How Luck and Effort Influence Our Success

Treat Thompson



This is a republishing of The Steady Fella Newsletter. Twice a month readers use the timeless insights on passion, productivity, philosophy, and happiness from this newsletter to build towards the life they want.

What we’ll learn (in 4 minutes):

👨‍🏫 Topic: What type of success are we capable of reaching and how

🔍 Quote: Bruce Lee on success

📜 Passage: Morgan Housel on why some people behave as they do

How Luck and Effort Influence Our Success

Everyone wants to be successful, but is it within our control?

Luck and Success

Throughout Warren Buffett’s life, he’s consistently attributed a vast amount of his success to luck.

He’s been lucky that evaluating businesses is valuable to our society, he’s had random occurrences lead to lucrative investments, and he’s been lucky that failed businesses didn’t destroy him early on.

But most importantly, he got a head start by winning the Ovarian Lottery.

The Ovarian Lottery is the random circumstances we’re born into: the country we’re born in, our ethnicity, our social class, our gender, our genetics, our parents, etc. These are all determined by chance.

Buffett calls it “the most important event you’ll ever participate in.”

Buffett acknowledges that he won the Ovarian Lottery by being born a white male in the United States, having great parents, and possessing natural talents. These circumstances gave him staggering advantages in life.

Effort and Success

It’s hard to deny the importance of luck, randomness, and good fortune in life. However, there are still many occurrences of people finding success with seemingly zero luck.

We’ve all heard the story of an athlete rising out of their impoverished neighbourhood to play in a professional sports league or the immigrant who brings their family to a foreign country and creates a new life full of success.

These stories are perfect examples of how important hard work, persistence, diligence, and drive can be in achieving success and overcoming the bad hand’s life deals.

You can’t dismiss this group’s success as luck because it takes effort to rise above poor circumstances.

What Determines Success?

So what determines success? Hard work and effort or good fortune and chance?

Both are important factors, but the answer is that they each contribute to different kinds of success.

Luck matters more in absolute success and effort matters more in relative success.

Absolute Success

Absolute success is how successful you are compared to everyone else in the world. The people at this level are among the best on Earth in a particular domain. Think of successful people globally, like Jeff Bezos, Michael Jordan, and Will Smith.

Success is always attributable to luck at this level—the more extreme the success, the more luck was involved.

Relative Success

Relative success is how successful you are compared to those with similar circumstances as you. Circumstances include your gender, the social class you were born into, what level of education you received, etc.

If someone with the same circumstances as you reaches a higher level of success, the difference is hard work, habits, and choices—not luck.

We now know that success is in your hands, not a stratospheric success, but relative success. This means that wherever you start in life, you have to power to reach a higher place. It won’t be on top of the world, but it can be better than where you are now with effort.

The best way to look at the impact of luck and effort is to examine how it influences success over time.

Luck and Effort Over Time

Let’s put success and time on a graph. Success is the Y-axis, and time is the X-axis.

When we are born, we are randomly placed somewhere on the Y-axis. This represents the circumstances mentioned previously (gender, social class, etc.). The luckier you get, the higher up on the Y-axis you’re placed.

For example, a male born in the United States will start with much better circumstances in life than a female born in India.

In life, we can only control our slope, not our initial position. So regardless of if I’m born into the Bezos family or an impoverished family, I control whether my success rises or declines with effort and good choices.

The more time passes from the start of a race, the less the head-start others got matters.

Consistency isn’t just important for overcoming bad luck; it’s also crucial for capitalizing on good luck. Bill Gates might have been incredibly fortunate to start Microsoft at the right time in history, but the opportunity would have been wasted without decades of hard work.

If you’re reading this, the odds are that you won the Ovarian Lottery. We are a lucky group of humans. We should honour our good luck by working hard to make the most out of life.

Thinking that success is based on luck is a very demotivating idea. It robs us of a sense of purpose because how far we can take our dreams is out of our hands.

But I'm happy to report with this newsletter that it's not true. Astronomical success is based on luck, but being better than our starting point is all dependent on us.

As James Clear says, "your current trajectory matters more than your current results."

Featured Quote

The successful warrior is the average man, with laser-like focus. - Bruce Lee

Everyone can reach success; it just won’t be handed out. It takes drive, effort, and focus.

Featured Passage

Your personal experiences make up maybe 0.00000001% of what’s happened in the world but maybe 80% of how you think the world works. People believe what they’ve seen happen exponentially more than what they read about has happened to other people. We’re all biased to our own personal history. Everyone. If you’ve lived through hyperinflation, or were born to rich parents, or have been discriminated against, you both understand something that people who haven’t experienced those things never will, but you’ll also likely overestimate the prevalence of those things happening again, or happening to other people.