The Paradox of Luck

By Joe Isbister

What are the chances of you existing at all? This was the question that Ali Binazir, the critically acclaimed author and self-described ‘Happiness Engineer’ asked himself. The answer he arrived at: 1 in 102,685,000. Or 10 followed by 2,685,000 zeroes.

It is easy to see how such a large number is arrived at, when you consider the logical walk-through of the series of events that are needed, just to get to this moment in time. What is the probability of your father meeting your mother? What is the probability that they stay together long enough to have children? A female has about 100,000 eggs in her lifetime. A male will produce around 4 trillion sperm during their reproductive years. What are the odds of that one egg meeting the one sperm that made you? You get the idea. In whatever way you crunch the numbers, the numbers are astronomical. Clearly, luck has played a part in your very existence.

But what about after you are born? What role does luck play in your success through life? In your career and in your personal life? We are often led to believe that achievement and success is the result of talent, hard-work and dedication. Whilst these are clearly crucial ingredients, which increase the chances of success, it turns out you also need a bit of luck, and probably more luck than you think.

Is Success luck or hard work?

Take a look at the following video by Derek Muller, a talented You Tuber, who produces videos on science, education and anything else that he finds interesting. In this video, he takes a critical and honest look at how luck shapes our lives, how we open ourselves up to biases about this and crucially, what we can do with this information.

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So, it turns out that if you want to become a professional hockey player, you will need hard work, determination, great coaches and supportive parents. But it also helps if you are born in January. If you are a world-class athlete and you want to break a world-record, you are going to need to be world-class, but it also really helps when the wind is blowing in the right direction. If you want to earn more as an adult. It helps if you are born in an already prosperous country. Being talented and hard-working is important. But it is not enough to guarantee success. You also need to catch a break.

The recent COVID-19 pandemic, something we have all experienced, is a good recent illustration of how it is important to keep our eyes open to luck factors. At first glance, you might say that it was bad luck that a new Corona virus was able to transfer to humans and begin a world-wide pandemic. A once in a 100-year event. However, take a moment to consider how things might have panned out differently if this was 100 years ago. You only need to look at the devastation what was caused by the Spanish Flu to answer that question. Living in an age of quick communication and Science-led thinking, meant it was possible to mount a collective global response to a global problem. It was this Science-led thinking, which has led to the creation of multiple vaccines, less than a year after the first emergence of COVID-19.

Although once again, luck was involved here. As strange as it sounds, it was lucky that the pandemic was caused by a Coronavirus. This family of viruses had a history of jumping from humans to animals; Sars Coronavirus in 2002 and Mers Coronavirus in 2012. This meant that scientists already knew the virus’s underlying biology. Based on prior work with the Sars and Mers Coronaviruses, the team at Oxford knew that if they could produce a vaccine which could train the immune system to attack the spike in the Corona virus, they were odds-on to succeed. Yet still luck was needed. Whilst in Stage 3 Trials, a dosing error meant that portion of participants only received half a dose of the vaccine, followed by a usual full dose. This was noticed through the reporting of less side-effects and a greater efficacy amongst this group of around 90% (rather than 62% in the other participants).

It turns out, in order to solve a global epidemic, you need more than just scientific brilliance, dedication and hard-work. You need also need to be born in a Science-led epoch, experience a couple of ‘near misses’ and profit from an accidental dosing error. To top it off, in order to benefit from this, at least early on, it helps if you were born in a more prosperous country.

So, it is clear that luck plays a big part in any success. Where this video really comes alive is in knowing what to do with that information. As pointed out, we have a distorted view of reality (a ‘reality bias’). Hard work, dedication and talent is something which comes from us. Something we can see and do. It is a comforting thought to think that everything that happens to us is within our control and as a result of our own efforts and choices. By contrast, luck is not something we did.

Luck events can be subtle. Luck can act invisible force, resting on conditions that we can take for granted. Thus, it plays out in the background, shaping both our personal and professional lives. Determining our very existence. It is less comforting to admit that much of our success is down to something outside of our control.

Yet if we continue to ignore this, we can become prone to entitlement, arrogance and being less generous. Easier to accept inequality. After all, we may have our own experience of success, with our success being attributed to the very visible hard work and dedication we have put in. However, if we do not acknowledge how luck has played a part, we have fallen guilty to ‘survivor bias’. We have not incorporated the experience of other people who have also worked hard and been dedicated but who may not have experienced as much success. As Derek Muller’s online content highlights, research suggests that being mindful of these things will make us more:

  • Happier and humble: Recognising that you are where you are, through a combination of hard work, dedication and chance. Bringing us closer to gratitude.
  • Generous. Making it more likely you will do what you can to increase the luck of others.
  • Resilient: Recognising when luck forces are at play, both good or bad, which are ultimately outside of your sphere of influence.

Here comes the clever bit. As concluded in the video, perhaps the value in knowing about luck lies in holding the following contradictory paradox in mind: Believing that you are in charge of your own destiny and your successes are down to your own talent and hard work. But also knowing that this is not true, for you or anybody else. This way, you keep the self-efficacy and confidence needed to challenge yourself and grow, whilst also benefitting from being happier, humble, more generous and resilient.

Thank you, luck!

Thank you for existence. Thank you for helping with the personal and professional successes (and the failures even). Thank you for the chance to live in an age where Science can come to the rescue in a global pandemic. Thank you for the chance to live at a time when brilliant content (such as Derek Muller’s videos) can be shared on content sharing platforms and accessed by millions of people, helping to educate, inspire and expand people’s thinking. How fortunate to have a mind that is able to add to this thinking and to be able to benefit from it. What are the odds on that?