Hot take: Success in life is mostly due to luck

I recently read an article that opened my eyes up a lot. The article basically stated that nearly all super super successful people got extremely lucky. Obviously you need to still be smart, hardworking, and perform at a high level, but there are enough smart and hardworking people to the point where only a small fraction of them will be super successful as a result of luck or good circumstances. I'll give a couple examples that I can think of: 


1) the former Goldman CEO who's a billionaire now -- Lloyd Blankfein -- originally worked in law and tried to transition to Wall Street. He said he got rejected from every firm he applied to, other than one tiny firm. That tiny firm ended up being acquired by Goldman, and that's how he got into Goldman. The rest is history. What if he never got into a single firm and was discouraged by that? What if that firm never was bought out by Goldman? Where would he be at now?


2) the people who went into private equity when it was an extremely small field are now worth 100s of millions or billions of dollars. At the time, they didn't know PE would become what it is, but the field has grown tremendously. The first 2 analysts that joined KKR are now the current CEOs of KKR. What if they didn't join KKR? What if they decided to stay in IB? Who knows where they would be at. 


3) the founder of Coatue (a tiger cub) -- who's a billionaire now -- said he invested stocks for fun while he didn't have a job after college. The market happened to be up and as a result his stocks were up -- and that's how he got into investing. He said he conflated luck with skill, and if the market happened to be down he surely would've quit and got discouraged. Additionally, by pure chance he happened to know someone who knew someone who knew Julian Robertson, and he got the chance to talk to him for 1 minute and got a job from that. What if he never met Julian Robertson? What if his stocks were down? Who knows where he would be today.


4) I know some commercial real estate people that are worth hundreds of millions of dollars that got very lucky on their first investment. If their first investment flopped, they surely would've quit and done something else. But their investment did well, and that snowballed into more and more and more. 


5) Tons of startup guys got extremely lucky -- mainly timing wise. Even if Mark Z worked on Facebook just 2 years later, he would've been too late.


I can think of countless other examples in which people were simply at the right place, at the right time. Obviously they still were smart, hardworking, and performed well, but I feel that people in positions of power or extreme wealth got very, very lucky.


By a function of there being many many hard working and smart people in the world, there will necessarily be billionaires that arise -- but most people won't ever have the right chain of circumstances to get there. If you ran 1000 simulations all of the guys I listed above, along with people like Bill Gates, etc., I bet close to 0% of the simulations would result in an outcome where they achieved the same success they have currently. 

 

The question of what's "luck" versus "not luck" depends on how far you expand your view. In a narrow view, someone who becomes rich through intelligence and hard work isn't rich due to luck. But intelligence is mostly something that people are born with, or not. If you're born with a 99.9th percentile IQ and become a millionaire by crushing it at a quantitative hedge fund, you really are lucky in a sense. You didn't earn your innate talent any more than a kid born to rich parents earned his family connections. 

Even hard work is complicated, because some people naturally have a lot more energy than others.

 

Hard work & continuous effort creates avenues for luck/lucky scenarios to occur.

Personally found this in my early journey. I.e talking to someone who introduces me to a programme which introduces me to someone else = offer

You can’t simply go about your day to day expecting that you will get lucky and have Schwarzman call you up, that’s why networking is emphasised by every Tom Dick and Harry because it’s the easiest way to get lucky and open new avenues

 

The real question is when do we separate luck from merit. Radical views on luck may trace one's success to being born in the right period in history, having the right family, living in the right neighborhood, having the right teachers, being influenced by relatives to pursue unique paths, and so on. Based on this logic, 99.99% of one's success is luck. On the other side, a radical view on success is basically saying "if he can do it, so can you" without taking into account the luck factor in everybody's past.

To accommodate both perspectives, I'll completely cut the term of "luck" when speaking about someone's success. I think that anyone who attributes luck to someone's success doesn't get a fundamental point in competition and success: Specific professional life paths suit those that have the specific knowledge and background (including all the circumstances pointed out in the 1st paragraph). That doesn't mean that because someone out there didn't have the same background as certain people they're 100% doomed to fail in life, on the contrary, they could achieve success by focusing on those paths where their knowledge and background give them a competitive advantage compared to its peers.

 
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I'll say it once and I'll say it again. Take the wealthiest 1 billion people and put them inside a bin and then take the poorest 6 billion and put them in a separate bin.

In the first bin you will find mostly US and EU citizens, with the poorest being left out and the richest from other regions being included. However, by the time you are on that 1 billionth 'wealthiest' person, you would realize that wealth for them would be poverty for you. Think about it: if the whole EU + US population is under < 1 billion, that means that by the time you get that 1 billionth person, their lives are nothing like EU/US middle class. They are either on the poorer end of these regions, or from a region already even poorer. 

Now, that was only the 1 billionth wealthiest person. Think about the other 6 billion! I am gonna go out on a limb here and say that everyone in this forum was born to parents in that first bin. And they are probably very high up there. I would guess that even the poorest person in this forum still is in the top 100M wealthiest people in the world. Think about how lucky that is. You had an 85% probability of being born into that 6 billion group of poor people. You had a 98% probability of being born outside the 100M wealthiest people in the world. That means that on the high-end, your success is 98% luck. On the lower end, it is still 85% luck. Everything you do is on top of that initial luck. No matter how great or smart you are, if you had been born in the congo in the middle of endless war, odds are you would have died as a child. There are no investment banks in war zones. 

Count your blessings, work hard, and leverage your luck to help others. 

 

And the odds that you were even born in this time period. Quality of life for 99% of humans even just 150 years ago would be bottom 5% today. If you were born 150 years ago not to an upper class/aristocrat family then university was out of the question and there was genuine real risk that you'd die from something as simple as a chest infection as antibiotics hadn't been invented. Getting a open cut/wound carried serious risk of death. Not to mention you'd be completely stupid knowledge wise given the lack of internet or even access to basic textbooks. You'd also probably live in some shitty flat without running water and heating.

 

The harder you work the luckier you get 

"If you always put limits on everything you do, physical or anything else, it will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them." - Bruce Lee
 

You’re measuring success based on the world of things which is why the bottom 99.9% of people seem so impoverished for you. Even though these people are privileged I’m sure all the bankers know how difficult it is to actually do the work and make it to the top.

All the super rich and acclaimed people you hear about aren’t actually that successful, they’re constantly being subordinated by the world of service and of things. Ceos of major banks and hedge funds are still beholden to their shareholders; say something unsavory in the political climate and see how much power they will have left.

Most people on this forum are subordinated by things and the prestige that they represent. Dignity is equated to who has a nicer watch or house, and people of higher social status in their inner hearts don’t find that a homeless man or even a McDonald’s manager has the same dignity as them.

Wealth and prestige is also equated with success in this forum, though seeking wealth only in the material world and the world of objects is really impoverishment.

As the banker drives home in Mercedes at 2am, after editing a deck a client won’t read, his world is bleaker than a minimum wage cashier, drinking Coors light with his buddies after the closing shift.

 
ddd1

By a function of there being many many hard working and smart people in the world, there will necessarily be billionaires that arise -- but most people won't ever have the right chain of circumstances to get there. If you ran 1000 simulations all of the guys I listed above, along with people like Bill Gates, etc., I bet close to 0% of the simulations would result in an outcome where they achieved the same success they have currently. 

Is this really a hot take?

Every billionaire is a billionaire due to luck.  It's simply impossible to work hard enough in a vacuum to accumulate that kind of wealth.  Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos or someone worth "just" a single billion are not meaningfully smarter, harder working, or anything else than thousands if not millions of other people.  Yes, you can argue that someone could scrape and save and hustle their way to a few million of net worth from nothing, but that just isn't possible at higher levels of net worth.

Someone would have invented Facebook and someone would have built Amazon; I'm not trying to say that those founders don't deserve their success, merely that it's luck that it was them and not someone else who broke through.  Mind you, we're starting to see the flip side of that with a lot of hyper wealthy people - Mark Zuckerberg seems a lot more like a lucky confluence of circumstances and not a visionary genius these days

 
Zyn_God98

Luck is when preparation meets opportunity. 

The motto of the boy scouts and the Coast Guard is "always prepared."

"If you always put limits on everything you do, physical or anything else, it will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them." - Bruce Lee
 
Isaiah_53_5 💎🙌💎🙌💎
Zyn_God98

Luck is when preparation meets opportunity. 

The motto of the boy scouts and the Coast Guard is "always prepared."

Not a lot of billionaires in the Coast Guard, though

 

I’ve always thought that luck impacted the magnitude of your success but hard work, merit, etc. impacts the direction. I’m sure all the guys you mentioned would have been successful and had great lives if they pursued different paths, just May have not been billionaires. Lotta stuff has to go right to be a billionaire.

The post also assumes that success = extreme monetary gain. Under that assumption, then yes luck would be a driving factor. However, if you define success as a well rounded life well lived (enough money to buy what you want, good and loving family, good friends, and career success/satisfaction) then I’d say hard work is the driving factor. You don’t have to end up a lucky billionaire to have been a success.

Also while an interesting thought experiment, it’s ultimately useless. If you assume that luck is the driving factor, then it is implied that it is out of your control and thus something you can’t affect or worry about. So why waste the time? You can only control what you do and if you want to be successful, then the only option is to work hard regardless of any predicted outcome. 
That being said, there are so many lucky opportunities to those who do work hard and are good people, that eventually you will get a “lucky” break.

”The harder I’ve worked, the luckier I’ve become.”

 

Some good observations there.

Counterargument for me would be that a lot of these people are impressive when you hear them speak or learn about their decisions.  Buffett for example is every professor's favorite example of a lucky guy . . they love to walk through the "coin flip" theory on how simple math guarantees a Buffett-like track record to come along by random chance, concluding that there's no evidence of his genius. 

Which I find deeply ironic considering the guy might be the all-time leader in terms of independent evidence of brilliance.  He has six hours of public Q&A every year for 40+ years, a half dozen biographies, countless interviews . . it's easy to see he's insanely bright, clear-headed and diligent without even looking at his numbers.

The other thing I'll say is that it's fine to understand the role of luck, but I've seen that morph into a defeatist attitude about what one can control.  As long as luck isn't 95% of life, there's enough within your control that it's worth competing and making sacrifices in pursuit of big goals. IMHO.

 

People often look at a pivotal moment in a successful person's life and attribute that moment to luck. I disagree. I think that successful people would have found that moment one way or another.

Had Blankfein not been hired at that bank, he would have found another. Had it not been acquired by Goldman, he would have lateraled to Goldman, or some other firm, and rose up the ranks there.

Had Mark not founded Facebook, he would have founded something else a few years later. There were many social media apps founded before Facebook that failed. There were some founded after Facebook that succeeded. He succeeded not because of "timing" but because he was the one who knew what people would want and had to talent to deliver.

Had the Coatue founder not gotten lucky in the market or met Julian Robertson, he would have found another avenue into investing, or another field within finance, and done just as well.

Maybe these people wouldn't be billionaires today, but I think they would still be very, very wealthy, which is success enough. At the end of the day, talent is talent. Life is long, and talent will find opportunities along this long path no matter where they go.

 
iercurenc

People often look at a pivotal moment in a successful person's life and attribute that moment to luck. I disagree. I think that successful people would have found that moment one way or another.

Had Blankfein not been hired at that bank, he would have found another. Had it not been acquired by Goldman, he would have lateraled to Goldman, or some other firm, and rose up the ranks there.

Had Mark not founded Facebook, he would have founded something else a few years later. There were many social media apps founded before Facebook that failed. There were some founded after Facebook that succeeded. He succeeded not because of "timing" but because he was the one who knew what people would want and had to talent to deliver.

Had the Coatue founder not gotten lucky in the market or met Julian Robertson, he would have found another avenue into investing, or another field within finance, and done just as well.

Maybe these people wouldn't be billionaires today, but I think they would still be very, very wealthy, which is success enough. At the end of the day, talent is talent. Life is long, and talent will find opportunities along this long path no matter where they go.

This is a shit take.  You think that if Mark Zuckerberg had decided to do something other than Facebook, he'd be worth 11 figures?  You think that if the Coatue guy hadn't met Julian Robertson, he'd be running a billion dollar fund?

Yeah, maybe both of them would have ended up working jobs that paid them several hundred grand year, making great money and living fulfilling lives.  But it's just not comparable to the actual scale of their success; it's more likely that someone ends up hooked on meth and dead in a gutter from where those guys started than it is that they ended up where they did.

There are probably 10,000 people on NYC alone (and probably way more) as smart and hard working as Phillippe Laffont who didn't end up with his success.  What else are you meant to chalk it up to then, if not luck?  I'm not impugning his work ethic or intelligence, merely the fact that neither of those mark him out as any more "deserving" or destined for success than the 10,000 people who won't go on to found Coatue - so until you can point out some factor that was within his control that would explain his success, luck is going to be the answer.

 

I just never understood those that spend so much brain power on the Luck vs. Work/Skill debate. Just do everything you can do to put yourself in the best position possible and be grateful for wherever you end up. As another poster mentioned above, most of us are fortunate to be in the top percentiles of society just by where we were born.

I try to focus on the process vs. outcomes. As long as I know that I did everything in my power to maximize my potential, then I can live with that. I believe a lot of people bring up "Luck" as a way to cope for their lack of effort and achievements. Sure, you won't end up with a $50MM+ net worth without some luck on your side, but if you're in America I'm confident you can build a helluva life for yourself through sheer will and ambition. 

And yes, I understand it's frustrating when the ultra-successful think they're the most hard-working, unique, and talented individuals who refuse to acknowledge any ounce of luck influenced their accomplishments. Those people are just insecure and feeding their own ego. The happiest and most chill people I know work hard, don't take life too seriously, have fun along the way, and remain gracious despite the outcomes. 

 

The tricky thing about gauging success on luck vs. merit is one side will always reject the other. I’ve found the best (and easiest) thing to do is try your hardest to not stress too much over circumstances out of your control and instead, try to put yourself in the best situation with the decisions you currently face.

Answering “Where will I be in 5,10,20 years?” is much more difficult than “What is the best action in this moment?”.

You can only be where your feet stand.

 

I agree with you philosophically, which is why I think it's important for those who are fortunate to give back to those who are less so. That being said, even if success in life is primarily luck, is there really much point ruing over either your "privilege" (if you're fortunate) or "bad breaks" (if you're not)? Let's say luck is 60% of success, but 40% is still controllable. I'd argue it's wrong to neglect this other 40%, regardless of your life's outcomes so far, especially since this 40% could still impact the magnitude of your success. Yes, guys like Bezos, Zuck, etc. were extremely fortunate to be in the circumstances they were in, but they also did a lot of things right be in that "lucky" position in the first place and to capitalize/seize the opportunity once it was there.

I'd argue that it's more important to focus on what you can control and have the wisdom to understand that not everything you do in life, be it fortune or famine, is due to your own actions. Have sympathy for those who are less fortunate than you and try to lift others up instead of tearing them down/seeing them as a threat. That's really all that's worth diverting your efforts toward in my opinion because that's all you can control anyway. It kind of reminds me of free will vs determinism debates - even if life is pre-determined, is it righteous or fulfilling to not even try? In my mind it isn't, so why even have the debate?

 

In a sense i would agree,

I have quite a few friends that themselves see their success are attributed mostly to luck. One pal i know who's now a CFO in a port & logistics company, his career snowballed when he was the only person who could speak english clearly so the company took him on a global bond issuance roadshow, and the MDs at the time went to become CEOs in various industry leaders in my country. And again, he got the CFO post just because they needed a competent enough person with exceptional english skills to entice foreign investors during ANOTHER capital raise.

He himself told me that he was the luckiest guy in the world, he's career are based on the situation of "right guy at the right time" and the right guy thing isn't even that special. Timing luck that he got is simply astonishing. But again, speaking english well is a form of "hard work" (well, having been able to afford top education helps a ton) and giving 100% of his success based on luck is simply a disservice to his own hard work, but we definitely can't ignore that his journey were much more easier than some of us that wasn't born into a wealthy family or having access to top quality education and mentoring which only attainable if you have enough wealth.

 

Or God? Or the Matrix?

There are no coincidences or luck by that matter.

This is the thing with freedom. You can believe what you want, but that doesn’t make it a reality.

Unless, of course, referring to the first line, you are Neo in Matrix, or divine consciousness.

 

There are plenty of books on the question of work vs luck- my favorite is Scott Adams' How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. He talks about how successful people like to attribute everything to hard work. They put in the hours, were smarter than everyone else, had a better strategy. Unsuccessful people like to attribute everything to luck: That guy was in the right place at the right time, had big name parents, got into the market at the right time, etc.

The reality is that success falls somewhere in the middle. You have the be the right person at the right place at the right time. The book focuses on working hard to increase your odds of success. If you stack a bunch of skills that might not be impressive on their own, you will build a skillset that, as a whole, makes you stand out. Skills like public speaking, accounting, marketing and design, dressing well, being acceptably decent at golf.. None are impressive or unique on their own, but as a whole you start to build a mosaic that increases your odds of finding success.

The piece I like to add to the puzzle is that you have to know when to get up from the table and go elsewhere to get dealt a new hand. This is the strategy I've used in my career- I look for roles that build my resume and build towards something, but if the progression isn't coming, I go elsewhere. I've studied many different career paths- a naysayer can look at other people's "big breaks" and call it luck and bemoan the fact that luck hasn't found them.. or you can go out and look for the luck. I was in an FLDP at in company/industry that didn't appreciate young talent. There were no young managers or directors because they would have no credibility. So I left for another industry where I learned a lot and built some new skills, but they also didn't have room to advance young talent. So I jumped again, and "got lucky". Found a place where I've been given a bunch of responsibility, and they have no fear of growing my title based on my results and not my age. I got pulled aside a few weeks back and told that I'm being groomed for a director promo in the next year or so.. Far ahead of my craziest estimates.

Luck? yes- but I think back to my coworkers at my first company who were always complaining about never getting promoted. Guess what? they are still there. They haven't looked to get dealt a new hand, they just stick with what they have. They don't look to add new skills and increase their luck. You have to think like an architect of your own reality- not a victim of it.

 

I recently read the book Quit by Annie Duke and would like to ask you a bit about your perspective on "being dealt a new hand." I'm someone who in general is super reluctant to do this and is almost always willing to stick it out. I almost think of it as "For all I know, the job I have now could be my last one." and that type of thinking has powered me through challenging situations as a student, club leader, researcher, and now employee. Most of the time (but sometimes with unideal results), pushing through "worked out" but I've always wondered about knowing when it's the right time to pick up and leave. 

For additional reference, I'm not currently able (mostly due to things in personal life) to move from my non-so-finance-focused T2 city, so even through work challenges my first year on the job, I stayed and was able to continue working at the company I'm at now. 

As you say, one never wishes to become the victim of their own reality, one wishes instead to shape it. And building your own reality often means moving on. 

What were the signs for you to move on? When did it hit you that being dealt a new hand was smart?

 

Great question. I definitely want to make the distinction between leaving challenging situations and leaving for a new hand. Often times the challenging situations give you great stories for interviews, and give you bulletpoints to put on your resume. A difficult boss is sometimes noticed by others in the company who start to move people around to put that person somewhere they do less harm- I've seen it a few times.

Getting delt a new hand is more about looking at where your current experience will lead. It's knowing when to fold and wait for the next hand. To elaborate more on my examples in my comment above- At my first company I was in an FLDP that was a great resume builder. Some rotations were extremely dry, but in general I knew it would lead to an SFA promo and would give my resume a bit of luster as part of an exclusive program. But I wanted to stick to the path of hitting manager at 5-7 years. I looked around and saw not one single 27 year old finance manager. I saw one 29 year old finance manager in the whole 50k+ person company. The odds didn't look good.

To put it in poker terms- I had a 3 in my hand and there was a five and six showing. I could hope for a four and a two, but not worth it.

The next jump was more about timing- I was finishing my MBA and really liked the company I was with. But again- no sub-30 managers. I was getting internal interviews for interesting internal roles, and felt like I could build a great career over time, but knew that an MBA is the most powerful in the first year or so after finishing. I set a timeline for when I'd stop looking internally and would look external. Before that day came I applied to every interesting internal role and gave it my best shot.

To put it in stock terms- In a bull market (fresh off your MBA) you shouldn't stick with a flat stock that you're hoping gets acquired and pops 20% (stay internal and hope your MBA gets rewarded). Better to jump to where the growth is.

Bottom line- look for people who are where you want to be (and got there in the general timeline you want to get there). Look at their path, their skillset, their personal brand, their demeanor. Find multiple examples and cobble together a rough set of paths you should take. If you don't see anyone internally whose career you want to emulate, that is a red flag. Constantly evaluate where your current path is most likely headed. If you don't like the result, then it's time to jump.

Obviously, the future is not clear. Things can end up differently than you expect, so you are giving it your best guess. My coworkers in the FLDP who stayed have mostly all ended up as managers at the 5-7 year point. My intuition was wrong- company culture changed. But I stayed nimble, am a promotion ahead, and am out-earning them (by my estimation) by 60-70k currently.

 

This is such a trash take. Almost all of the examples you listed are either people being persistent, or people taking chances/risks.

Luck definitely plays a role, but to say that all of success is attributed to luck is just a cope for those who are unwilling to work hard, be persistent and take risks.

Luck, circumstance, network, hard work and skill can all lead to success on their own, but when you can combine more than one (or better yet, all) that's when the real magic happens.