Thursday, November 28, 2013

Advocates of luck as an explanation are enemies of freedom

From We Owe the Beatles to Luck by Cass R. Sunstein.
You might think that the Beatles, probably the most successful popular musicians in the last 50 years, were bound to succeed. But an astonishing new book, "Tune In," by Mark Lewisohn, suggests otherwise. Without explicitly saying so, Lewisohn’s narrative raises the possibility that without breaks, coincidences and a lot of luck, none of us would have ever heard of the Beatles.
The author recounts a long string of barriers and reverses preventing the Beatles from gaining traction. Until they did.

These kind of articles drive me crazy. There is a whole world view eager to establish that successful people are simply lucky people. That success is purely a matter of being in the right place at the right time. The paradoxical thing is that these people, and Sunstein is an example, are usually quite successful themselves. It is hard to believe that they believe their own positive outcomes are purely based on luck and that they had no material contribution to the outcome.

Malcolm Gladwell made much the same argument in Outliers.

People that believe all outcomes are essentially a matter of luck tend also to believe that that contingency therefore justifies collective action to rectify mere luck. If you did not earn your success, the argument goes, you are not entitled to it. If all outcomes are simply random luck, then all success can be justifiably appropriated to rectify the bad luck of others.

Human processes are non-linear and complex with unexpected tipping points, hidden feedback loops, extreme sensitivity to initial conditions and other characteristics which make it very difficult to precisely and accurately forecast a given outcome for specified inputs. Things like architecture, engineering, manufacturing, Newtonian physics are all nice, predictable, and incremental in nature. Do X and Y occurs. The Sunsteins of the world take this hoary way of thinking and apply it with great confidence to the human condition to great disappointment of all parties.

Looking at the experience of the Beatles, it is undeniable that there were a lot of random events and contingent circumstances preceding their eventual success. The reality is that any endeavor is prone to failure; failure is pretty much the norm. It is the taking of chances and the perseverance and adaption to new circumstances which distinguish the eventual success from the otherwise to be expected failure. Were the Beatles lucky? Sure. But only because they continued to take the risks and persevered in the face of failure, time and again, until ultimately they accomplished what they did.

Seneca, On Benefits, vii. 1
"The best wrestler," he would say, "is not he who has learned thoroughly all the tricks and twists of the art, which are seldom met with in actual wrestling, but he who has well and carefully trained himself in one or two of them, and watches keenly for an opportunity of practising them."
Often summarized as Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.

Luck is not an explanation, it is a given. We all exist in an environment of fluctuating randomness and desirable outcomes are only achieved through the capacity to manage the consequences of that fluctuating randomness. Some do this well, others not.

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