On the role of luck in life!

When giving up is not a good idea

Lets play a game. You get to roll a ‘fair’ dice as many times as you want. The default payout is zero i.e. you get nothing for any random combination of numbers that show up. However, for each consecutive six-sixes that you manage to roll you will receive a sum ranging anywhere from 10 dollars to 100,000 dollars. Would you like to play ?

A simple calculation will reveal that in an ideal world your chances of getting a combination of six-sixes in a row from completely random throws is barely over one in half a million. Lets put this into perspective: assume it takes you just one second to roll the dice before you pick it up and cast again. Hence, if you decide to play (realistically) for one hour a day, it would take you almost 139 days (~ five months) to be able to achieve this combination just once. However, most players of the board game ‘ Ludo’ would would be quick to realize that not only is it possible but highly probable to achieve this combination several times during a single round of playing (typically one hour). Take away message: the world we live in is far from ideal.

Fat tails and large payouts

The scenario I described above belongs to a category known as fat-tailed payouts. Essentially, it means that for such processes the default outcome is almost always ‘failure’ or zero. However, given enough time and attempts such processes tend to generate disproportionately large and unexpected outcomes. Taken to its logical extreme, such process can also end up producing a (positive) black swan: an event/outcome with life-changing consequences, which is very difficult to predict but makes complete sense in hind sight.

Furthermore, as in the dice-game example described above, the longer you play the better your chances get and eventually the frequency of payouts could also increase. A wide variety of professions and events display a fat-tailed distribution including scientific research, publishing a book/article, starting a business, searching for a new job, and even meeting your (potential) life partner. Many of us can often immediately recall, in vivid detail, our first chance encounter with our partner or that opening which ultimately landed them with their current position. These are all examples of fat-tail payouts or events in which luck seems to have a large role. Indeed, the only people who can safely ignore the role of luck in their life are ones who have directly benefited from it and are blissfully unaware of the fact. For the rest of us, it can be disheartening at times to realize that several important aspects of our lives including professional and personal success are determined through chance. Nevertheless, there might be a way of improving the odds and tip the scales ever so slightly in our favor.

Gaining the favors of lady Fortuna

Before we can begin to develop a methodology for success, it is important to determine whether that what we are trying to achieve belongs to either extremistan or mediocristan i.e. the outcome does or does not belong to the category of fat-tailed outcomes, respectively. Once it is ascertained that an event or process does indeed belong to the former category we can begin to shape a plan of action.

Nobel-prize winning psychologist Prof. Daniel Khaneman was once asked by John Brockman of the Edge magazine for his favorite equation. Prof. Khaneman replied:

  • success = talent + luck
  • great success = a little more talent + a lot more luck

Many people I know, and I travel in rather well-read circles, often find this equation to be a bit controversial. However, the only controversial thing about the above equation, according to me, is whether the ‘+’ sign should be replaced with a ‘*’ (multiplication) sign.

Road-map for success in a fat-tailed environment

Over time I have a found a way to make the underlying message a bit more palatable. It is still not enough to convince everyone I know, but that was never my intention in the first place. We can begin with something a bit more familiar and a lot less controversial.

  • success = preparedness + opportunity

Most people (to some extent) agree with the above description of success, which makes it a good place to start. Now, let us deconstruct the above equation into its more fundamental components.

  • preparedness = (talent + practice)

Preparedness of an individual can be easily defined by the amount of talent or skill they possess along with their readiness to apply it. Readiness itself is a function of how frequently the said skill is practiced. Moreover, most skills can be acquired through regular practice, making practice more important of the two variables. Similarly, the second term ‘ opportunity’ can also be broken down into its more basic attributes as follows.

  • opportunity = (exposure frequency + favorable circumstances)

Frequency of exposure is self explanatory and simply translates to the number of attempts made by an individual. One can increase the exposure frequency simply by maximizing participation. However, it is the second term of ‘ favorable circumstances’ where chance plays the biggest role. It is also the only variable so far that may be completely outside our control. Nevertheless, if we consider the fact that only a certain percentage of all occasions are presented as favorable, by merely increasing participation the frequency of chance encounters is also increased. With this knowledge in mind we can re-write success as:

success = talent + practice + exposure frequency + favorable circumstances

The now ‘redefined’ equation for success makes it easy to visualize that of the four factors responsible for success, three are directly influenced by the amount and type of effort that one can provide, whereas the fourth one is more or less out of our control.

Keep playing: try harder, smarter, and often

I personally know many people who are employed in fat-tailed occupations such as scientific research, business, and academia, who have to struggle with this uncertainty everyday. Moreover, the current pandemic caused by the outbreak of Covid-19 has left a lot us in a very difficult situation, most notably financial and professional instability. Daily, I come across posts from people who are struggling after a loss of a job or a loved one and their morale deteriorates after each successive failure. Having been in the same situation not too long ago, I decided to provide this slightly different outlook that could help improve your personal motivation to keep moving forward. Simply put, chances of success improve with each passing attempt as long as you: (1) keep trying, (2) learn from your failures, and (3) use that experience to improve future attempts.

Apart from what I have just described, there is one other piece of information that I think is really important and should be kept in mind at all times: be resilient, not optimistic.

At the peak of US-Vietnam war, late vice-admiral James Stockdale was captured and sent to a prison camp where he was the recipient of frequent torture and humiliation. He woke up most days not knowing what new horrors awaited him or whether he would ever make it out alive and see his family again. Despite everything, not only did he manage to smuggle out intelligence through his letters to his wife but also developed a code of conduct among prisoners to keep their hopes up. After spending almost eight years as a prisoner of war, ‘Jim’ Stockdale was finally released and was subsequently awarded the Medal of Honor. Later in his life Stockdale was questioned over which prisoners didn’t make it out of Vietnam. Stockdale replied:

Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart. This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end-which you can never afford to lose-with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

It is wise to put neither a date nor a face on your future achievements. Rather focus on the kind of person you want to be when it finally happens, be it a day, a month, a year, or a decade from now. Our outlook and efforts are the only things over which lady Fortuna has no control.

With this, I wish you all the best.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.

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