On hard luck and hard work

A couple of recent posts have stimulated discussions into the relative roles of luck and hard work in a successful scientific career, and have led me to revisit one of my favourite popular science books of recent years, The Drunkard’s Walk by Leonard Mlodinow. This is an excellent and – trust me – entertaining primer on the basics of probability and statistics that every science graduate ought to know (indeed, given the importance of understanding risk in medicine, the judicial process, etc. – and Mlodinow provides the clearest description of the prosecutor’s fallacy that I’ve read – any well-informed citizen should see it as their duty to be familiar with these principles). But the book’s subtitle, How Randomness Rules our Lives, gives a clue as to Mlodinow’s wider thesis, re. the pre-eminent role that chance plays in picking out the specific path our personal and professional lives wend through the chaos of the possible. And this is chaos in a formal sense, in that outcomes are enormously sensitive to small changes in initial conditions:

When we look back in detail on the major events of our lives, it is not uncommon to be able to identify… seemingly inconsequential random events that led to big changes

Certainly, when I think, for example, of all the jobs I’ve nearly been offered, I can see a panoply of alternative mes living rather different lives. But while I’m sure we can all appreciate that luck (good or bad) has been important in our own life histories, where Mlodinow is very good is in turning this same insight to examine, post hoc, success and failure in others.

For instance, he tracks the company performance of 500 imaginary CEOs, each with exactly the same probability of ‘success’ (however defined) each year; and then uses simple probability to illustrate the wildly differing fortunes of these CEOs after 5 years – differences entirely due to chance. Of course, what happens is that

Executives’ winning years are attributed to their brilliance, explained retroactively through incisive hindsight.

And likewise, the losers are judged to have lost because of their relative lack of talent and ability. And what applies to CEOs applies equally in other walks of life, including sports coaches and, of course, scientists. As Mlodinow puts it:

We miss the effects of randomness in life because when we assess the world, we tend to see what we expect to see. We in effect define degree of talent by degree of success and then reinforce our feelings of causality by noting the correlation.

There’s a good psychological reason why we make this leap from correlation to causation. Mlodinow quotes renowned social psychologist Melvin J. Lerner:

Realising that ‘few people would engage in extended activity if they believed that there were a random connection between what they did an the rewards they achieved,’ Lerner concluded that ‘for the sake of their own sanity,’ people overestimate the degree to which ability can be inferred from success.

Elsewhere, he quotes Bernoulli: “One should not appraise human action on the basis of its results”, but whilst it is easy to agree with Mlodinow’s assertion that “…all who strive to achieve… should be judged more by their abilities than by their success”, it does beg the question, how do we judge ability, if success is not allowed to be a criterion? A further complication (certainly in science), is that I suspect that ability may very well develop as a result of success. For instance, if you succeed (against a field of similarly able candidates) in securing a long-term research fellowship, complete with significant financial, administrative and – well – moral support, chances are you will develop over that time into a much more able scientist that when you started.

The one place where I find myself disagreeing with Mlodinow, however, comes right at the end, where the ‘life lessons’ are expounded, and Mlodinow makes the following claim, regarding the positive effects of realising that chance is important in life:

What I’ve learned, above all, is to keep marching forward because the best news is that since chance does play a role, one important factor in success is under our control: the number of at bats, the number of chances taken, the number of opportunities seized.

The basic thesis: that life’s unfair, that some people have all the talent or get the breaks; but through hard work and persistence you can overcome these obstacles to become successful. It’s hard to argue with the basic premise of what is, in effect, the American Dream. But, what’s implicit here is that an ability to work hard is somehow different from any other ability. When this assumption is made about other abilities, it sounds silly (brilliant cricketer Viv Richards was a notoriously poor coach, because he couldn’t understand why his charges weren’t simply able to be brilliant at cricket); but people who thrive on 5 or 6 hours sleep, who are completely driven to succeed, and who dedicate their every waking moment to that end, see this as a state that anyone could achieve if they put their mind to it. My contention is that having that drive is as innate as King Viv’s majestic flick over midwicket.