Lady Luck may trump the self-made man

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 July, 2011, 12:00am

How much is success in life due to luck, chance, or what scientists call probability?

After a decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, when all leads had seemed to dry up, he was found and killed by US commandoes in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Intelligence analysis suggested that there was only a 60 per cent to 80 per cent chance that bin Laden would be in the compound when the helicopters landed. It was a huge gamble that succeeded. Was it luck?

The relative role of chance and determinism in outcomes is a fundamental question that has exercised scientists for centuries. While scientific determinism as developed by Newton on the effects of gravitation on planetary motion is universally accepted, scientists have long pondered the question when several outcomes are possible for a particular event. In 1654, a discussion on a simple game of chance - the rolling of dice - between French mathematicians Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat led to the formulation a theory of probability that describes events with many possible outcomes. In the 19th century, another mathematician, Pierre de Laplace, applied the study of chance to an array of scientific and practical problems. He and others developed important applications of probability still in use today: for example, the theory of errors showing accuracy in measurement; actuarial mathematics in analysing mortality; statistical mechanics in studying the thermodynamic properties of billions of large particles; and even the mundane calculation of the winning amount in a lottery.

There is a tendency in us to see outcomes (especially positive ones) as the result of our actions, not as a matter of chance. Yes, debate rages on the roles of nature and nurture in shaping the success of individuals, but resistance is strong to crediting Lady Luck. Perhaps this is because humans are unique in having the ability to plan for the future based on the present. This leads to the assumption that man is master of his destiny, his actions directly correlating with the outcome of events. A CEO increases his company's value because of his vision and strategy. A trader earns gazillions because of his nimble manipulation of financial markets. A general wins battles because of his leadership and audacity.

The contrarian 'mathematician of uncertainty' Nassim Nicholas Taleb (pictured) questions that assumption. He thinks success is largely due to chance, and describes those who don't give chance its due as 'fooled by randomness'. In his framework, the life experience of a person is just one sample among many similar life experiences. The fact that a particular person is successful is mostly a random outcome, like the roll of a dice. For example, the successful executive's background is similar to those of many other executives with his skills and experience: They probably went to similar schools, had similar work experiences in their industry, worked in similar companies. Chance plays a greater role in his success than he is willing to admit. By ignoring the other executives and focusing on the successful one, he appears to have unique qualities in creating success. This focus is known as survivor bias.

Then there are people who accept the role of chance but believe that they can overcome it. Some gamblers believe they can beat the casino even though the rules of the game are designed to stack the odds against them. They may get lucky in the short term, but in the long term, they will lose. Einstein once said: 'No one can possibly win at roulette unless he steals money from the table while the croupier isn't looking.'

In life, perhaps one can better achieve peace of mind by recognising the role of chance. After all, accommodating randomness, rather than assuming that all information is known precisely, has allowed scientists and engineers to design better systems. For example, fuzzy set theory was developed by Lotfi Zadeh, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of California in Berkeley, for cases where a system is imprecise. His theory was applied to a design of elevator systems that minimises the waiting time for passengers. This type of system is now used in elevators worldwide. And the random disturbances caused by turbulence and wind shear are always factored into the design of control systems for airplanes.

To what degree are our lives influenced by chance, and how do we reconcile that with hard work? Is success just about being in the right place at the right time? Perhaps the answer is that while Lady Luck always lurks in the background, fortune favours the prepared.

Tom Yam is a Hong Kong-based management consultant who holds a doctorate in electrical engineering and an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He has worked at AT&T, Ernst & Young and IBM


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