A Cornell economist who studies luck says the more you acknowledge good fortune, the better off you are

Some people have all the luck.
Some people have all the luck.
Image: Flickr/angeladellatorre/CC 2.0
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“Luck is not a subject you can mention in the presence of self-made men,” the writer E.B. White once observed. Indeed, many accomplished people bristle at the suggestion that chance played a role in their success, preferring to attribute their achievements to talent and hard work alone.

Yet even in the most competitive arenas, it is almost impossible to make it to the top without having also enjoyed at least a bit of good fortune along the way. And as luck would have it, acknowledging that simple fact may actually make us more likely to succeed.

The butterfly effect

Careers typically unfold in thousands of tiny steps, each dependent on all that came before it. If even a single, seemingly insignificant, step had been different—if a teacher hadn’t helped keep you out of trouble in the eleventh grade, if you hadn’t read a particular magazine article in a dentist’s waiting room—the trajectory’s course would have shifted slightly. And the cumulative effects of even tiny early course changes can transform spectacular successes into abject failures.

One of my own early lucky breaks came in the form of a supportive mentor, Edward M. Gramlich, who spent a year as a visiting member of Cornell’s economics department during my fourth year of teaching there. At the time, I had no published papers other than one I’d written as a graduate student, and none of my senior colleagues had taken much interest in my work. Although I was doing a good job in the classroom, I was clearly on a path toward dismissal at my scheduled tenure review two years later. But Ned found some of my ideas intriguing and encouraged me to write a paper for a volume he was assembling. I went right to work and was pleased with my first draft.

Shortly after I’d given him a copy, however, he came to my office with a crestfallen expression. He announced that the editor of the series in which the volume was to have appeared had just called to say that the project had been cancelled. Bad luck!

Or so it seemed. On a lark, I sent the paper to Econometrica, one of the most prestigious and selective journals in economics. Less than two months later, I received an acceptance letter from the editor with no demands for substantive revisions. Encouraged by that success, I dashed off a simple extension of the paper and submitted it to another leading journal. That editor’s acceptance letter arrived only a few weeks later, again with no demand for significant changes. Those papers spawned three more papers that I sent out for review the following summer. Bang, bang, bang, I quickly received acceptance letters from another three top-tier economics journals, and once more, there were no demands for substantive revisions.

In striking contrast, most of the scores of papers I’ve published since those early years were rejected by at least one journal, some by as many as four. Only in a few instances did I even receive an editorial decision before six months or more had elapsed. When my papers weren’t rejected outright, editors invariably demanded extensive revisions, with no promise to publish before the changes had been carefully vetted, a step that extended the review process by at least several more months.

I remain proud of some of those first papers I submitted, but I firmly believe that the ones I’ve written in the years since are of generally higher quality. The only plausible conclusion is that my early run of editorial success, and my subsequent ability to remain at Cornell, occurred against astronomically long odds.

Virtually every career path constitutes what the cognitive psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman have called a conjunctive process. To succeed, each of a long sequence of events must occur. “Even when each of these events is very likely,” they wrote, “the overall probability of success can be quite low if the number of events is large.” Tversky and Kahneman demonstrated the existence of a widespread tendency for people to overestimate the likelihood of success of conjunctive processes.

When we see a successful outcome, our tendency it to think that it must have been inevitable. But again, each of the hundreds or thousands of steps along a typical career path depends on all the ones preceding it. Even tiny early course changes will usually transform the final outcome dramatically.

The upshot is that, sincere or not, successful people who believe they made it entirely on their own are almost certainly mistaken. It’s a mistake that matters, because claiming far more credit than you actually deserve makes you less attractive to others. As Adam Smith wrote, “The man who esteems himself as he ought, and no more than he ought, seldom fails to obtain from other people all the esteem that he himself thinks due. He desires no more than is due to him, and he rests upon it with complete satisfaction.” Less sanguine, however, are the prospects of those who esteem themselves more than they ought.

Claiming more credit than you’re due can be costly in part because most of the biggest economic success stories are team efforts. Almost everyone wants to enjoy the benefits of collaborating with talented teammates. But because talented people who can work well together are in short supply, they’re in a position to be extremely selective about membership in their circle. Being seen as an attractive team member is an enormous economic advantage, but it’s a status that must be earned.

Team efforts

What qualities make someone an attractive teammate? Most cultures, especially those in the West, celebrate ambition as a personal quality, and members of successful teams generally possess that quality in abundance. But most cultures also recognize that beyond a certain point, ambition can become a liability. When the desire to get ahead becomes too intense, it can lead people to put their own narrow interests ahead of the team’s.

Former Apple senior vice president Scott Forstall is an instructive case in point. He was the chief architect of the iOS operating system that powers the iPhone and iPad, the meteoric sales growth of which made Apple the most profitable company in history. He had been the longtime protégé of Apple cofounder Steve Jobs, was universally acknowledged as an extraordinary engineering talent, and was often mentioned as a potential future Apple CEO.

Yet few press accounts of him during his heyday at the company failed to mention that he was unusually ambitious. According to Bloomberg Business, some associates described him off the record as someone who “routinely takes credit for collaborative successes, deflects blame for mistakes.” And when Forstall was dismissed in October 2012, Apple CEO Tim Cook explained that the move was necessary to preserve the company’s collaborative culture. In the eyes of Forstall’s teammates, apparently, he was a man who esteemed himself more than he should have. It’s a surprisingly widespread tendency, if rarely to the same degree as in Forstall’s case.

Lucky us

To what extent does one’s willingness to acknowledge your good fortune affect your attractiveness as a teammate? To explore this question further, I asked two groups of subjects to read contrasting versions of an excerpt of an interview with a person named Harold Johnson, who was described as a highly successful biotechnology entrepreneur. Although the excerpt was reportedly a segment on 60 Minutes, Johnson is in fact a hypothetical person. The details of his story are completely fictional.

The first 350 words of the transcripts portrayed Johnson as highly competent and confident, if not especially likable. The two versions differed only in their concluding paragraphs. In what I’ll call the skill version, Johnson emphasized that his company’s success was primarily a consequence of skill and hard work:

But success didn’t just fall into our laps. We’ve worked hard, and my partner’s experience and market intuition were undoubtedly important factors. But lots of people work hard, and lots of MBAs are market-savvy. The real breakthroughs in our lab were highly technical, and I’m probably the only one who could have made them happen.

In the luck version, Johnson said nothing further about his skill and effort. Instead, he noted that his company might not have been nearly as successful except for a few lucky breaks:

We’ve worked hard, but we’ve also been lucky. I got to speak at that Berkeley conference only because another speaker canceled at the last minute. If those investors hadn’t happened to be there, if they hadn’t seen some promise in the work, I don’t know if any of the real magic in our lab would’ve happened.

One or the other of these versions was assigned at random to two groups of roughly 300 subjects recruited online. One group read only the luck version, the other only the skill version.

After reading the excerpts, subjects were asked to respond to three questions: how likely they would be to hire Johnson; how likely Johnson seemed to be the kind of person who valued kindness; and whether they would be likely to befriend Johnson if the opportunity arose.

In an early pilot study in which the subjects were MBA students, those who read the luck version were significantly more favorably disposed toward Johnson than those who read the version in which he emphasized his exceptional skill. In a follow-up study involving subjects recruited online, the differences in response patterns were smaller and less consistent. But here too those who read the version of the interview in which Johnson acknowledged luck’s role in his success had a generally more favorable opinion of the man. They thought that they’d be more likely to befriend him and that he’d be more likely to value kindness toward others, suggesting they saw the Johnson portrayed in the luck version as the more attractive potential teammate. These findings are also in line with the conventional view that modesty is an attractive personal quality.

In short, it’s often in your interest to acknowledge luck’s role in your success—if only because people will think better of you for having done so. Evidence also suggests that being grateful for your good fortune will make you feel happier. And by making you a more attractive potential teammate, you’ll also be more likely to prosper.