TIME Career Strategies

How Much of Your Success Is Due to Dumb Luck?

Jonathan Kitchen—Getty Images

Would you like the Mona Lisa if others didn’t? Would you still think Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony was good? Would you still think the songs of the Beatles were superior to those of, say, Justin Bieber?

In a report last week on NPR’s Morning Edition, Alix Spiegel raised the question of whether our collective aesthetic judgments are due more to chance than we think. She reported that a Princeton professor named Matthew Salganik has run an experiment addressing precisely this issue.

The test went as follows: Some 30,000 teenagers recruited online were separated into nine groups and exposed to a collection of 48 songs from emerging recording artists. They could download the ones they liked best for free. The findings? If they could see a history of what their peers in their group had already picked, the teens often joined the crowd, giving certain songs momentum. But the songs that emerged as leaders differed from group to group. A song that came in first in one group came in 40th in another.

“There were differences in the beginnings, and then the process of social influence and cumulative advantage sort of magnified those small, random initial differences,” Salganik told Spiegel.

The takeaway, in Salganik’s view, goes beyond music: “I think that if you believe that there’s a large role for chance in the outcomes that people have and the kinds of success that people have and also the kinds of failures that people have, it changes how you treat other people,” he said.

In other words, we ought to be a bit humbler about our success and recognize the role of luck.

As far as Peter Drucker was concerned, he maintained that some works of art have inherent qualities that elevate them into the realm of the sublime—regardless of audience differences. For instance, in the case of Dante’s Divina Commedia, it is the “multiplicity of levels on which this book can be read, from being a fairy tale to being a grand synthesis of metaphysics, that makes it the overpowering work of art that it is,” Drucker wrote in a 1969 essay on communication.

But not even the greatest art can be counted on to promote itself, and even Dante required sales and distribution. As Drucker wrote in Post-Capitalist Society, “Even the most solitary artists, writers or painters depend on others for their work to become effective—the writer on an editor, a printer, a bookshop; the painter on a gallery.”

And while luck has a big role in our lives, and many things are a matter of chance, long-term success tends not to be. “‘Opportunity is where you find it,’ says an old proverb. It does not say: ‘ . . . where it finds you,’” Drucker noted in Managing for Results. “Luck, chance and catastrophe affect business as they do all human endeavors. But luck never built a business. Prosperity and growth come only to the business that systematically finds and exploits its potential.”

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