Why You Need More than Talent and Hard Work

Given two equally skilled people, what determines which one of them will succeed? The answer may surprise you: It will likely be due to luck. In our hyper competitive world, talent and hard work are no longer enough. Yet most successful people don't admit how big a part luck, or chance, played in their success.

I, too, had bought into the myth that if we didn't have the success we had hoped for, it was because we weren't good enough or didn't work hard enough. So I was surprised when I read an article by Michiel de Hogg the other day in The Correspondent that outlined the extent that luck plays in success. Here's a summary of his main points.

In 2019, Molina, Bucca, & Macy (2019) wanted to test the premise that most successful people don't admit the extent to which luck was instrumental to their success.  They created the Swap game, a game that was clearly unfair and where winning was due purely to chance. They found that "winners were more likely than losers to see outcomes as attributable to talent, although talent played no role in the game, and . . . [winners] were more likely than losers to regard unequal outcomes as fair. Winners were also more likely to express personal satisfaction with the outcomes, even when they perceived the game as unfair and unrelated to talent."

The authors concluded that "in short, it’s not just how the game is played, it’s also whether you win or lose."

Does this mean that self-made men and women are a myth?

Michiel de Hogg writes that "success is the sum of talent, hard work and luck. When many talented, hardworking people have to compete for success, the difference in quality between the best of the best is only minimal. The consequence? A highly skilled participant experiencing a little bit of bad luck will lose to a slightly less skilled participant who is luckier."

Economist Robert H. Frank computed the chance of not winning using different numbers of competitors in the pool. Here, assuming that if 90% of the result is due to hard work and talent and 10% is due to luck, in a pool of "1,000/10,000/100,000 participants, the best candidate will NOT win 69%/83.1%/92.3% of the time respectively." These are staggering odds against success!

"The best candidate only wins in a small number of cases. In a hyper-competitive economy, chance determines who wins more often than not, and more so than in the past . . . at the same time, the awareness of the role of chance or luck decreases. In other words: the belief in one’s own ability, in the self-made nature of achievement, that one owes success to oneself, increases."

To answer the question, yes, self-made men and women are largely a myth.

"Success is partly determined by chance, and once you are successful, you will get opportunities to become more successful.”

If success has been eluding you, it's not entirely your fault: The system favours people who are already successful.

What are you doing to increase your luck? Working with a mentor? Expanding your network? Other ideas? 


De Hogg, M. (2020, February 27). Successful people rarely admit how lucky they were. Here’s why they should. The Correspondent.

Frank, R. H. (2016). Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy. Princeton University Press.

Molina, M.D., Bucca, M. & Macy, M.W. (2019). It’s not just how the game is played, it’s whether you win or lose. Science Advances 5, eaau1156.

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