Success is Luck (With a Big L)

Michael Kilman
8 min readMay 11, 2023

Originally Published at https://loridianslaboratory.com/2023/05/08/success-is-luck-with-a-big-l/

It’s a great taboo to assert that success (defined here as recognition and financial success because there are many kinds of success) comes largely from luck. Of course, hard work plays a role in success, but luck, timing, and connections are so often an even more powerful force.

But wait, you say, I worked hard to achieve all the things I have!

Did you work harder than everyone else in your field who never achieved the recognition and success you found?

What’s more, the difficulty of work is quite relative. Who works harder each day? The construction worker who uses their body to build things? The janitor who cleans toilets and prevents the spread of disease? The coder who, versed in a computer language, reshapes technology? The doctor who saves lives? The teacher who must train the young minds of the future? The manager, who must organize the rest of the labor at a restaurant? We compare the kinds of labor and justify how much people make based on entirely relative notions, that are steeped in luck. Not everyone is born in the right circumstances to take advantage of education and technology.

So, we tell ourselves so desperately that hard work = success because the reality is, we are too embarrassed to admit when we are successful that luck played an enormous role. A person can work twelve-hour days for the entirety of their life, rarely miss a sick day, and always be on time, and can still die destitute no matter how well they manage their money.

But wait you say again, I did work hard to get where I am at!

You did. No one is seriously denying that unless perhaps you won the lottery or something, which is just another kind of luck.

Again, did you work harder than everyone else in your field who never achieved the recognition and success you found? Did they want their success less than you? Perhaps they didn’t visualize the goal as hard as you?

To assert so, would be the worst kind of arrogance. We have created a system with far more losers than winners.

So what then are we rewarding with financial success and recognition? It is not hard work. It’s luck. And mythmaking about how Europe came to power, plays a role in the modern idea of hard work equates to success.

Perhaps an element of the modern Western notion of hard work equates to success is an example of how the myth of exceptionalism, born in a narrative of superiority during the rise and justifications of the horrors of colonialism, is nothing more than a defense of the fact that ultimately success is overwhelmingly about luck. The West isn’t exactly unique in this belief, but it’s certainly a core justification of the structure of our world at this stage of history.

The rise of Europe, like so much of history is about luck and timing. Europe was in the right place at the right time after the collapse of the Mongol empire. Then, hit by the black death, the traditional power structures crumbled at just the right moment for change to surge forth and give rise to a new merchant class. This increased trade and brought wealth to Europe, which alongside many other cultural and social processes, brought increased power to several kingdoms. Competing for dominance, these kingdoms began their colonial project.

I am oversimplifying these incredibly complex processes of course (a few sources for further reading are listed below if you are interested), but luck and timing also lead to the rise of every empire in history. Most of the tools and technology and knowledge that Europe used to launch the colonial project came from other places around the world. Very little of the technology required for the colonial project originated in Europe itself.

True, Europe improved upon many of these ideas, but that’s not unique. This is true of every empire. One of the things that make empires powerful is their ability to take a wide variety of ideas from diverse populations and cultures and turn them to their advantage. Empires are great at synthesis. If they aren’t they either never rise, or don’t last very long. But during the late 15th century, Europe had the right conditions and was in the right place at the right time. Europeans had the opportunity to synthesize much of the available knowledge and technology of the known world at a moment and, with several other factors at play, succeeded. The greater their reach grew, the greater access they had to technology, knowledge, and resources, thus deepening their power.

The powerful always imagine the past in a way that justifies how they seized said power. We always need a justification for our less-than-favorable qualities or actions, especially when we know we are doing things that are deeply problematic.

Shifting back to the individual level. The talent of exceptional individuals largely went unnoticed throughout history because people were marginalized through an accident of birth or circumstance. What if Mozart had been born a slave? Or Rumi a serf under a feudal lord. Both were extraordinary, and both were incredibly lucky to be born in the time and circumstances in which they lived. There is no doubt the world would be poorer had these individuals never had the opportunity to explore their unique genius. And yet, we have squandered so much human potential throughout history. How much genius has been lost to terrible systems of oppression?

At the very core of our experience is luck. Ideologies around the world, both secular and religious, have tried for centuries to justify why some are born lucky, and some are not. The Hindu caste system, the divine right of kings, the concept of manifest destiny, or even hate groups that believe they are born superior to others, tout their superiority and supremacy to justify the suffering they inflict on others. The bootstraps myth of American life (the concept of which was originally a satire of what the elites said about the poor since you cannot physically lift yourself by your bootstraps), is yet another justification of oppression. The powerful justify their power through a narrative that makes them feel special, while othering the very people that they build their power from through exploitation.

Why do we fight so hard to discount luck? What is it that so many people around the world who are successful in one way or another, feel it’s almost taboo to say they were born lucky? Certainly, some of us who are unlucky, do not have such reservations. I don’t. Part of it may be our need to create meaning in a world that feels meaningless. Part of it may be the storytelling and mythmaking that are so deeply embedded in the human brain or the pattern-seeking systems in our neurology. Regardless of the why, creating political and economic systems that reward luck and discount the important contributions of everyone in a community, has disastrous consequences for a large majority of the human species both historically and presently.

Many of us are obsessed with the narrative of the great individual, the idea that some people just come along and reshape the world. This is only a partial truth. The remarkable individuals are often just great synergists. They, for all their luck, come along and take many ideas and concepts and frame them in a new way others had not considered before, adding only a little to the existent and much larger body of knowledge. The light bulb, for example, is often credited to Edison, but, not only did it take a huge existing body of research and knowledge for Edison to synthesize the idea, but he also wasn’t the only one at the time to have come up with it. There are several individuals credited (Nicola Tesla, Hiram Maxum, and Joseph Swan to name just a few) with its invention at the same time. But, because of luck, politics (in this case patent laws), and power, Edison is credited as the brilliant mind who brought the invention to light (pun intended).

Did Edison work hard to synthesize his idea? Sure. How many of us have grown up hearing about his incredible number of failures in his process, which from a scientific standpoint isn’t all that remarkable anyway. Plenty of researchers plug away at their subject for thousands and thousands of hours and run thousands of experiments before they find any kind of success. Some ultimately fail, which also advances science. No, there is nothing particularly special about Edison. So again, I ask, did Edison work harder than any of the others who succeeded as he did or the others who tried just as many times and failed? Consider the conditions of Edison’s life that he was able to simply sit around and fail hundreds or thousands of times. Edison was born to a middle-class family. What if he had been born into a family with few resources?

We are not rewarding hard work, we are rewarding luck.

As long as we hold this notion of hard work = success we will always be captives to abusive systems. Some people are just luckier than others. It’s that simple. We all know that some are born luckier. It’s not hard to see. If you were to survey a huge number of people on the streets of any major city and asked, do you think some people are born luckier than others, the majority would certainly say yes.

And luck certainly is not a reflection of character. Some of the most vile people in the history of the planet have been incredibly lucky. Conversely, some of the greatest examples of compassion, have been incredibly unlikely. Do only the good die young? I’m not so sure that’s exactly true but, life is the roll of the dice.

This is why we must end these absurd systems that reward luck. Because many amazing people starve to death every single day. Recently, a dear friend of mine, who was one of the most loving and courageous people I know, died far too young after striving endlessly to just meet her basic needs in life. Life was always hard for her, and she worked hard every single day. Yet, she never saw the rewards of this hard work. And doubtless, if you look around honestly, you will see endless examples of this. No, not everything works out for everyone. That’s simply another platitude to ignore the bad luck of others and justify burying our heads in the sand.

The UN estimates that 25,000 people, including 10,000 children die every day from starvation. Most of these people were born into bad luck or something unlucky happened to them to make them far more vulnerable to an exploitive system that rewards luck and forgets the basic decency and dignity of taking care of other people. These exploitive systems make us less human and more selfish and apathetic. We need to learn to imagine another way of moving through the world, both economically and politically. Everyone deserves dignity. We can do something about this. A failure of imagination is not evidence that the present system we have is inevitable.

So say it with me. Because if we don’t, we will continue down the dark path of indifference. We must start creating systems that maximize human potential instead of squandering it.

Success is luck.

Success is luck.

Success

is

luck.

References and Related Further Reading:
Europe and the People Without History

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

Debt: The First 5,000 Years

The Meritocracy Trap

Nickeled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America

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Michael Kilman

Author of the Sci-Fi series the Chronicles of the Great Migration, Anthropologist and Host of the YouTube Series, Anthropology in 10 or Less