Talent versus Luck

I’ve remarked quite a number of times on the blog that I think I’ve been exceptionally lucky in my scientific career, the latest example being the good fortune that the position at Maynooth University came up precisely when it did, enabling me to relocate to Ireland.

It struck me further the other day that the people who think that science is genuinely meritocratic, tend to be those who have done well in the system rather than those who haven’t. It’s rather like the way that very rich people tend to think that they have earned their wealth and that makes them better people than those who are less well off, even when that’s demonstrably not true.

Likewise, luck plays a definite role in winning grant funding. Having been on grants panels I’m away that many very good proposals are not funded. A scoring system is generally used that introduces some level of objectivity into the process, but the fact is that a lot of proposals come out with similar scores and the ranking of these is a bit arbitrary. A slightly different panel would produce slightly different scores, but perhaps a large difference in ranking would result.

Anyway, there’s a paper on the arXiv (by Pluchino et al) with the title Talent vs Luck: the role of randomness in success and failure that
discusses the role of good fortune in scientific careers. This is the abstract:

The largely dominant meritocratic paradigm of highly competitive Western cultures is rooted on the belief that success is due mainly, if not exclusively, to personal qualities such as talent, intelligence, skills, efforts or risk taking. Sometimes, we are willing to admit that a certain degree of luck could also play a role in achieving significant material success. But, as a matter of fact, it is rather common to underestimate the importance of external forces in individual successful stories. It is very well known that intelligence or talent exhibit a Gaussian distribution among the population, whereas the distribution of wealth – considered a proxy of success – follows typically a power law (Pareto law). Such a discrepancy between a Normal distribution of inputs, with a typical scale, and the scale invariant distribution of outputs, suggests that some hidden ingredient is at work behind the scenes. In this paper, with the help of a very simple agent-based model, we suggest that such an ingredient is just randomness. In particular, we show that, if it is true that some degree of talent is necessary to be successful in life, almost never the most talented people reach the highest peaks of success, being overtaken by mediocre but sensibly luckier individuals. As to our knowledge, this counterintuitive result – although implicitly suggested between the lines in a vast literature – is quantified here for the first time. It sheds new light on the effectiveness of assessing merit on the basis of the reached level of success and underlines the risks of distributing excessive honors or resources to people who, at the end of the day, could have been simply luckier than others. With the help of this model, several policy hypotheses are also addressed and compared to show the most efficient strategies for public funding of research in order to improve meritocracy, diversity and innovation.

Comments are, as always, welcome!

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16 Responses to “Talent versus Luck”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    There’s a good analysis of luck vs talent in sport in Luck: What it Means and Why it Matters by Ed Smith, a retired Test cricketer who used to write reviews of history books for the Sunday Telegraph and preferred Wagner on his Walkman while in the England dressing room.

  2. Michel C. Says:

    People tend to dismiss those whose thoughts are not in line with their own. You’re better to travel in old paths if you want to be lucky. But if you want the jack pot, you have to take a risky path.

  3. Thanks for the link: “Talent vs Luck”. Very interesting.
    For {… intelligence or talent exhibit a Gaussian distribution among the population, whereas the distribution of wealth – considered a proxy of success – follows typically a power law (Pareto law). …, suggests that some hidden ingredient is at work behind the scenes.}
    I do agree with authors’ analysis, but I think that that issue can be explained mathematically.
    First, the definition of talent.
    One person can have many different talents: talent in a field, such as physics; talent of socializing, having a lot more connections than other people; talent of mentality, positive thinking over negative one, etc.
    Second, luck should have a Gaussian distribution among the population too.
    Third, the SUM of those talents of a person + Luck = the cross-product of each talent/luck-Gaussian distributions ~ a power law.

    If the above equation is correct, then the luck plays only a frictional role.

    For science, I think the problem is not about meritocracy vs luck. The problem is sociological.
    One, Planck’s principle: A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.
    Two, Matthew effect
    Three, Stigler’s law of eponymy

    Planck’s principle and Matthew effect are based on the selfishness of human nature which destroys the sense of honesty.
    Stigler’s law shows that we do not hold honesty with any high value.

    But, all these three laws are laws of sociology of science, laws of human which is no match for the laws of nature. So, the laws of nature will definitely prevail eventually. We can all have comfort on this.

  4. Dark Matter Says:

    If luck is thermal fluctuation which of course can deflect person’s carrier trajectory. More important is the potential well against which he/she will have to climb that depends on gender/race/class etc. Of course, the initial condition e.g. where/when one is born etc. is a
    factor too. So just merit is never enough. In my personal opinion, the
    amplitude of the thermal fluctuations (luck factor ) is much smaller than the difference in height of the potential that two different people with different socio-economic background face in otherwise
    identical conditions. I am sure not everyone will agree.

  5. Richard Wiseman, on the other hand, thinks we create our own luck. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qxal-UbCMGI

  6. Michel C. Says:

    In the end, it is entirely a matter of space and time. Who, what, when and where… Choices and luck are just illusions. We are just blobs of complexed knots of spacetime.

  7. Alan Heavens Says:

    I am sure luck plays a large role, especially via the composition of grants panels. Many fields in science are sufficiently broad that panel members (and indeed referees) may not know where the exciting developments are, and as a result may tend to play safe, stifling innovation. A welcome move has been the opportunity in some grants schemes for applicants to respond to referee reports, which helps address the most obvious injustices.

  8. At the risk of stirring up a hornet’s nest about the whole process of peer review….
    I do some reviewing of SME Instrument proposals for the EC; it’s an open call so I (and other reviewers) get a huge range of technologies and topics to assess. In practice, I don’t find that as much of a problem as I initially feared – a good proposal can explain what they want to do in terms understandable to a generalist, and a bad proposal is also immediately obvious (for example, spelling their own name wrong is a warning flag – and a clear violation of the basic laws of physics is another…).
    Given how much peer review of proposals costs (even where reviewers and panel members are unpaid, that just means the real costs are hidden somewhere – “opportunity costs”), and the inevitable tendency (which I have observed on some Research Council {probably best not to be specific} panels I have sat on) to fund a proposal on the basis of prior reputation rather than purely on the contents of the specific proposal, I think there is certainly a question to be answered on whether the process is still fit for purpose.
    I do think there is a problem with research which leads to conclusions which are not the traditional wisdom; some decades ago when I was active in auroral physics there was a huge resistance in some of the major journals to anything hinting at wave/particle interaction being responsible for the high energy electrons observed in aurarae simply because the “grand old men” of the field thought the cause was electrostatic (with equipotentials closing off the page somewhere).

    • telescoper Says:

      I agree. I always felt that panels should allocate a small fraction of their funding for `wild card’ things that were decidedly not mainstream. One of the problems with panels is that their decisions are collective, which tends to favour familiar work ahead of originality because if something is radically new it’s unlikely the panel really knows how to judge it.

  9. Francis Keenan Says:

    I think luck plays a massive role in everything from grant success to career success. For example I was lucky that a permanent post at my institution was advertised when it was, as my fellowship didn’t have that long left to run. I was lucky in getting a fellowship in that I had a ‘champion’ on the fellowships panel who supported me (for which I will be eternally grateful, by the way).

    I would also add that working hard is as important as having natural talent. (I would say that as I am lacking in the latter, and try and make up for it with the former….)

  10. I feel like some people create more chances for themselves to be lucky. In doing so it usually means this person will practice or spend More time doing whatever it is, hence they often look more talented.
    Thanks for the post

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