Why are there “successful” people and what are the reasons they are successful, and others are not? Is it because of hard work and the right choices they make? Or is it because they were just lucky? In the general discourse, many people give reasons for their success to the idea— “the choices they make”. Others who modestly do say —“they were lucky” — mostly underplay the significance of luck in their success.
For the point of clarity, success is defined as a positive recognition, respect, monetary reward, better position relative to others in a society etc. A choice is when individuals make decisions with their full conscious, autonomous, calculated, and mental effort.
Successful people give a higher weight to choices as a determinant for their success. However, other factors influence more to their success than they realise — environment, community, geography, industry-specific etc. which can be defined as “luck” (being arbitrary). In a recent study by Biondo and Rapisarda (2018) from the University of Catania in Italy showed that the success of a person over time is not determined on the individual choices or ability but her luck factor. Robert Frank, an economics columnist from the New York Times, in his book — Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy — argued that successful people ignore the fact of how much luck has determined their achievements and the implication it has in our inegalitarian society.
The question arises, why do we often ignore the argument of luck based success and often stress on the choice based success? One reason can be the perception problem.
Many of the successes a person achieves in life is through some reason or cause. This is often translated in our society with the idea of hard work (choice) or being lucky. People perceive their success to be by the former than the latter because the former can give a defined (construct) reason of why they are where they are. An answer like “luck” or “random” might not be a good enough reason for the individual to understand its condition. As humans, we seek answers for many phenomena and for being “successful” in a society, we have come up with the reason like — our choice.
Let’s think about choice as an absolute cause or a reason for being successful. First, it stresses the idea of complete awareness of the choices and their positive consequences. The former might be argued for (even though in many studies we see that we can never be fully aware of our choices), but the latter has the problem of probabilities, as no one is certain of a particular outcome. The other concern about choice is how much is the person’s actual choice, and not determined by its environment?
Imagine a person born in a family of academics. Since childhood, the person might indirectly benefit with an extensive supply of knowledge and resources. In some way, the child might have some advantage over someone who did not have parents who were in academics or who were not able to afford access to education. There will be a divergence in the two lives as the former one will have more opportunity (choice) in pursuing higher education.
The similar can be said for a business class born family child, who will have access to wide amount of financial resources and thus, has a high probability to do well and be “successful”.
These examples present some of the weaknesses in the argument of individual’s choice, as much of our choices are mostly determined by our environment (access to resources). And in an unequal world like ours, being born in an environment which provides access to such resources, leads to a stronger argument for luck being a higher determinant factor for success.
One can argue that some people, who had less access to resources, achieved success without being “lucky”. However, considering the unequal status of the world, the worse off person’s ability to achieve success, stresses the importance of luck (a broader sense) in the person’s life. Obviously, by emphasising the importance of luck, my argument does not state that a person’s choice is not essential and should be redundant. But it is to highlight the importance of luck and what kind of implication it has when we ignore it.
The external environment (uncontrollable), which can include factors from childhood upbringing to being associated with a certain kind of community, can influence how we do things in the present and the future. Thus, understanding this point more deeply can make us realise that the people around us are not because of their choices (at least a low percentage) but more because of the environment (luck). This leads us to think about the way we have let “choices” distort our perception of our self and society. Consider this:
One of the reasons why we want to know about the good choices (success) and ignore the ones which have failed, is in hope for replication (even though it is rare if it can happen). This self-outlook about choices is not limited to thinking about success, but also much broader issues like how we might view distribution. In an experiment to analyse a third person’s perspective about fairness by Mollerstrom, Reme, and Sørensen (2014) found that people gave a higher distribution to people who made the right choices (positive outcome) than the people who did not, even though the environment was uncontrolled and arbitrary. This shows, how as individuals, we might put a higher weight on choices with a positive outcome than see the environment(conditioning) effect on people. Furthermore, the individual perception about choices can influence the way we design certain policies. Consider the idea of redistributive justice, where we debate on how we want to redistribute resources among society according to different levels of worse off people (inequality). People who put a higher weight on the choices to determine an individual life will be against or at least be wary of state policy to intervene in the lives of worse off people who made some bad choices.
Consider the following example:
A person chooses to smoke cigarettes for many years. He develops a disease which hinders his ability to work for a living. The person comes from an environment where everyone smoked.
The state comes up with a policy which helps such disease affected people by giving them food vouchers or other kinds of benefits as they cannot afford to work. People who view choice as a way that determines the individual’s life will be against the government support (public spending) of such people who made bad choices. However, the person’s choice for smoking was not his in absolute terms but was influenced by the environment (lack of awareness, societal pressure) which led to this uncontrollable point of his condition (bad result).
To reiterate, my argument is neither that people should not bear the consequences of their choices in their lives nor everything is based on luck. It is to discuss the implications of unequal uncontrollable conditioning in our society. One way to find a solution to the problem of luck dictating our life (in a higher way) is to provide a level playing field for people in a society. When people have basic endowed access to resources (education, healthcare etc.), then after what they do will be more because of their choices (hard work, ability etc.) (Dworkin, 1981).
Einstein once said to a newspaper –
“My own career was undoubtedly determined, not by my own will but by various factors over which I have no control…….. I claim credit for nothing. Everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control.”
The concept of choice and luck have many nuances and the more we understand them, the more we can see how they have consequences in areas like justice, blame, moral responsibility, success etc. Furthermore, they lead to a series of philosophical questions for us to contemplate about— What is the difference between bad luck through condition and bad luck through choices? Can we be rewarded for our hard work (choices)? Can we be held morally responsible for our actions? Do we have free will? Was Einstein right?
Divanshu Sethi is the philosophy section editor for Catharsis Magazine. He holds a masters degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science and bachelors in Economics and Business from University College London.