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Luck or pluck: What rules success?

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While we celebrate the virtues of hard work and perseverance, there is an invisible, force that shapes our lives—random chance. Probability and luck play a far greater role than we often acknowledge, silently influencing our paths to success or failure. Recognizing this force is crucial, not to diminish the value of effort, but to foster a more realistic understanding of achievement.

Imagine two talented musicians. One, through sheer happenstance, lands an audition with a renowned producer. The other, equally skilled, faces a string of rejections. Here, chance, not talent alone, dictates their trajectories. Similarly, an entrepreneur's success might hinge on an unexpected market shift, or a chance encounter with a key investor. These seemingly random events can propel individuals forward, highlighting the ever-present influence of luck.

Discounting chance fosters a dangerous illusion. Attributing success solely to grit implies that anyone can achieve anything with enough effort. This disregards the social and economic factors that heavily influence opportunity. An individual born into poverty may possess immense talent, but systemic barriers can significantly limit their chances of success.

Acknowledging chance, however, doesn't diminish the value of hard work. Effort is essential to capitalize on opportunities that chance presents. The prepared musician who nails the audition or the entrepreneur with a well-honed business plan are more likely to benefit from a lucky break. Recognizing the role of chance fosters a more nuanced understanding of achievement. It compels us to appreciate the opportunities we receive and strive to make the most of them.

By appreciating the role of chance, we can develop a more compassionate society. It allows us to celebrate the achievements of others without diminishing their struggles. It also encourages us to focus on creating a level playing field, ensuring that everyone has a fair shot at the opportunities that chance throws our way. In a world obsessed with control, accepting the role of chance fosters a sense of humility and a deeper appreciation for the intricate tapestry of our lives.


Mark Robert Rank is Herbert S. Hadley Professor of Social Welfare at Washington University in St. Louis. He has received numerous awards for his scholarship and books, and his research has been reported in a wide range of national and international media. His latest book is The Random Factor: How Chance and Luck Profoundly Shape Our Lives and the World around Us.

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*This interview will be recorded on Wednesday, May 1, 2024.

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David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi