Luck vs. skill

There are parts of how something turns out that are within your control. This set of knowledge, actions, and beliefs, you can call “skill,” “hard work,” or “effort.” Your judgement of what’s in your control is known as “wisdom” or “reason.”

For some people, it’s useful to believe that you can achieve positive outcomes largely through skill. Taken to its extreme, one possibility is that everybody gets what they deserve, which isn’t true. This extreme statement goes, “If you don’t get what you want, you just didn’t work hard enough.” 

In poker, you get to control how you play your hand—but you don’t get to control what hand you are dealt. It’s clear luck is an undeniable factor. If you’re intellectually honest and have a drop of introspection in you, and you are in a position where you experience more and more positive outcomes—let’s call it “success”—you might realize just how much luck you had in the process. How many worst case scenarios you planned for that didn’t happen. How many breaks you got in spite of their own naivete. How many decisions you flipped a coin on. Your good health. Who you were born to and where. Who gave you a chance. You were dealt a good hand.

If somebody asks you to explain your successes so that they can learn and improve their lives, you talk more about these aspects. You don’t want to make someone feel bad, and you know how unfair life can be. You want to make a clear assessment of things.

When you take this perspective to the extreme, the story sounds more like nobody gets what they deserve. This extreme statement sounds more like, “If you get what you want, you were born in the right place at the right time.” You discount the effect of skill, hard work, effort, and decision making. 

Unfortunately, you also overlook a critical dynamic: that in life, what you believe will affect how you behave. For example, if you shift your focus to factors that are out of your control—luck—then you will miss some of the factors in your control—skill. If you don’t think your skills will count for much, then you won’t invest the hard work and money to develop them, which means other people with better skills will be more competitive than you for opportunities.

If you’re doing things with long odds of success, you’re not helped by either extreme—ignoring the effects of luck or skill. You need to plan for the most likely situation that bad luck plays out and you don’t get what you want, but also to develop your skills so you do get what you want. You need to accept inconvenient facts, and keep the faith.

There’s room for a more balanced conversation, as well as a more honest exchange of beliefs. One nice way to put it goes like this, “If a random guy off the street asks me how I became successful, it’s humble to say, ‘I got lucky.’ If my kid asks me how they can be successful, I won’t say a word about luck. I’ll tell them to work their ass off.”

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