Not just in America, but throughout the world, there’s a tendency to believe that success is significantly correlated with merit. This is why when we look at someone who is wealthy, famous, or seems happy, there is a non-trivial probability that we assign certain positive qualities to them, such as talent or effort.
By talent, we mean exceptional skills, abilities, or expertise - even if they are partly developed through effort. By effort, we mean persistence, focus, and hard-work - even if, like talent, some people have a much stronger predisposition for these behaviors than others, and from an early age. This is why it is hard to think of a person who may have been rather lazy until their 30s, but became extremely driven and hard-working in the later part of their life (or vice-versa: super driven people who suddenly become laid-back, passive, and ambition-free).
At the same time, we are sometimes suspicious of the role that talent and effort may have played as catalysts of others’ success, which is when we resort to luck, as a competing explanation. Indeed, Daniel Kahneman, who pioneered the study of behavioral economics, famously noted that:
Success = talent + luck
Great success = a little more talent + a lot of luck
Now, we all know people who, perhaps in their attempt to come across as modest or fake humility, explain even the most impressive career accomplishments through statements like “I was lucky to be offered a scholarship for Harvard”, or “fortunate to win the Pulitzer”, but such confessions should be interpreted as charitable self-deprecation attempts, rather than genuine imposter syndrome.
But, what do we mean by luck? Whatever is left when you subtract talent and effort from achievement: anomalies, exceptions to the rule, and the serendipitous, arbitrary, and random nature of life.
Crucially, luck cannot be consistent or predictable: if you are lucky (or unlucky) all the time, there’s surely something in you that explains your success (or failures). As Tana French notes in The Witch Elm: “I used to believe that luck was a thing outside me, a thing that governed only what did and didn’t happen to me.... Now I think I was wrong. I think my luck was built into me, the keystone that cohered my bones, the golden thread that stitched together the secret tapestries of my DNA”.
Although there is (still) insufficient evidence to link relevant human accomplishments to their personal genetic complexion, it is rather obvious that factors not associated with either talent or effort make some people “luckier” than others: privilege, where you are born, who you are born to, etc. These universal drivers of success are not the result of people’s merit, in the sense that they are not caused by their own talent or effort, but the lottery of life. Gender, race, nationality, and socioeconomic status at birth all amplify or handicap people’s potential, and for reasons unrelated to their own skills, decisions, or motivation. The more privileged you are, the less talent and effort you will need to attain high levels of success, and vice-versa. For example, being born in Singapore, Canada, or Denmark is generally advantageous to being born in Afghanistan, the C.A.R., or Haiti.
Clearly, then, talent, effort and luck all play an important role in determining people’s career success - but which matters more? While this may seem an abstract or vague question, scientific research (here’s one of the best single studies) has produced a vast body of evidence to assess the relative impact of these three factors on people’s careers, achievements, and status. Here is a summary of these findings:
Talent: The most generalizable indicator of talent is human intelligence, which refers to a person’s learning and reasoning ability. Thousands of studies have tested whether intelligence tests predict different aspects of career success, such as academic performance, job performance, socio-economic status attainment, and entrepreneurial success. Indeed, no other aspect of human aptitude has been researched more widely. This research suggests that around 15% of career success can be attributed to intelligence, but the figure increases when jobs are complex. Another aspect of talent that has been examined is emotional intelligence - the ability to manage your own and others’ emotions. Around 9% of career success may be attributable to this trait, which is independent of learning ability. Needless to say, talent is often in the choices, and research shows that picking careers or jobs that align with your natural interests will significantly boost your career success. This is why self-awareness, which is encapsulated in most measures of emotional intelligence, is so critical. Importantly, talent is always job-specific, which is why expertise and experience have consistently emerged as predictors of performance and success. However, expertise and experience are heavily influenced by intelligence, effort, and luck (opportunities).
Effort: There is an extensive literature on motivation, ambition, and drive as determinants of individual differences in job performance, income, social mobility, and career success. In recent years, these attributes have been combined and rebranded as grit. Effort is interesting because it can be influenced by external situational factors - e.g., an inspiring boss, carrots and sticks, desperation, and constructive feedback - as well as being deeply dependent on internal personal factors, which can be traced all the way to childhood. Since the average correlation between measures of effort and measures of career success rarely exceed 0.30, we can conclude that no more than 9% of a person’s success can typically be attributed to their ambition, drive, or motivation. Things may be different when we look at extraordinary achievers: people who sacrifice their personal life, fun, sleep, merely to optimize for career success. I’m pretty sure Serena Williams, Angela Merkel, Jeff Bezos, and Miles Davis (not to mention Madonna or Maradona) are in this category - though they probably didn’t lack talent.
Luck: We finally get to luck, and if we define it as everything that isn’t talent or effort, and accept that the combined impact of talent and effort is at most 45% (ballpark), then we have to accept that luck accounts for at least half of the equation. Kahneman was onto something. This does not refute the notion that “luck favors the prepared man” (Napoleon Bonaparte), but it’s fair to say that many of the elements that constitute “preparedness” are hardly meritocratic: attractiveness, genetics, socioeconomic status, parental educational level, biological sex, and ethnicity, all augment or handicap people’s level of career success, independently of what they are willing and able to do. So, yes, it matters whether you experience headwinds or tailwinds, and even if your talent and effort may affect how you cope with the winds, you have zero (yes, zero) control over the winds. No growth mindset, self-efficacy, self-belief, or self-confidence will alter the direction or speed of the winds.
In short, an admittedly oversimplified overview of the scientific evidence suggests that luck comes first, followed by talent, then effort. In other words, the more you control something, the less it matters. Then again, there’s not much point in ruminating or stressing out about the stuff we cannot control.