Q&A: How do I weigh luck versus hard work in our paths to success?

Q&A: How do I weigh luck versus hard work in our paths to success?

Every month, I publish an answer to a reader’s question. Here’s a transcript of my answer to the reader question about the role of luck versus hard work:

How much of your success do you attribute to luck vs skill? Could your success be reasonably replicated by a hard-working person, or do the conditions not exist as much anymore?

Thank you for your question. I wonder whether you’ve ever heard of this experiment called Project Pigeon, or Project Orcon, which was a very interesting, experimental Harvard research project by behaviorist B.F. Skinner during World War ll.

During the experiment, Skinner’s pigeons were trained to earn food by tapping a button. In the first set of experiments, the pigeons got food every time they pecked.

In other arrangements, Skinner stopped giving them food as a reward, and in some instances, after the pigeon got food, the system stopped dispensing treats for, say, 60 seconds. Once the time passed, if the bird pecked, it received another reward. Skinner then varied the timing between the food rewards randomly.

Skinner’s expectation for the experiment was that the pigeon would learn to peck for a reward – and that the release of the grain would be enough to teach the bird to try again. Yet, what caught Skinner by surprise, was that the most pecks were elicited by intermittently rewarding the behavior with a random time interval before the reward appeared.

Under these conditions where rewards were variable, the pigeons went bonkers – one bird pecked the glass 2.5 times a second for an unbelievable 16 hours, whilst another tapped 87,000 times over a day despite getting rewarded for the behavior less than 1% of the time.

In other words, a random interval happened to be the strongest form of conditioning, compared to consistent time or number-related responses — the pigeons tried harder when they received unpredictable rewards.

I’m mentioning this because I think certain careers, especially in the creative industries, are actually quite far from merit-based. There are too many actors, directors, and other artists who all have the talent, credentials and work experience, yet the hours they put into it translate to a very different payday. Their rewards are not relative to their input and can not be compared.

So what explains the difference between the pigeon that gets the reward, versus the pigeon that pecked the door as many times but didn’t receive the reward? Or between you and everyone who went to the same school or grew up in the same neighborhood or worked for the same company?

Some people would say it is luck, because of the intermittently rewarding Skinner intended to. Others would say it’s the pecking.

But both of these insights are true. Without the pecking there would be no possibility for a reward, yet the reward was random. So the pigeon who got the reward was indeed lucky.

So I like to emphasize that the success that certain people have enjoyed has been due to their own efforts, but it’s also been due to so much beyond them.

I mean, where you are born is still one of the main predictors of success in life, and the efforts and support from others are crucial too. Amsterdam for example is a safe and prosperous place, which has kept me away from things that some other people had to endure.

Besides that, proper schooling was part of my childhood and I was able to go to university as well. The world also treats me differently because of my skin color, and if I develop health issues, I can seek medical care immediately. Success is usually a mix of good genes, helpful connections, perfect timing, and countless other factors that are impossible to foresee.

Therefore, I feel success is more like a cocktail of things that you can – and can not control. Even if the reward is completely random – like with gambling for example, we still put our minds into the possibility that it can happen and it makes us eager for more. We convince ourselves that were become better at gambling.

The tricky thing about privilege is that we often don’t even think about it. Privileges are just there – they are given to us (for free). It’s easy to take them for granted as we never experienced otherwise. It’s nearly impossible to be aware of all of our privileges all the time, but it’s a refreshing reminder to me that luck plays its part, and that some form of humbleness is appropriate given the world we are living in.

While luck versus hard work are often stated as contrary things — they can be complementary to each other. While you definitely need focus, hard work, and fearlessness to deliver great work, I find feeling lucky is a more positive starting point for making opportunities work as it tends to make you feel more grateful and likely to try further.

I also would like to know what you think! Share your insights on the key attributes that shape this balance below.


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Thank you for reading. This reader’s question is part of the Ask Me Anything series. I´d love to answer more of your interesting questions and get a sense of your interests. If you have questions to extend this Ask Me Anything section, please let me know. I like to hear from you. Send me your question via team@lisanneswart.com

Here is a list of the last 3 readers’ questions I’ve answered:

» Explore more answers to thought-provoking questions



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