The Tyranny of Dumb Luck

A friend of mine — someone I’ve known since we were children together — is a self-made millionaire.   Like some self-made millionaires, he grew up in a poor family, nevertheless managed to get a good degree, and then he worked very hard to earn his first million, which he had accumulated by the age of 28.   He is among the hardest working people I know.

Back when I owned and operated a small business, I worked some long hours, but nothing like he has was capable of working during the years when he was going for his first million.   I remember he took a half-day off for Christmas one year — and it was the first time in two years he’d taken any time off.   A hundred hours a week was a specialty of his.

It might surprise some people, but my friend attributes only half his success — only half of the millions he’s made in his life — to hard work.  The other half of it, he says, he owes to luck.

I think he’s right about that.  Chance plays a larger role in our lives than many of us wish to know.

A psychologist who knew I had spent a few years as a young man fighting fires once told me of a theory that people who engage in especially risky behavior tend to be in sharp denial of how great a role chance plays in their survival.   Naturally, my immediate response to her theory was to deny that I had ever been in denial.

That’s actually what happened.  When she told me the theory, I immediately felt a surprisingly great emotional need to deny that I had spent some years of my youth dangerously tempting fate to fight fires.  I even went on at some length to her about how safe fire fighting is if you know what you’re doing.

She just grinned at me.

After that I thought about it, though, and I realized she was — at least to some extent — right.  You simply don’t walk towards a twelve foot high wall of white flame thinking, “Half of whether I survive this or not is dumb luck”.   That sort of thought — if you allowed yourself to have it — would get you moving away from that twelve foot wall.   I cannot ever recall thinking I was plumb lucky in the few years I fought fires.  Instead, I simply denied luck had anything to do with my successes.

These days, though, it strikes me how easy it is to delude ourselves about the role luck plays in our lives.  My friend who’s made his millions seems to me somewhat rare in that he recognizes the role luck has played in his successes.  Most of the few very well to do people I know seem to think their success was all their own.

It might be easier to believe our success is all our own than to justly ascribe some of it to luck.  I will wager it takes far more courage to walk towards a wall of fire believing that luck has something to do with the outcome than it takes to walk towards the same wall believing your fate is entirely in your own hands.  I know I can do the latter.  I’m not sure I can do the former.

And I will wager that it is much easier to work 100 hour weeks if you believe they are sure and certain to pay off than to admit there’s a substantial chance that even 100 hour weeks will not get you what you want.

Thus, there seem to be some strong incentives to denying the role chance plays in our lives.   The tyranny of dumb luck is one tyranny few of want to recognize.

2 thoughts on “The Tyranny of Dumb Luck

  1. I had a quite rerwarding carreer. In retrospect I must admit that much of it was about being at the right place at the right time with the right people. Of course working hard, keeping up to date and respecting my collaborators were equally important elements. All in all it was a pretty good combination.

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  2. It sounds a bit daft but I think the absence of a self serving attribution bias isn’t that healthy.
    When I succeed it’s because I’m brilliant and when I fail it’s because my luck was bad. Really 🙂

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