Luck or Passion?

Preface: I wrote a post a while back titled: Lucky or Smart?  Along those same lines, I pose another question: Luck or Passion?  (hint: luck wins every time.)

A very common piece of advice that keeps coming up, over and over again, is “follow your passion”[1].  While this advice is always well intentioned, and perhaps useful in certain circumstances, it may not be as useful as the people giving the advice think.  Scott Adams (creator of the Dilbert comic) has some interesting things to say about this:

“In hindsight, it looks as if the projects that I was most passionate about were also the ones that worked. But objectively, my passion level moved with my success. Success caused passion more than passion caused success.” (emphasis mine)
– Scott Adams, Scott Adams’ Secret of Success: Failure

An interesting idea.  What if passion isn’t something hidden inside of you but instead something that grows in you (presumably with success)?  This might explain why all those super successful people you (and I) idolize are always going on and on about how you need to follow your passion.  Easy for them!  They were already super successful with what they were passionate about.  Success feels good!

So let’s stay with this train of thought.  Success leads to passion, so what leads to success?  Ay, there’s the rub.  No easy answer to that question[2].  Well… except for one: luck.  But it’s a bit more nuanced than that:

“I have a friend who is a gifted salesman […] His biggest problem in life is that he keeps trading his boat for a larger one, and that’s a lot of work.

Observers call him lucky. What I see is a man who accurately identified his skill set and chose a system that vastly increased his odds of getting “lucky.” In fact, his system is so solid that it could withstand quite a bit of bad luck without buckling. How much passion does this fellow have for his chosen field? Answer: zero. What he has is a spectacular system, and that beats passion every time.” (emphasis mine)
– Scott Adams, Scott Adams’ Secret of Success: Failure

What Scott Adams is saying here is that you want a system that maximizes your luck.  We know we can’t control luck but we can control our situation[3].  In other words, developing a system where you’re in more situations where success depends on a mere coin flip rather than the winning lottery ticket.  Luck plays a big role in either situation but the system determines which situation you are in.

There usually aren’t many easy answers in life except for one: luck wins every time.  The secret is figuring out how to maximize luck.  With that, I’m feeling lucky.  I think it’s time to buy a lottery ticket…

  1. In fact, I’ve given this advice many, many times myself.
  2. And why should there be?  Everyone’s situation is unique and everyone’s path to success is different.  Nature doesn’t have many free lunches or else there would be no one to make lunch!
  3. This is reminiscent of optimizing for expected value rather than a high payoff with a low probability of occurrence.  Probability has more life applications than just learning how to gamble properly.