Why We Should Acknowledge Luck’s Role in Success

3 minute read

When thinking of success, there are likely countless examples that come to mind that focus on the effort a person spent to get to where they are. There are many articles which chronicle what routines or skills that you can emulate to achieve success. However, it can be frustrating or demotivating when despite having the right steps or making the right decisions, success doesn’t always follow. This is because we often overlook one important ingredient to success: the role of luck and coincidence
 
One reason why this happens is because as humans, we are prone to fundamental attribution error, which refers to the tendency for people to over-emphasize personal factors and under-estimate situational factors. This is because we are constantly bombarded by information, so we are wired to use shortcuts to make quick general judgements. Unfortunately, this can sometimes result in us overweighting a piece of information while overlooking the whole picture. For example, “if you’ve ever chastised a “lazy employee” for being late to a meeting and then proceeded to make an excuse for being late yourself that same day, you’ve made the fundamental attribution error.” On the flip side, we can also see someone successful and quickly make the attribution to their personal characteristics, like diligence, rather than consider external factors, like luck. 
 
When it comes to success and “winning,” the fundamental attribution error can play a large role in how we think about winningResearch found that when playing a game that relied mostly on chance, and even if the players acknowledged this, “by far most of the winners felt that they had played better than the losers - and therefore felt that they had earned their win.” Moreover, in another study, the researchers found that even titles given at random in a study can influence attributions. For example, those who were assigned the titles of “clerks” rated their “managers” as higher on all traits except hardworking. “The managers thought they and their fellow managers were better at everything.” 
 
Finally, as the role of chance in success increases, the harder it is to discern the impact of said chance. “Success is the sum of talent, hard work, and luck. When many talented hardworking people have to compete for success, the difference in quality between the best of the best is only minimal. The consequence? A highly skilled participant experiencing a little bit of bad luck will lose to a slightly less skilled participant who is luckier.” In fact, according to economist Robert Frank’s probability calculations in his book, “Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy”, the best candidate only wins in a small number of cases. 

While success, no doubt, takes hard work and the right decisions, the takeaway is that we should acknowledge and be aware of when luck helped our efforts. Moreover, to avoid falling into our tendencies to committing fundamental attribution errors, we need to practice becoming more emotionally intelligent, which involves different factors like self-awareness, empathy, and self-regulation. While it’s impossible to overcome our biases completely, 
“with a combination of awareness and a few small tools and tactics, you can be more gracious and empathic with your coworkers.”

This work has been funded by Viewpoint Foundation.