Friday, September 9, 2011

Luck and Skill

Let's say two expert Scrabble players, creatively named player A and player B, are playing a game against each other in a tournament. It's getting near the end of the game, and player A looks nearly certain to win. Player B then makes a clever setup play. If he draws the exact right tiles from the bag, he will have an unblockable bingo to go out and win. (For non-Scrabblers, a bingo is when you play all seven tiles and get the extra 50 points.) It's a real longshot: we'll say about 1-in-50. But as it happens, if player B makes any other play, his chance of winning is zero.

So 98 percent of the time, player B will lose anyway, and 2 percent of the time he'll pull out the miracle win. The question: If the miracle happens, all other things being assumed equal, does this mean that B's victory can be attributed 98 percent to luck and 2 percent to skill?

Well, yeah, it does. To the argument that the skill really caused the victory since without player B's astute setup play there's no way the win could have happened, the obvious response is that without hitting the 1-in-50 draw, there's no way it could have happened either. No matter how brilliant a Scrabble player our friend B is, a minimum of 49 times out of 50 he loses this game. Both the skill and the ridiculous luck are needed.


Why does this matter? Well, we commonly judge people by outcomes, with the implicit assumption that the outcome was an unavoidable consequence of the decisions behind it. Let's introduce another fellow, Bob. Bob is a bright, resourceful sort and has spent many an evening in his basement tinkering and experimenting. A few years ago he invented a gadget made of metal and plastic and computer parts - let's say it's a kitchen appliance. He formed a company to make and sell the things, and it turned out demand was high, and now he's got millions of dollars. Quite a success story!

Bob invented the gadget, he formed the company. The millions are all him, right? Ah, but the events that conspired to bring this situation about were in motion long before:

- A sizable portion of the world lives in poverty, often without access to clean water, food, sanitation and health services. Political unrest and war also affect millions upon millions of unlucky people. Had Bob been born in any such place, and the odds of that have to be at least 30-40 percent or so, he ain't becomin' no kitchen-appliance kingpin no matter what he does. Instead, he was born and lives in one of the safest, most prosperous places on earth (pick one). HUGE lucky break there.

- Bob is healthy. He doesn't have any major physical, mental or emotional disorders. Those don't absolutely rule out the type of success he's had, but many of them would have made it a hundred times harder if not impossible.

- Bob's family was well-off enough to live near good schools and send him to college.

- Bob hasn't had his life commandeered by family challenges or troubles.

- Bob has been able to get jobs that pay well enough to support him and leave him with enough free time and energy to tinker incessantly in his basement.

- Bob's invention uses metal, plastic and computer parts. Bob, of course, had nothing to do with mining or refining the metal or making the plastic or computer parts, nor with inventing the means by which these things are mass-produced and made available at a price regular folks like Bob could afford. He just bought the stuff and recombined it in a novel way. He went through a lot of metal and plastic during the invention and prototype phase, so he needed to have the luxury of ready materials for as long as it took to stumble on the right ones.

- Many, many inventions and scientific and technological advances are the result of happy accidents. Granted, someone has to be busy in the workshop or lab in the first place to observe and interpret the accidents, no fortune involved there, but that makes the happy accidents themselves no less unlikely. Penicillin is perhaps the best-known example: If Alexander Fleming's lab had been less messy, we might not have penicillin today. In Bob's case, it may be true, though it's not knowable, that a thousand other would-be inventors are just as ingenious as he is, but haven't stumbled on their one big happy accident yet.

And by no means is it only the big accidents that make a difference. Any creative or experimental process has many steps, and thus many places for happy accidents to occur. A great story I heard from an audio engineer long ago: during the recording of the Tubes' 1983 hit She's A Beauty, the producer liked how the song was shaping up but felt the chorus was missing a hook of some kind, and for a long time no musical idea seemed to fit. One night during playback, someone in the control room happened to spit his gum out into a metal trash can at exactly the right moment in the chorus. The sound of the spit and of the gum hitting the trash can gave the producer the idea to add the reverse-gated snare hit after the first line of lyrics, right before "she's a beauty..." Hard to imagine the song without that sound effect, and it helped make the chorus catchy and the song a big hit. Yeah, the producer had to be thus inspired, but without the guy spitting his gum out, that sound effect doesn't get added.

- Bob's business started in a good economic period, but as with many startups, it took a while before the company attracted interest and capital from investors. Had he started in an economic downturn, he would have had a harder time selling the product to begin with and investors would have been choosier - he might well have gone bust before his ship had a chance to come in.

- Once Bob started his company, that meant he had to hire. Even if one is smart about hiring, some hiring decisions work out far better than others and some good fortune is needed to find the right people for the job.

- Bob was also lucky someone else didn't get there first. If he gets beaten out by six months, Bob will have to find another way to riches. While Bob's a good inventor, so are lots of other people.


I could go on, listing twenty or thirty more ways in which Bob has either been smiled upon by good fortune or has benefited greatly from work done by others past and present. Even given that Bob is industrious, persistent, committed and wise, his millions are still a much, much longer shot than the 50-1 Scrabble play I mentioned before. There are a lot of industrious, persistent, committed and wise people in a world with a population of 7 billion. The overwhelming majority of them aren't close to being millionaires. (Bob is also intelligent, which surely has a good deal to do with his success - if Bob had an 80 IQ this doesn't happen - but intelligence is itself just another lottery at birth, so I didn't include it with the other personal qualities above.)

Whoa, whoa, wait a minute, are you saying that Bob's success was just luck or that he didn't earn it or that hard work and persistence isn't actually valuable since it's all a roll of the dice anyway? No, I am absolutely NOT saying that, and no sensible person would. If Bob sits on his couch eating Doritos and watching old movies all day every day, his chances of getting wealthy drop to nothing regardless of how many good breaks he's gotten, unless he wins the lottery or something else ridiculous. Bob's hard work is absolutely necessary here - but it is not anywhere remotely close to sufficient. If it were possible to rerun Bob's life a million times, giving him all those same positive personal qualities each time but randomizing everything else, we can guess he would make out well much of the time relative to his peers, but in very, very few of those parallel lives would he be as rich as he's turned out to be this time.

This all strikes me as obvious, but as a culture we strongly resist attributing the main portion of success or failure to chance even when reason demands it. Not hard to see why: we think it's demotivating. We desperately want, maybe even need, to believe that if we just captain the ship well enough, we'll make it through any storm, even when confronted with a storm that is so much bigger than we are and could toss even the hardiest and wisest captain overboard to drown on its slightest whim.

But you know, we don't have to live in that kind of denial. If we focus only on the winning or losing, only on the extrinsic result, then we can't accept the primacy of chance in our lives, because if only the W or L matters, and the Ws and Ls are mostly determined by luck, then yes, trying is bound to feel futile. But if we focus on the intrinsic and just say, okay, I'll make the best decisions I know how to make and not worry about the outcome, then the fluctuations of luck become just part of the puzzle, not to be judged as either good or bad. And, getting back to Scrabble, that's exactly how I want to learn to approach every rack of every game, though I'm a long way from being there: focus only on making the best decision.


  1. Have you read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers? It's based much on these arguments.

  2. Oddly, Outliers is the one in the trilogy that I haven't read yet, though I am familiar with its main points. Yes, what I'm saying here is along those lines. My views are also informed to some degree by my own experiences; I've dealt fairly often with both "winners" and "losers" and my observations of them have helped shape what I think about issues like this.