Updated: Mar 1
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; 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, and 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 that 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.'
Indeed, as Taleb pointed out, 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 maths class asked the teacher (who was also Cambridge alumnus), '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.
“Luck equals opportunity multiplied by preparation.”
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.
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. So what?
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 (almost) every single applicant for ever more.
Life is luck; you can make luck; the fact that you can make luck doesn’t stop it from being luck. This 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, mathematics and luck, let me end with a quote that brings all three together: “Luck equals opportunity multiplied by preparation.” (Felix Dennis)