Luck vs. self-determination is not a subject that consumed me during a career as an entrepreneur. I was a busy guy and what was there to think about anyway? I knew I was smart, hard-working, good with people, more comfortable with risk than most people, and blazing my own trail.
However since I sold my last company (producing large garden shows) a few years back the subject has risen high in my sky. Now I ponder it often, for several reasons. One is that the financial return from selling my business was far from what I expected. In late 2007 I began to move toward a sale by working with a boutique New York investment bank that specializes in media publishers and event producers, but I did not close on a sale until summer 2009. During those 18 months the American economy suffered a near-death experience, followed by a prolonged Great Recession, from which it still has not fully recovered.
Before the financial crisis the investment bank had appraised my company’s value as six times higher than what it eventually sold for. Same business, same financial performance, same founder, a few months’ difference in timing and macro-events beyond my control. Humble-pie time. As I adjusted to this bad luck I was forced to rethink how much of the business’s success had actually been due to good luck, rather than all to my smarts, determination and hard work. It struck me as a cheap trick to blame bad luck for a disappointing divestiture while ignoring the role of luck in how I accounted for the company’s historical success.
Since selling the business and moving writing to the center of my life, I have made myself something of a student of luck (or, as it is sometimes termed in philosophical circles, contingency).
My obscurity as an author has also pushed me to ponder lady luck. Though I’ve been penning plays for 17 years, I have yet to attain my “breakthrough.” (Don’t worry, I still write every day.) I’ve asked myself is this personal responsibility or is it fate, a lack of talent or lack of luck, that keeps me chained to obscurity? Studies show that many more than half of us believe we are in the top half of any given talent distribution. Logic tells me there is a 50:50 chance my abilities fall on the scanty side of that bell curve. This fallacy also goes by the name of “Lake Wobegon Effect,” after Garrison Keillor’s mythical Minnesota small town where “all the children are above average.” Illogical creatures we often are.
In recent years social scientists have demonstrated that chance events play a much larger role in life outcomes than most people (at least in America) assume. The latest book to swim in these murky waters is Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy by Cornell University economics professor, textbook author, and New York Times columnist Robert F. Frank. While the book’s main concern is addressing inequality and shoring up infrastructure in America, it offers useful insights about artistic success.
“Hindsight bias” is the term psychologists use for the tendency to think that events are more predictable than they really are. It’s what we refer to when we say “hindsight is always 20-20.” Antonio Garcia Martinez has fun with this bias in his new book Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley. He writes about failed ideas that happen to work and then are spun into great successes: “What was an improbable bonanza at the hands of the flailing half-blind becomes the inevitable coup of the assured visionary. The world crowns you a genius and you start acting like one.”
Frank cites the work of sociologist Duncan Watts who observes that we easily create narratives that portray [chance-based] outcomes as having been inevitable. In his research Watts learned that what may be the world’s most famous painting, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” had languished in obscurity for centuries. The lady with the enigmatic smile owes her renown largely to a criminal. In 1911 Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian maintenance worker at the Louvre, walked away with “Mona Lisa” under his smock as he left work one evening. He was caught two years later as he attempted to sell the painting to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Here is one account: “The French public was electrified. The Italians hailed Peruggia as a patriot who wanted to return the painting home. Newspapers around the world reproduced it, making it the first work of art to achieve global fame. From then on, the “Mona Lisa” came to represent Western culture itself.” Yet the crowds that line up at the Louvre today likely assume the painting’s supreme fame was predetermined before the paint dried on Leonardo’s canvas.”
Frank also discusses the desultory career of one of today’s most widely acclaimed actors, Bryan Cranston. Breaking Bad’s creator Vince Gilligan wanted Cranston, at the time an obscure middle-aged supporting actor, for the lead role of Walter White. Studio execs, skittish about an actor who’d never been cast in a major dramatic lead, overrode Gilligan and offered the role to John Cusack. When Cusack said no thanks, they tapped Matthew Broderick, who also declined. Gilligan persisted with his confidence in Cranston and only then did the studio relent. Cranston excelled in the role and, as they – and hindsight bias – would say, the rest is history.
With the benefit of hindsight we now have a hard time imagining Cranston’s abilities not being readily recognized. There are similar stories about Al Pacino and Harrison Ford, unknown actors who were plucked from obscurity when cast as leads in The Godfather and Star Wars. We would now be aghast at the thought of the Godfather movies without Pacino as Michael Corleone. Wasn’t he born to play that role? I’m sure these artists often struggled with self-doubt in the years before their breakthroughs. And I’m just as certain there have been, are and will be skilled artists who never get that lucky break that catapults their careers, burnishing their success with the patina of fate.
In the second half of Success and Luck Frank argues for a steeply progressive consumption tax to replace America’s current progressive income tax and fund badly needed infrastructure. (Frank explains how our attitudes about luck affect our view of taxes.) While my interest, bordering on obsession, in luck, agency, fate and free will lies with their philosophical and life-outcome aspects, I have to say that by the end of Frank’s book he had me persuaded that his tax proposal could work and would be an improvement on our current embattled and loophole-infested system. Good luck, however, with any major legislative change being passed by America’s current dysfunctional congress.
One question that comes up when thinking about luck and self-determination is why do we persistently underestimate luck and give undue credit to our determination and abilities. Does such an entrenched cognitive disorder have adaptive value? I’ll take a look at that in next week’s blog.
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