Lucky or smart?

When I was young, I was taught one universal truth: do well in school and you’ll be successful.  While it’s a nice simplistic view of the world, it’s not entirely accurate.  Let’s put that aside the fact that there are no universal truths for a second, and focus on the sentiment of the message: studying makes you smart, and smart make you successful.  For anyone who has gone out into the “real” world, you know that the people who studied the most are definitely not the smartest; and that the people who are the most successful are definitely not the smartest.  So where’s the disconnect?  Let’s take a look in more detail.

To start off with, smarts (or intelligence) is a loaded word.  People who do well in school are generally “book” smart but not necessarily “street” smart, “social” smart, “emotional” smart or the other millions kinds of smart.  So of course this simplistic view of smart doesn’t really capture these subtleties, but may I ask how you are going to explain these subtleties to a ten year old?  The answer is: it’s very difficult.  Which is why I think there is a lot of utility in such a simplistic phrase.  School is something kids know about, doing well in school is a simple proxy for being (all the different kinds of) smart, so telling them to do well in school makes lots of sense.  This is not the main problem I have with this “universal” truth, it’s the second part that I want to discuss.

Smart equals success[1], doesn’t it?  Well it’s certainly what most successful people (and the media) would want you to believe.  The brilliant billionaire who amassed his fortune with nothing more than his smarts and gratuitous amounts of hard work.  The Nobel laureate who received (arguably) the highest achievement in scholarship using his towering intellect and dedication to research.  The athlete who got was awarded the gold medal at the Olympics through her physical genius and hard work.  In fact, if you were to look at each one of these success stories, you’d see a common pattern: smarts and hard work played a critical role in their success.  The only issue here is that there’s a hidden part that you don’t see; the thousands who were just as smart and who worked just as hard but didn’t achieve the fame and success of these winners.  In other words the idea of survivorship bias: we only see the winners (or those who survived) and not the thousands who didn’t.  So we assume that any qualities that are common in the winners will lead someone to winning, when in fact they are only necessary.  Put another way, if you’re not (at least a bit) smart[2] then you definitely won’t be successful.  If you are smart, then you maybe will be successful.  And the maybe is the part that always seems to be left out.  The part that no one seems to want to acknowledge.  Not the billionaire, not the scientist, and definitely not the athlete.

So what then does the maybe really mean?  It means that success depends not only on smarts (and hard work) but also on luck.  No matter how hard you work, no matter how smart you are, if you’re unlucky then you won’t be successful.  It may not be fair but that’s how the world works.  That’s not to say smarts isn’t important.  Being smart opens up a lot of opportunities that can lead to “luck”.  So then a more useful model of success is this quote:

“It’s better to be lucky than smart, but it’s easier to be smart twice than lucky twice.”

It’s not the simplistic view of the world that you would tell a child but definitely more accurate.

So, lucky or smart?  Of course, lucky but I wouldn’t bet on it.  Besides, I’ve already been lucky enough so far by living in a country that has a plethora of opportunity, being born into a family with the means to gain smarts, and most importantly having people around me who love and care about me.  With all that luck on my side, I’m afraid I might not have much more left.  That’s okay though because if there’s one thing that I learned as a child it’s that being smart and work hard will lead me to success.

  1. Let’s put aside the philosophical debate on what success means and just use it as a vague concept of “doing well” in life with respect to cultural norms.
  2. By smart, of course, I mean any of the millions of different kinds of smart