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Luckonomics, Anyone?

It’s true that we just published an article about the importance of “deliberate practice” when it comes to succeeding in life.

But I’ve also been long intrigued by how large a role luck plays in any given person’s success. In the vast majority of the “success literature” I’ve read (including rags-to-riches autobiographies as well as the biographies of politicians, athletes, businesspeople, etc.) and the vast, vast majority of the media appearances and lectures I’ve seen by successful people, luck is almost never mentioned as a major contributor. It’s always dedication, hard work, brilliance, grace under pressure, etc.

And yet when I look back at my own life and career, I see that many of the good things that happened were the products of what I could only call luck (or at least randomness).

So I was very happy to see a few mentions of the Luck Effect in the media recently:

During NBC’s coverage of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, the former jockey Gary Stevens – who won the Derby three times – said that “luck is 100% of this race.”

And there were three separate mentions of the Luck Effect in the 4/29-5/5 issue of the Economist.

In an article about how Goldman Sachs continues to bring innovations to various financial markets, the Economist‘s (unnamed) journalist writes, “Outsiders – and perhaps even insiders – find it hard to judge whether Goldman’s business is sustainably good or has thrived thanks to a dose of unsustainable good luck and skill.”

In an article about the sundry troubles faced by Tony Blair’s government, especially the kerfuffle raised by home secretary Charles Clark’s release of 1,000 foreign criminals, the Economist wrote broadly of Blair’s fortunes to date, especially as compared to those of predecessor John Major: “For the past decade, the economy has been tranquil, thanks to good luck as well as good management.”

And in an article about N.F.L. commissioner Paul Tagliabue’s left the league in such good shape (btw, I have long concurred; I think the N.F.L. is one of the best-run businesses in America – although it is admittedly a slightly easier task when your business is a cartel), the Economist ticked off the N.F.L.’s secrets to success, including: “The N.F.L. is also lucky – and its athletes much less so – because it is the most violent of the four sports. Since the average player does not last more than four years as a professional, labour strikes are difficult and the union is weak.”

Honestly, this last citation of luck doesn’t strike me as luck at all: the N.F.L. is simply smart enough to realize – and exploit – the perishability of its work force. (FWIW, a few years ago, I wrote about the N.F.L.’s efforts to school its rookies in the realities of pro football.) That said, I appreciate that the Economist is working hard to promote the importance of luck. Not long ago, there was a nice book on the role of luck in the financial markets, Fooled by Randomness, and Malcolm Gladwell wrote a good profile of its author, Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Maybe it is time for a full-fledged look at the subject: Luckonomics, anyone?