Is Success Luck or Hard Work?


During the COVID lockdown, a headline went viral: “Nearly half of men say they do most of the homeschooling… three percent of women agree.”

This isn’t about who’s right, but it perfectly illustrates something called egocentric bias: most people think they do most of the work.

Overestimating Our Contributions

Researchers have found that when multi-author paper writers are asked how much they contributed, the total often adds up to 140%.

Similarly, when couples estimate their share of housework, the combined total almost always exceeds 100%.

This isn’t about trying to seem more helpful. Even when asked who starts fights or makes the most mess, the total still exceeds 100%.

The Cause of Egocentric Bias

Why? Because we vividly experience and remember our own actions but not everyone else’s.

Naturally, we overestimate our contributions and underestimate others. This bias also makes us downplay other influences on our lives, like luck.

The Role of Luck in Success

Take hockey players, for instance. Ask a pro how they reached the NHL, and they’ll credit hard work, determination, great coaching, and supportive parents.

Rarely will they mention their January birthday. Yet, many years, 40% of top-tier hockey players are born in the first quarter of the year compared to just 10% in the fourth quarter. The reason?

Kids born early in the year are older, bigger, and faster than their younger peers. This advantage compounds over time with more ice time, better coaching, and more opportunities.

The Invisible Hand of Luck

Does any hockey player feel grateful for their January birthday? Probably not. We are often oblivious to the fortunate events that shape our success.

One of the biggest strokes of luck many of us enjoy is being born into a prosperous country.

Half of the income variance worldwide is explained by the country of residence and its income distribution.

In Burundi, for example, where the annual income is $730, intelligence and hard work alone won’t yield high earnings.

The Offense of Luck

Pointing out the role of luck in success can offend people. It might seem like it undermines hard work and talent, but the truth is, both skill and luck are necessary for success.

Consider these track and field world records: all record-holding athletes are world-class and dedicated, yet seven out of eight had a tailwind when setting their records.

Skill got them there, but a bit of luck set the record.

The Importance of Luck in Competitive Fields

The importance of luck is more evident when competition is fierce. In 2017, over 18,300 applicants vied for 11 spots in NASA’s astronaut training program.

Simulating this selection process, assuming 95% skill and 5% luck, showed that those selected had an average luck score of 94.7.

Without luck, only 1.6 of the 11 selected would have made it based solely on skill.

The Unseen Contribution of Luck

We underestimate our good luck because it’s not something we did. Like unnoticed housework, it goes unappreciated.

Ironically, downplaying luck might actually improve your success because if you see an outcome as uncertain, you might not try hard enough, further decreasing your chances.

Justifying Success and Inequality

Overlooking lucky breaks also justifies our place in society. Wealthy or powerful individuals often credit their success to intelligence, effort, and perseverance, making it easier to accept inequality.

In one experiment, participants were randomly made team leaders. After 30 minutes, when given four cookies, the leader invariably took the extra one, even though their position was pure chance.

The Benefits of Acknowledging Luck

Acknowledging our fortunate circumstances can align us with reality and make us more likable. In a study, a biotech entrepreneur was seen as kinder and more likely to be a close friend when he credited luck for his success.

Recognizing luck also fosters gratitude.

For example, I’m grateful to Michael Stevens of Vsauce, whose shout-out boosted my subscribers, and to a free newspaper article’s error, leading me to post a picture and meet my future wife.

The Cruel Trick of Psychology

Our psychology makes successful people credit their achievements to their hard work, making them less generous.

This is a form of survivor bias: successful people see the world as fair because they’ve succeeded, unaware of those who worked hard and failed.

This perspective reduces their inclination to give back.

Combining Skill and Luck for Success

Acknowledging our luck doesn’t diminish our achievements. It makes us more empathetic and willing to help others.

The best advice for success? Believe you control your destiny through talent and hard work, but remember, luck plays a significant role for everyone.

If you succeed, acknowledge your good fortune and help increase the luck of others.