Robin Koerner is the Academic Dean of the John Locke Institute. He earned a triple first in natural sciences and a graduate degree in philosophy of science, both from Cambridge. He is the founder of Humilitarian.us.
“Mild success can be explainable by skills and labor. Wild success is attributable to variance.”
– Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Fooled By Randomness
Last month, I discovered which of the bright young students that I had the pleasure to teach last year (in my capacity as Academic Dean of the John Locke Institute) were accepted by their chosen universities –particularly Oxford and Cambridge.
Of course, some “succeeded” and some didn’t.
A significant fraction of those who didn’t make it are at least as bright as the median of those who did. In fact, one or two who are as bright as any of the hundreds I’ve engaged with over the last couple of years didn’t make it – and (although they don’t know it) I ache a little for them.
‘Twas ever thus, of course.
We are not responsible for most of the factors that determine …
which resources we have access to,
which things we get a shot at,
which innate capacities, abilities and skills we have to exploit
… whenever we make an effort.
And for all those reasons and plenty more, some of us enjoy a strong relationship between effort and reward and some a weaker one. The strength of that relationship is itself mostly out of our control.
Students with whom I work often ask me as they close in on the date of an Oxbridge interview, “what else do I need to do?”.
I generally remind them that they’ve already done most of what they can and should do. Most importantly, I tell them,
It’s a roll of the dice on the day: all you can do is improve your odds.
Or to quote my late uncle and multi-millionaire, Felix Dennis, who knew rather a lot about it:
'Good fortune? The fact is the more that you practise, the harder you sweat, the luckier you get.'
That’s how effort and success work: effort improves luck, but good fortune is still luck.
Most attempts of significant difficulty in life are rolls of the dice. The work you do to achieve your goals improves your odds of achieving them – but generally cannot guarantee doing so.
Indeed, as Taleb pointed out (in the quote at the top of this post), the more extreme your successes are, the more that luck has played a part in them. Critically, that’s not a political or ideological assertion: it’s a statistical fact.
Many years ago, when I was absent from class for a couple of days to interview at Peterhouse, University of Cambridge, one of the pupils in my math class asked the teacher (who was also Cambridge alumnus himself), “Sir; do you think Robin will get in?”
He answered, “I’ve seen smarter students get rejected, and less smart ones get in.”
Of course he had.
Because an interview for a place at a great institution, like any other attempt in which success vs. failure is a simple binary, is a throw of the dice.
Fortunately, I got lucky.
Did my hard work get me in? In part, because it improved my odds.
Did my talent get me in? In part, because it improved my odds.
Did my luck get me in? Absolutely, because whatever the odds were, on the day they got rolled, the dice landed the right way up.
My teacher’s reply to that student about whether I would get in holds just as true for the young people whom I had the privilege to support this last year as it did for me.
For every single one who “succeeded” and every single one who “failed” this year, there are smarter ones who failed and less smart ones who “succeeded”.
Moreover, that statement will be true for every single applicant (technically, with the potential exception of just two in all of time) for ever more.
Understanding that …
a) life is luck;
b) you can make luck;
c) the fact that you can make luck doesn’t stop it from being luck
… matters because it is an important logical and moral basis for mutual respect, empathy, open-mindedness, and charity.
It also provides some protection against many forms of political extremism as this triplet of truth makes equally absurd an ideology that assumes that success is all earned and any ideology that assumes that we bear no responsibility for our current circumstances.
You can judge a person by her attitude – but you cannot judge a person by her visible achievements or lack of them – because, absent knowledge of her personal circumstances and history, you will never know the extent to which her achievements, or lack thereof, came from lucky or unlucky rolls of the dice or from effort or lack thereof.
Since I’ve mentioned my uncle, math and luck, let me end with a quote that brings all three together:
'Luck equals opportunity multiplied by preparation.'
- Felix Dennis (and I am sure, others)
There’s the equation ... and you only get to set one of the terms in it (preparation).
(For the mathematically minded, it would be more precise to say, perhaps, that you have a relatively tiny influence over one of the terms (opportunity) in the equation and great influence over another (preparation) – but that little refinement doesn’t change the general point – which is, to stick with the math:)