Just a Freak of Luck

September 7, 2011

How lucky do you think you are? Damn very lucky if you consider the amount of humans that had to procreate on your behalf for you to currently take up breathing space. However, let us consider the near past. The past that is your lifetime up until now. Do you think you have any special talent that you believed has risen you in the pecking order of life? How is success represented in your profession? To me, it is of utmost ludicrous to think that some sort of unique talent caused a person success in the extreme professions. ‘Extreme’ in the sense that input in the tasks of said profession does not correlate with the economic gains attained as output. Examples of such professions include writers, musicians, venture capitalists, artists and actors; they are career undertakings that are scalable. They allow you to add additional zeroes to your output and income with little to no effort. Whereas if you are a consultant, a dentist or an accountant, you are paid by the hour and your revenue depends on your continuous effort more than on the quality of your decisions.

They are also within predictability’s reach. If you are a hemorrhoid specialist or a prostitute, you know if you double the amount of clients you see, this effort will also double your revenue. Nevertheless, you are limited. You can only see a maximum number of patients within a given time frame. It is not scalable. My argument is, in the extreme professions or idea professions, neither talent nor skills can be ascertain nor is talent a precursor to success. Inequality rules in idea professions and your success depends solely on randomness.

Let us carry out a thought experiment. Say you gather 100 people across the world randomly and line them up by height from shortest to tallest. You do an average and some other statistical methods on your sample. After your calculations, I would say that you now have an idea of the height of all humans on the planet. A person being as tall as 50 meters is close to impossible. No one in your sample size will represent more than 1 percent of the total height. You can do the same for weight. Take the heaviest human you know and line up 99 randomly chosen humans. Again, if he may be even considered human, he would be a slight deviation from the total. Increase you sample size to say, one thousand, then his weight becomes less than 1 percent.

Now lets take again one thousand people randomly and add Waren Buffet to the sample. How much do you think his wealth would represent from the total wealth of all the others? About 99.9 percent. The others in the sample would merely represent a rounding error or the fluctuations of his portfolio during a trading day. In the physical world, when your sample size becomes large enough, no single occurrence can significantly change the aggregate. However, while height and weight are physical matters, wealth and all other social aspects are abstract and they serve only to relay information. They are nothing but numbers and as such they can take any single value without energy expenditure. This fact alone allows us to have the J. K. Rowlings of the world. The winner takes all effect in the idea professions. Where, with the advent of technology, one person or one idea can dominate the field. Where the formation of unexpected giants takes root while surrounded by tiny dwarfs.

Let us dive deeper into the mater and see how does this relate to talent. In the good old days in Italy, if you wanted to hear Paganini play his Caprice No. 24 in A minor, you would have to travel to wherever he was at the time. Perhaps he had a performance coming up in Vienna or in Paris. It was only possible to hear him while he performed. Likewise, Paganini had to always perform in order to gain that one extra lira just as today a surgeon is (still) needed to be present in order to perform an operation. Paganini was never bothered by some other gifted violinist from far away who threatened his livelihood. Fast forward to current times however, Paganini is dead but Akiko Meyers has access to a new form of technology which allows her to record Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 in A minor for others to purchase. Her performance can be heard individually by millions without any additional effort. I can go to a store and buy her DVD for $16.99. Meanwhile, a brilliant prodigy, recent graduate from Julliard also has recorded Paganini’s most famous work and sells her performance for a bargain at $5.99.

In any case, I would still rather listen to Meyers’ take on the piece. If you were to ask me why, I would go on to tell you that it’s Meyers’ ‘passion’, ‘rhythm’ and the perfectly blended combination of both ‘finesse’ and ‘bravura’. This is what I will tell my friends when I recommend Meyers to them. I have never heard the prodigy, recent graduate play and I will never hear her play so I will never know. She plays just as well but she did not make it to the stage. This phenomena implies the idea that those who, for some reason, start getting the attention of some minds can quickly garner more minds and dislodge the competition from the stage. The success of artists, movies, actors, ideas, and even your own DNA depends on contagion. People do not fall in love with works of art because of its own sake but rather to feel that they belong to a community. We imitate to get close to others. We imitate to fight solitude.

When we sit back and observe the successful movies or fashion designers, we would form a sample and gather the evidence we need in order to find the patterns that stick out. We formulate theories and come to conclusions. Yet we always forget about the ones who do not show up in the sample. The silent actors who still wait tables and have yet to receive their breakthrough. The silent musicians who call their guitar cases home but who can easily rock out a stadium. All endeavors that harbor the winner take all effect are plagued with these silent characters, plagued with silent evidences. The cemetery of aspiring writers is immense. Comparative talent thus becomes impossible to gauge. I may say that Meyers has ‘passion’ and ‘rhythm’ and this is her attributes; the superior qualitative talents that will make you successful. But what if there are hundreds more with these same qualities? Meyers would thus become a beneficiary of disproportionate luck. I only need one other to exist to say that talent has absolutely nothing to do with success.