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The Sweet Smell of Success

David Brooks critiques Malcolm Gladwell and the renewed interest in the considerable evidence that success is mostly due to good fortune:

Most successful people begin with two beliefs: the future can be better than the present, and I have the power to make it so. They were often showered by good fortune, but relied at crucial moments upon achievements of individual will.

Most successful people also have a phenomenal ability to consciously focus their attention. We know from experiments with subjects as diverse as obsessive-compulsive disorder sufferers and Buddhist monks that people who can self-consciously focus attention have the power to rewire their brains.

I think these are fine points, but they also reflect precisely the sort of misconceptions that books like Outliers and Fooled By Randomness are aimed at clearing up. We look at successful people and see that they share certain common elements. From that, it’s easy to infer that the successful succeeded because of these characteristics in a way that’s unduly strong. We forget to look at all the other people who also share those characteristics.

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To get rich in the United States you pretty much have to work hard. But the idea that success is due to hard work ignores the fact that there are all these other people working hard and not succeeding. Hard work is much more common than success. And advantages of birth and dumb luck are making the difference — separating the hard-working partner at the corporate law firm from the hard-working guy who moved the furniture into the law firm’s office. Similarly, if you only look at the successful traders on Wall Street you’ll probably decide they got rich because they’re smart — these firms usually try to hire smart guys who went to good schools. But if you look at the failures, you’ll see that they’re smart guys who went to good schools, too. The difference between the two groups is luck.