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What Is Luck and What Is Not

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The philosopher and writer Nassim Taleb once said that, “Hard work will get you a professorship or a BMW. You need both work and luck for a Booker, a Nobel, or a private jet.” His point was that certain accomplishments are within the reasonable grasp of someone making incremental gains each day. Outsized success and outlier accomplishments require that and extreme luck or timing. 

This is worth considering for all of us who grew up being told the world was a meritocracy. Of course, it isn’t. Plenty of brilliant people fail to succeed for all sorts of reasons, and plenty of not-so-brilliant people find themselves successful beyond their wildest dreams. The world is a random, even cruel, place that does not always reward merit or hard work or skill. Sometimes it does, but not always. 

Still, perhaps a more usable and practical distinction to make is not between hard work and luck, but between what is up to us and what is not up to us. This is the distinction that the Stoics tried to make and to think about always. Pioneering new research in science—that’s up to us. Being recognized for that work (e.g. winning a Nobel) is not. A committee decides that. The media decides that. Becoming an expert in a field, that’s up to us. We do that by reading, by studying, by going out and experiencing things. Being hired as a professor at Harvard to teach that expertise is not (think of all the people who weren’t hired there over the years because they were female, or Jewish, or Black). Writing a prize-worthy piece of literature—up to us. That’s time in front of the keyboard. That’s up to our genius. Being named as a finalist for the Booker Prize is not.

It’s not that luck, exactly, decides these things, but it is very clearly other people that make the decision. Marcus Aurelius said that the key to life was to tie our sanity—our sense of satisfaction—to our own actions. To tie it to what other people say or do (that was his definition of ambition) was to set ourselves up to be hurt and disappointed. It’s insanity. And it misses the point.

Do the work. Be happy with that. Everything else is irrelevant.

P.S. This was originally sent on October 3, 2019. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism.