Rethinking Work, Luck and Success
Issue   |   Tue, 03/20/2018 - 22:52

Success is one of those words that, like love, hate or freedom, means something very different who, when and where you ask. However, here is a common denominator when it comes to our understanding of success that, at least at this point in time, in our culture, is prevalent above all else: money. Taking this notion of success — albeit reductive and superficial — reflectively we want to assign the outcome to some personal attribute like being smart, hardworking or patient. These are heuristics at best. There are plenty of mediocre folk who are “successful,” and plenty of intelligent folk who aren’t. The question is then, what can best explain someone’s ascendant to wealth? Well, a new research study conducted by physicists Alessandro Pluchino and Andrea Rapisarda, along with economist Alessio Biondi, suggest that luck, not talent, is the strongest factor. This finding may be disheartening to hard-working college students trying their luck with finance, legal work, medicine or other lucrative career options. But rather than shifting our trajectory, it should shift how we think of our own position and responsibility to society.

The study was conducted through a computer simulation in which an imaginary world was filled with 1,000 digital people, each was attributed varying levels of talent (intelligence, skill, effort, etc.) and each was given an equivalent unit of capital. During the simulation of 40 years, these individuals randomly encountered lucky or unlucky events, and by the end of it the distribution of wealth (read: success) largely resembled the unequal, skewed realities of our physical world. The talent level was a weaker predictor of success than the exposure to lucky events. Those with a higher level of talent were more likely to make the best out of a lucky event, but overall, the simulation affirmed that luck is more important than talent for making money.

What do we make of findings such as these? Perhaps our faith that the reward systems we’ve put in place are meritocratic should be more critically questioned. Perhaps donating to charity is more of an obligation than a simple act of kindness. Since wealth isn’t the product of “hard work” that merited compensation, it feels less like that money is rightfully owned by any particular individual. Or maybe bonuses in work settings ought to be distributed randomly — without regard for past performance — rather than to those who are already achieving success, since this tends to affirm the notion that those who are successful are achieving it through merit. In short, we should strive to devise systems that dispel the notion of “meritocracy” and instead seek to democratize luck.

But what does it mean for us here at Amherst College? For one, we can be mindful that being at Amherst is, despite all our hard work, also a product of lucky events. In addition to that, we can rethink what it means to be successful. Perhaps this will change our course of action here at Amherst. Being successful might mean being a great friend or reading the books you’ve bought but never actually had the time to appreciate because of all the work we have. It could be taking care of one’s mental health and prioritizing that over pressures to be “successful.” Or it could remain becoming wealthy. In that case, though, make sure you’ve got a decently-sized list of causes to give your money to.

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