Maybe the real secret to success is blind luck. If you have the good fortune to be born in the right country, at the right time in history, with good genes and supportive parents, then there’s a decent chance you can turn smarts and hard work into real triumph. Otherwise . . . well, good luck.
This question of whether luck trumps skill in the lifelong competition for plaudits is an old one, kept alive by the fact that it’s tricky to study rigorously: You can’t run a randomized trial where some people receive “good luck” pills and others get placebos. Recently, though, a trio of Italian economists and physicists hit on a novel approach.
Here’s what they noticed: When it comes to native talent —
like intelligence — there’s a kind of symmetry at work. Most of us fit somewhere in the middle of the IQ scale, between the high-scoring geniuses and the below-average scorers. A classic bell curve, in other words.
But success isn’t like that. As a first example, take fame. It doesn’t make much sense to say that most people achieve an “average” level of fame. Fame accrues to a concentrated few, far removed from the majority of us who are just not famous.
Something similar, if slightly less dramatic, can be said of income and wealth — it’s not parceled out in a balanced way. The gap between the rich and the rest of us is a lot larger than the spread between the middle- and low-income classes. Indeed, this is the crux of debates about inequality: that the wealthiest Americans are pulling farther away from the middle.
To put some concrete numbers to this, think about what it takes to climb the income ladder in America. To go from the bottom 10 percent to the middle, households need to boost their annual incomes by about $46,000. Try to climb higher, though, and the rungs get farther apart. It takes a lot more than $46,000 to move from the middle into the top 10 percent — more like $110,000.
These pieces add up to a real puzzle. If talent is distributed in a roughly symmetric way, how come success isn’t? Or more pointedly, how come the number of super-rich people doesn’t match the number of super-smart ones?
Something else seems to intervene, warping the relationship between talent and success in a way that concentrates the benefits in the hands of a select few. And what the Italian researchers found is that this something else might be luck.
To demonstrate this, they ran a set of simple computer simulations. Take 1,000 computer-generated “people,” with skills and intelligence distributed symmetrically, about the same way they would be in reality. Let them bounce around in a world where they randomly encounter lucky and unlucky events. Then let their response to those events depend in part on their intelligence: The smarter you are, the more money you can seize from a lucky opportunity.
When you hit “run” on this simulation, the first thing that jumps out is the mismatch between talent and success, just as in the real world. Even though the most capable computer people start out just a bit ahead of average, the most successful among them end up way above average — thanks to nothing more than random hits of luck. This amounts to a kind of proof-of-concept, that luck alone can explain why success is so much more concentrated than talent.
But there’s another insight to be found in these simulations. More often than not, luck trumps intelligence. The people who start out in these simulations with the greatest ability to exploit opportunities don’t generally end up with the most money. That’s not to say that talent is irrelevant. But in this simulated world, fortune favors the slightly-above-average as opposed to those in the top 20 percent. Mildly intelligent but very lucky individuals tend to beat out the rest.
Of course, there’s more to reality than was dreamt of in this simulation. And to some degree the outcomes hinge on technical details. Assume a bigger gap between the most and least intelligent people, and luck starts to look less important. By contrast, luck becomes more dominant if you raise the number of chance encounters.
But the remarkable thing is that despite its simplicity, this stripped-down simulation can reproduce a poorly understood but vitally important fact about economic life — that the distribution of deserts looks totally different than the distribution of talent. In the end, the secret ingredient is nothing more than luck.
Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the nation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz