Is Success Luck or Hard Work?

Video by Veritasium.

Very nice explanation of something I always knew well: huge part of our successes and generally ending up where we end up (be it well off, or not so well off) is due to coincidence. You can call it luck, or just a chance.

This is true in many professions too. For instance getting a professorship and generally success in academic environment is only partially due to one’s skill, I claim that besides that, perhaps the single most important factor is the choice of the mentor. Partly already an MSc. thesis advisor, but most importantly PhD. advisor. Germans call that fittingly “Doktorvater”.

In essence, we shall be aware of the role luck plays in our lives. Partly this should tone down the implicit feeling of entitlement many have - it all could have been very different if not for a series of small events here and there. Sometimes they are very hard to even identify.

So you cannot “get lucky”, right? Because that is the precise definition of luck:


  1. events that are beyond control and seem subject to chance; fortune

The free dictionary

But the thing is, luck can partly be engineered. You cannot predict what exactly will happen to you in life, but you certainly can increase your chances of getting lucky. We call this sometimes “serendipity”:


  1. an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident.
  2. good fortune; luck.

The free dictionary

The keyword is aptitude. So how can one engineer a bit of luck? Change your context! There are geographical and social localtions where opportunities are more abundant than elsewhere. Moving to a larger, more vibrant city is an obvious one. If you want to eventually bump into somebody who can help you to move where you want to be, what is the likelihood of that happening in a remote village of 600 people? And conversely, what is the likelihood that the same will happen in New York? Another idea is to constantly build one’s social networking. Knowing many people, even if casually as in being on a talking basis extends ones abilities. If you mess with the world a lot, you’ll develop needs to find out about something, or to get somewhere, for instance getting your next job. A broad social network is useful for this. You pull it and it tends to respond. You still need to be qualified for the next job, sure, but the network can tell you that such a job even exists. Job boards are always only second-best option to employers. Smart people tend to have smart friends. Is it fair? Perhaps not. Does it work like this? Sure.

Other interesting tidbits from the video

I really like the initial remarks on egocentric bias: how people remember what they did, but obviously do not what others did (because they don’t see it). In turn, we overestimate our share of anything: amount of chores we do at home, contribution to professional successes at work, but also the blame for the amount of arguments we have. Very to the point.

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