“Stephen King -- THE Stephen King -- walks into a bookstore,” said Mazur, “and he picks up this copy of a thing called ‘Fieldwork.’ He buys the book and he thinks it’s wonderful, and he writes for Entertainment Weekly, essentially he’s saying, ‘This is the Great American Novel.’”
The up-shot? It became a finalist for the National Book Award.
In other words, luck is NOT something we control. Stuff just happens.
“The world, in some sense, is just intrinsically random,” said sociologist Duncan Watts, a principal researcher at Microsoft. He says success is mostly arbitrary.
“The Mona Lisa is probably my favorite example of the role of luck in success,” Watts said. “It’s probably the most famous painting in the world and the most famous painting in history. And yet if you’re like me and millions of other people, and you went to the Louvre, and you finally saw the Mona Lisa, you might have been just a little bit disappointed. You sort of look at this painting, and you think, ‘Really? That’s what all the fuss is about?’”
The fuss all began with a series of chance occurrences, with the painting only becoming famous in the last century. “It sort of sat in palaces of kings for a couple of hundred years,” said Watts. “This young Italian who was working at the Louvre was apparently disgruntled that this masterpiece that rightfully belonged in Italy was sitting in France. And so he stole it. It sort of became this kinda media fiasco and really drew a lot of attention to this painting.”
“You’re saying that absent that, it might never have become famous?” Spencer said.
“The Mona Lisa got lucky!” he laughed.
But what about the actual painting? Was Leonardo onto something, or is the Mona Lisa’s fame just blind luck?
“I could do a painting,” Spencer said, “and, you know, no matter how much hype and attention it got, it’s unlikely it would be put in the same category with the Mona Lisa.”
Watts laughed. “It’s not that the things that succeed don’t have to be good in some sense. It’s that there are many things that are equally good and could equally have been as successful, and we’ve never heard of any of those things.”
So if you could re-wind the world and let luck play out again, Watts says there might not be a Mona Lisa ... or a Bob Dylan ... or Harry Potter, all of whom benefited from being in the right place at the time.
“Some little random accident that happens early on,” Watts said, “and then that builds on itself, and that builds on itself, and then many years later, we have this huge effect that we are unable to explain except by saying this thing is unique and special,” he said.
Spencer asked, “Do you think you’re lucky?”
“Oh, absolutely!” he laughed.
Our CBS poll found seven out of ten Americans feel the same way. They are mostly lucky, and as luck would have it, that includes everyone we interviewed.
Joseph Mazur considers himself lucky, as does Michael Kearns.
It appears some things are just luck. “Many, many things are just luck!” Watts affirmed.
For more info:
- ”What’s Luck Got To Do With It? The History, Mathematics and Psychology of the Gambler’s Illusion” by Joseph Mazur (Princeton University Press); Also available in eBook format
- The Science of Luck (Karla Starr’s blog at Psychology Today)
- Michael Kearns, Department of Computer and Information Science, University of Pennsylvania
- Duncan Watts, Microsoft Research
- ”Everything Is Obvious: How Common Sense Fails Us” by Duncan J. Watts (Crown Business); Also available in eBook and Digital Audio Download formats