Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Was it luck?

I think I’ve written about this topic before, but I just saw this TED talk that got me thinking about it again. In this talk, the speaker describes an experiment in which he sets up a rigged Monopoly game between two randomly selected contestants, rigged in the sense that one of the contestants gets way more money and so forth than the other. The interesting thing is that even though both contestants plainly know that the game is rigged and that’s why the rigged contestant wins, when questioned about why she or he won, the winner will say that it was due to their good strategy or good moves or whatever. Apparently, this sort of rationalization is a common psychological reaction.

I wonder if the same thing is at play in scientists. I think that if you ask most successful scientists, they would say that they succeeded due to hard work and a bit of talent, perhaps even pointing out a couple of particular insights that they made along the way. Some might say luck, but probably many of them don’t really mean it. But when look at my own career so far, I have to admit that whatever modicum of success I’ve had is perhaps more stumbled into than earned. I mean, how many choices did I really make, at least that were really consequential? How many were instead the product of the sheer luck of someone knowing someone in the right place at the right time? They say fortune favors the prepared mind, but I think it’s even more true that fortune favors the fortunate.

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