so many of us wish for that lucky break that will push us to the top of the ladder, but when we get it, we refuse to acknowledge it. We take our own revisionist view of history and give ourselves credit for aspects of our success that we really had no control over, and were just down to simple luck and timing. The guy from the wealthy family doesn’t admit that he was lucky to have the advantage of connections and money. The suddenly successful entrepreneur doesn’t admit that he was lucky to stumble upon the right field at the right time—and that if he hadn’t succeeded, he probably would have gone and gotten a job like everyone else. The young man introduced to the right mentor at the right time never admits that this chance encounter was his big break, and that he’d otherwise be toiling in obscurity.

It would do us well to remember that we are both held down and propelled upward on the ladder of success by dozens of factors over which we have no control. Our personalities, our aptitudes in various areas, where we were born, who our parents were, how teachers treated us, are just a small few factors that could mean the difference between working a soul-sucking job in a nameless company, or running SpaceX. If Steve Jobs never had the stroke of luck to meet Steve Wozniak, Apple (AAPL) would have never been, and half the population wouldn’t own an iPhone. If Bill Gates had been born to poorer parents without access to a computer, Microsoft (MSFT) would never have been founded. If the huge earthquake hadn’t happened in LA in the ‘70s, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s masonry business wouldn’t have had anywhere near the same level of success.

There is nothing wrong with being the recipient of luck or good fortune. However, when we buy into the narrative that our hard work and smarts are the basis of all our success and refuse to acknowledge luck or the people who got us there, we develop a frightening level of arrogance and a superiority complex. This is why we have people who feel entitled to continue sucking the economy dry, rigging the game for their own benefit—because they see themselves as somehow better than the rest of us. 

This is the danger of equating career status with worth. One person being more successful than another in any given field doesn’t mean they are smarter, have worked harder, or are even necessarily better at what they do. It doesn’t mean they deserve more respect, or have more of a right to be listened to. It doesn’t mean you need to copy their morning routines, and take everything they say as gospel. It’s time we all realize that success in anything doesn’t make a person intrinsically better than the next person who isn’t so lucky, or so rich.

Peter Ross deconstructs the psychology and philosophy of the business world, careers and everyday life. You can follow him on Twitter @prometheandrive.

Why ‘Luck’ Is a Dirty Word to So Many Successful People