How big is the role of luck in career success? This question has lingered in my mind for decades. I’ve repeatedly been told that I’m lucky — lucky to reside in a Western country, to have secured a job, grants, had a paper accepted, to have exceptional people in my team, to be a good writer and communicator etc. The list goes on, prompting me to reflect — if I tally all these blessings, it seems I must have been touched by a higher power on the day of my birth.
The Economist asked the exact same question in a recent column. The article makes a case that career success is significantly influenced by luck, quoting American business magnate and investor Warren Buffett as “winning the ovarian lottery by being born in America”, and “being wired in a way that pays off in a market economy.”
Fortunately, the columnists came to their senses and concluded the piece with a more reasonable take:
“If luck can mean a bad decision has a good result, or vice versa, managers should learn to assess the success of an initiative on the basis of process as well as outcome. And if the difference between skill and luck becomes discernible over time, then reward people on consistency of performance, not one-off highs. Mr Buffett might have had a slice of luck at the outset, but a lifetime of investing success suggests he has maximised it.”
He’s very lucky
In my perspective, luck is overrated. While it undeniably can contribute to discoveries and achievements, it’s frequently employed as a simplistic explanation or even a means of diminishing the accomplishments of those who don’t align with conventional success stereotypes.
Beyond my personal encounters with being regularly labeled as fortunate, I’ve observed this putdown directed at numerous colleagues, particularly women and minority scientists. On one occasion, a director of a science institute didn’t hesitate to attribute a junior group leader’s success to luck when colleagues praised their accomplishments, stating, “He’s incredibly lucky to have talented people in his lab.” As far as jibes go, it’s hard to imagine a more belittling remark than this one. It’s as if people land and prosper in someone’s lab through some sort of lottery.
In numerous instances, “luck ain’t nothing to do with it.” In response to the recurring putdown, I’ve coined this tit for tat retort to underscore the significance of the countless choices and decisions we make daily, shaping our paths over time. Success isn’t as haphazard as it may appear; it aligns with the notion that “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” It is seldom a product of chance.
Ray Kroc, the visionary behind the global expansion of the Big Mac, is far from being a personal hero, but he valued dedication, perseverance and hard work. “Luck is a dividend of sweat. The more you perspire, the luckier you become,” he said. Indeed, it is possible to tip the scales in your favor through thoughtful decisions and dedicated effort.
Do you feel lucky?
That’s not to say that luck doesn’t play a role at all. Arguably, being born a white male has historically provided advantages and opportunities in the field of science. We must also acknowledge that unfortunate events, like being struck by a meteorite or experiencing unforeseeable catastrophes, are indeed outcomes of bad luck where prior decisions hold little influence.
Taking risks can also have adverse outcomes, especially in instances where individuals resort to dishonesty, fabricating information in their research papers. Like any transgressors who blatantly disregard regulations and ethical norms, their deceitful actions may eventually come back to haunt them. It brings to mind the iconic line delivered by Clint Eastwood’s character, Harry Callahan, after a series of shots fired:
“I know what you’re thinking. “Did he fire six shots or only five?” Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: “Do I feel lucky?” Well, do ya, punk?”
Leave luck to the heavens
The Japanese video game company Nintendo, initially founded in the 19th century as a playing card company, bears the kanji spelling 任天堂. While interpretations may vary, one possible meaning of the company name is “leave luck to the heavens,” signifying the idea that individuals make their efforts and then await the verdict of fate or destiny.
Fatality, often woven into the fabric of cultural narratives, serves as a potent theme that resonates across diverse societies. It manifests as the inexorable hand of destiny, a reminder that human existence is fragile and fleeting. This concept, intertwined with notions of preordained paths and inescapable consequences, infuses depth and contemplation into cultural expressions, from literature and art to folklore and rituals.
In the realm of academia, these notions of fatality and luck often transpire in conversations, shaping how scientists respond to their colleagues’ successes and dramas, further illustrating the enduring impact of cultural beliefs on our scholarly interactions. Scientific research can often be fraught with disappointment, and at times, even failure. Consequently, it’s human nature to attribute outcomes to chance. In the rather harsh words of American journalist Earl Wilson, “Success is simply a matter of luck. Ask any failure.”
We are defined by the choices we make
As a student of evolution, I find inspiration in the workings of natural selection. At its core, this process embodies a substrate-neutral algorithm that yields outcomes of astonishing improbability. It’s akin to the work of a masterful artist taking countless small steps, repeated day after day, that ultimately culminate in marvelously complex life forms. Much like those individuals who possess an unwavering commitment to continuous self-improvement, this process teaches us that every choice we make, regardless of its scale, holds significance. My advice to all is a simple yet profound question: “Are you performing better today than you were six months ago?” By embracing this gradual, incremental algorithm for personal and professional growth, the possibilities become limitless. Every decision, every action, no matter how seemingly small, contributes to the grand tapestry of our lives. It’s a powerful reminder never to underestimate the cumulative impact of the minute details, for they are the threads that weave the fabric of our success.
Luck can exert its influence in both life and science. However, as The Economist article concluded, it’s crucial that we direct our focus towards the process itself. Dedication, perseverance, and unwavering commitment to rigorous research form the foundation upon which success is built. By placing greater emphasis on these elements, we can effectively tip the odds in our favor.
We are defined by the choices we make. Don’t overlook the intricate details. Then, and only then, we would allow luck to become a byproduct of our relentless efforts.
Fu 福! Good luck!
I’m grateful to the colleagues who inspired this article. This post was written with assistance from ChatGPT.
This article is available on a CC-BY license via Zenodo. Cite as: Kamoun, S. (2023). Luck is overrated. Zenodo. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.10036758