I’ve once again been rendered inadequate by xkcd.
It’s difficult for me to describe why it bothers me so much to see successful people giving talks about their good fortune, attributing it instead to hard work and trivializing the luck involved. There’s probably a more appropriate logical fallacy to describe it, but this idea that a person can simply work hard to achieve success seems to be an odd form of legitimizing one’s outsized results in a socially acceptable format, presumably to escape the “Why me?” feeling that ought to accompany ridiculous success.
I’m jealous, to be sure. I’d love to be able to never worry about money, food, or housing ever again. I’d like to be swimming in job offers and never need to take any of them. Who wouldn’t be envious? It’s just that the “hard” work thing sticks in my craw. What does that mean, hard work? Does that mean long hours? Doing things that make you morally uncomfortable? Does it mean physically challenging?
According to Maynard James Keenan’s biography, the band Tool was signed to a record label after just a handful of live shows. Less than ten. (I’m being vague here because I can’t remember the number and I can’t be bothered to look it up. The impact is the same. I think it was eight.) I love Tool’s music and it’s been great to see their success. I truly believe that they deserve it. Certainly they worked “hard” to make their music, but I can’t help but point out that they got ridiculously lucky in being signed to a record contract so soon, and I can’t help but think that it was the luck that played the more significant role. There are countless acts working their asses off, touring, playing shows everywhere, and they either get ignored or end up producing their own stuff to lukewarm reception. Go ahead and try the ol’ ten-show record contract plan today.
So when does the work end up determining the success? Is it possible to be successful without the work? Of course it is, and not just because “successful” is also a moving target. However, keep a D6 in your pocket, and when listening to these successful folks describing the roots of their success, roll it to remind yourself of the role chance plays, because a great many of these people will be, consciously or not, reluctant to admit that they probably didn’t work any harder or better than the hordes of less-prominent people around them. While I enjoy a good inspirational talk as much as the next person, simply saying “I got lucky” tends to take the wind out of the sails a bit, though it shouldn’t.
This might be a peculiarly American thing, or a feature of any culture that tends to over-emphasize the value of labor. Randall Munroe has succinctly described my thoughts on the matter in one frame, in either case.