Talent or Luck: The One Lie Everyone Keeps Telling Themselves

Riley Blue

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A recent survey by The New York Times among families who homeschool children under 12 suggested that nearly half of men say they do most of the work. Only 3% of women agree.

According to a recent video by the Australian filmmaker Derek Muller, this is clearly a case of egocentric bias the tendency to rely too heavily on one’s own perspective and have a higher opinion of oneself than reality. In other words, most people think they do most of the work.

Studies have shown that when married couples are asked what percentage of the household work they do, the combined total is almost always over 100%. But there’s another side to this egocentric bias. When couples were asked how many fights they start or how much mess they create, the total is also more than 100%. This is only possible because:

  • Most people think they do most of the work.
  • They also think they cause most of the problems.

A possible explanation for this could be that most people vividly remember all they do, but not all of what everyone else does. In other words, people overestimate their own contribution and underestimate others.

This raises an important question: how far does the egocentric bias blind you? And does it make you underestimate the influence of other things in your life? For example, is everything you’ve accomplished a direct result of your hard work? Or have you underestimated the role luck played in your success? This post is an attempt to take a look at exactly that and how egocentric bias might be fooling us all.

If you knew exactly how much hard work is needed to get to where you want to be, you’d probably give up before starting.

Good Luck or Hard Work?

Imagine if you were to ask a professional hockey player how they managed to reach the NHL. Their reply would probably be a combination of years spent in training, a good coach, and their family’s support. However, very few of them would probably acknowledge that something utterly random like their birth month led to their success.

A very interesting study published by the Research Quarterly for Exercise establishes that a person born in the first quarter of the year is four times as likely to be a professional hockey player than a person born in the latter quarter of the year. The likely reason for this disparity is that the cut-off date for kids’ hockey leagues is January 1st. Children born in the first quarter of the year are older, and so, on average, faster and stronger than kids in their league born late in the year. As they grow older, this difference should have shrunk to nothing, but the young kids who show more promise are given more attention by the coaches. This translates to better abilities and skills as adults.

But would any professional hockey player attribute their birthday to their success? Probably not. How similar are we to that? How oblivious are we to our good fortune that has led to our success?

If you’re reading this, the most significant bit of luck you’ve enjoyed is probably the country you were born in. If you were born in South Sudan, for example, which has the world’s lowest per capita income of just 275 USD per year, you probably wouldn’t have the time or luxury to spend time reading on Medium. No matter how smart or hard-working you are, you’d be so consumed with earning enough to stay alive, you probably wouldn’t get the chance to look up articles about personal development on the internet.

But you weren’t born in South Sudan, and so, here you are. Yet, how many mornings do you wake up feeling grateful for being born in your country?

“Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.”
— Warren Buffett

Here are some other examples that bring to light just how important luck is:

When the competition is fierce, being talented and hard-working is important, but not enough to guarantee success. You also need good fortune on your side.

Do Luck and Skill have to be Mutually Exclusive?

Many people might get offended if you tell them how big a role luck played in their success. To be honest, this is understandable. No one likes to believe their hard work was all for nothing.

The truth is: you need both. Luck and skill don’t have to be mutually exclusive. When the competition is fierce, being talented and hard-working is important, but not enough to guarantee success. You also need good fortune on your side. Robert H. Frank, a professor of Economics at Cornell University, who has done extensive research focussing on this theme in his book, Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy, observes:

“Even when luck has only a minor influence on performance, the most talented and hardworking of all contestants will usually be outdone by a rival who is almost as talented and hardworking but also considerably luckier.”

Mostly, people are unaware of their good luck because it doesn’t directly depend on something they did. Like the share in house-work done by their partner, the role of luck in their life goes unappreciated.

When you downplay the importance of luck on your success, you tend to put more focus on improving your skills. This is a good thing because if you were aware of how big a role chance plays, you’d be less likely to spend time bettering that skill. This would, in turn, decrease your chances of success.

No wonder it’s a useful delusion to believe that you’re in full control of your destiny. If you knew exactly how much hard work is needed to get to where you want to be, you’d probably give up before starting.

If you don’t realize the importance of luck in your life, you most probably hold a distorted view of reality.

The Benefit of Overlooking Your Lucky Breaks

In the “Cookie Monster Experiment” performed by Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, it was established that once you have achieved a certain status, it’s natural to feel that you deserve it.

In Keltner’s own words, “I brought people into a lab in groups of three, randomly assigned one to a position of leadership, and then gave them a group writing task. A half-hour into their work, I placed a plate of freshly baked cookies — one for each team member, plus an extra — in front of everyone. In all groups, each person took one and, out of politeness, left the extra cookie. The question was: Who would take a second treat, knowing that it would deprive others of the same? It was nearly always the person who’d been named the leader.” This was true even though the role of team leader had been randomly assigned and the person had no extra responsibilities or qualifications.

This can be translated into a real-world scenario of the entitlement a person feels once they achieve a certain status. If you have a lot of wealth and power, you easily attribute them to your hard work. This leads you to believe that you’ve earned them, which in turn makes it easier for you to accept your place in society. In other words, once you achieve a certain status, you feel you deserve every good thing that comes your way.

It’s a useful delusion to believe that you’re in full control of your destiny.

Is It Okay to Disregard Good Luck All the Time?

If you don’t realize the importance of luck in your life, you most probably hold a distorted view of reality.

The world appears fair to the people who work hard and succeed. In their experience, hard work is rewarded. However, there might be an equal, if not more, number of people who failed despite their hard work. In society, such people are often looked down upon. You assume they are not as talented as you are.

Because you believe everything you’ve built is a direct consequence of your skill and hard work, it makes you less generous to give back to the world. Ultimately the rich and powerful are the ones who set the rules of how society operates. And that is why it’s become common to glorify the role of hard work and disregard the under-achievers.

Once you’ve achieved a certain status, it’s natural to feel that you deserve it.

Final Words

When you attribute your success to luck, you tend to feel more grateful. A 2003 study found that people who practiced gratitude showed higher levels of well-being compared to people who were neutral. Being grateful for your good fortune has also been proved to motivate people to work harder and be more productive.

When you know that your talent isn’t the only reason for your success, you’ll accept the fact that you aren’t in control all the time. This will make you more aware of how unfortunate some of your peers might have been, and will make you see their struggles in a kinder light.

If you acknowledge that luck played an important role in your success, you’ll be more likely to actively work towards making the world better for the less fortunate. This will not only give you immense satisfaction and happiness but will also make you kinder and more considerate.

Yes, luck is not everything. But acknowledging the role of luck goes a long way in making you a better person.

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