IceHrm Looking for an HR software for Your Company?
IceHrm IceHrm team write blogs and tutorials about using IceHrm efficiently to manage HR activities of your organization. Create Your IceHrm installtion here:

Absolute success is luck. Relative success is hard work.

  Reading Time:

In 1997, Warren Buffett, the famous investor, and multi-billionaire proposed a thought experiment.

"Imagine it is 24 hours before you are born," he said, "and a genie comes to you."

"The genie tells you that you can determine the rules of the society you will enter and that you can shape anything you want. You can design the social rules, the economic rules, the government rules. And those rules will apply to your life and the lives of your children and grandchildren."

"But there's a catch," he said.

"You don't know if you're rich or poor, male or female, frail or healthy, born in the United States or Afghanistan. All you know is that you get to take a ball out of a barrel of 5.8 billion balls. And that's you."

"In other words," Buffett continued, "you are participating in something I call the Ovary Lottery. And it's the most important thing that will ever happen to you in your life. It will determine far more than the school you attend, how hard you work, all kinds of things.

Buffett has long been a proponent of the role of luck in success. In his 2014 annual letter, he wrote: "By dumb luck, [my business partner] Charlie and I were born in the United States, and we are forever grateful for the overwhelming advantages this accident of birth has given us."

Explaining it this way, it seems hard to deny the importance of luck, chance, and fortune in life. And indeed, these factors do play a crucial role. But let's consider a second story.

The History of Project 523

In 1969, the fourteenth year of the Vietnam War, a Chinese scientist named Tu Youyou was appointed head of a secret research group in Beijing. The unit was known only by its code name: Project 523.

China was an ally of Vietnam, and Project 523 was created to develop antimalarial drugs that could be administered to soldiers. The disease had become a major problem. As many Vietnamese soldiers were dying of malaria in the jungle as in combat.

Tu began her work by searching for clues wherever she could find them. She read manuals on ancient folk remedies. She sifted through ancient texts that were hundreds or thousands of years old. She traveled to remote regions in search of plants that might contain a cure.

After months of work, her team had collected more than 600 plants and compiled a list of nearly 2,000 possible remedies. Slowly and methodically, Tu narrowed the list of potential drugs down to 380 and tested them one by one on laboratory mice.

"This was the most difficult phase of the project," she says. "It was very tedious and lengthy work, especially when you experienced one failure after another.

Hundreds of tests were conducted. Most of them turned up nothing. But one test - an extract from the sweet wormwood plant known as qinghao - seemed promising. Tu was excited about the possibility, but despite her efforts, the plant only occasionally produced a powerful antimalarial. It wouldn't always work.

Her team had been at it for two years, but she decided they needed to start over. Tu reviewed each test and reread each book, looking for a clue to something she had missed. Then, miraculously, she stumbled upon a single sentence in the Manual of Recipes for Emergencies, an ancient Chinese text written more than 1,500 years ago.

It was on the subject of heat. If the temperature was too high during the extraction process, the active ingredient in the wormwood plant would be destroyed. Tu redesigned the experiment using solvents with a lower boiling point, and eventually, she had an antimalarial drug that worked 100 percent of the time.

This was a major breakthrough, but the real work was just beginning.

The power of hard work

With a proven drug in hand, it was now time to conduct human trials. Unfortunately, at the time there were no centers in China conducting trials for new drugs. And because of the secrecy surrounding the project, a facility outside the country was out of the question.

They were at a dead end.

That's when Tu volunteered to be the first subject to test the drug. In one of the boldest moves in the history of medical science, she and two other members of Project 523 infected themselves with malaria and received the first doses of the new drug.

It worked.

But despite her discovery of a breakthrough drug and her willingness to put her own life on the line, Tu was prevented from sharing her findings with the outside world. The Chinese government had strict regulations prohibiting the publication of scientific information.

However, she was not discouraged. Tu continued her research, eventually learning the chemical structure of the drug - a compound officially known as artemisinin - and developing a second antimalarial drug.

It wasn't until 1978, nearly a decade after her beginnings and three years after the end of the Vietnam War, that Tu's work was finally made available to the public. It would take until 2000 for the World Health Organization to recommend the treatment as protective against malaria.

Today, artemisinin treatment has been administered more than 1 billion times to malaria patients. It is believed to have saved millions of lives. Tu Youyou is the first Chinese citizen to receive a Nobel Prize and the first Chinese woman to be awarded the Lasker Prize for significant contributions to medical science.

Luck or hard work?

Tu Youyou was not fabulously lucky. My favorite fact about her is that she has no college degree, no overseas research experience, and no membership in any of China's national academies - a fact that earned her the nickname "The Professor of Three No's."

But damn, she was a hard worker. Persistent. Diligent. Driven. For decades, she didn't give up, helping to save millions of lives. Her story is a brilliant example of how important hard work can be to success.

A minute ago, it seemed reasonable that the ovarian lottery would determine most of your success in life, but the idea that hard work is important seems just as reasonable. When you work hard, you tend to get better results than with less effort. While we can't deny the importance of luck, everyone seems to feel that hard work really does make a difference.

So what is it? What determines success? Hard work or luck? Effort or chance? I think we all know that both factors play a role, but I want to give you a better answer than "it depends."

Here are two ways I look at the issue.

Absolute success vs. relative success

One way to answer this question is to say that luck is more important in an absolute sense than hard work in a relative sense.

In the absolute sense, one's success is compared to everyone else's. What makes someone the best in the world in a particular field? In this view, success is almost always due to luck. Even if you made a good choice at the beginning - like Bill Gates did when he started a computer company - you can't understand all the factors that lead to world-class results.

As a rule, the greater the success, the more extreme and unlikely the circumstances that caused it. Often it is a combination of the right genes, the right connections, the right timing, and a thousand other influences that no one can predict.

In general, the wilder the success, the more extreme and unlikely the circumstances that caused it.
Then there is the relative view, comparing one's own success with that of others. What about the millions of people who have similar levels of education, grew up in similar neighborhoods, or were born with similar genetic talents? These people do not achieve the same results. The more local the comparison becomes, the more success is determined by hard work. When you compare yourself to people who have experienced a similar level of luck, the difference is in your habits and choices.

Absolute success is luck. Relative success is due to choices and habits.

From this definition, an important insight naturally emerges: the more extreme your results become, the greater the importance of luck. That is, the more successful you become in an absolute sense, the more we can attribute your success to luck.

As Nassim Taleb wrote in Fooled by Randomness, "Easy success can be explained by skill and work. Wild success is due to variance."

Both stories are true

Sometimes people find it difficult to hold both findings at the same time. There is a tendency to discuss results in either a global or local sense.

The absolute view is more global. How do you explain the difference between a wealthy person born in America and someone born in extreme poverty living on less than $1 a day? When people talk about success from this perspective, they often hear statements like, "How can you not see your privilege? Don't you realize how much you've been given?"

The relative view is more local. What explains the difference in outcomes between you and everyone who went to the same school, grew up in the same neighborhood, or worked at the same company? When you look at success from a local perspective, people say things like, "Are you kidding me? Do you know how hard I've worked? Do you know the choices and sacrifices I've made that others haven't?' If you dismiss my success as luck, you devalue the hard work I've done. If my success is due to luck or my environment, why haven't my neighbors, classmates, or co-workers achieved the same?"

Both stories are true. It just depends on which lens you view life through.

The gradient of success

There is another way to examine the balance between luck and hard work, and that is to look at how success is affected over time.

Imagine you could plot success on a graph. Success is measured on the Y-axis. Time is measured on the X-axis. And when you are born, the ball you draw from Buffett's Ovarian Lottery determines the Y-axis intercept. Those who are born happy start higher up on the curve. Those born into more difficult circumstances start further down.

Here's the key: you can only control the slope of your success, not your starting position.

In Atomic Habits, I wrote, "It doesn't matter how successful or unsuccessful you are right now. What matters is whether your habits are putting you on the path to success. You should be much more concerned about your current path than your current results."

You can only control the slope of your success, not your starting position.
With a positive slope and enough time and effort, you may even be able to regain the ground you lost through bad luck. I think this quote sums it up well, "The more time that passes since the start of a race, the less the advantage others had counted."

Of course, that's not always true. A serious illness can ruin your health. A collapsing pension fund can wipe out your retirement savings. Likewise, sometimes luck gives you a permanent advantage (or disadvantage). One study found that if you measure success by wealth, the most successful people are almost certainly those with moderate talent and remarkable luck.

In any case, it is impossible to separate these two factors. Both are important, and hard work often plays a more important role over time.

This applies not only to overcome bad luck but also to taking advantage of good luck. Bill Gates may have been incredibly lucky to start Microsoft at the right time, but without decades of hard work, that opportunity would have been lost. Time erodes any advantage. At some point, luck requires hard work if success is to last.

How to get luck on your side

By definition, luck is beyond your control. Still, it's useful to understand the role of luck and how it works so you can prepare yourself for when luck (or bad luck) comes your way.

In his fantastic talk, "You and Your Research," mathematician and computer engineer Richard Hamming summarized what it takes to do great work: "There is indeed an element of luck, and no, there isn't. The prepared mind sooner or later finds something important and does it. So yes, it is luck. That which you do is happiness, but that you do something is not."

You can increase your lucky area by being active. A gatherer who explores a lot will find a lot of useless terrains, but he is also more likely to stumble upon a rich berry patch than someone who stays at home. Similarly, the person who works hard seizes opportunities and tries more things has a higher probability of experiencing a stroke of luck than the person who waits. Gary Player, the famous golfer and winner of nine major championships, has said, "The harder I practice, the luckier I get."

Ultimately, we can't control our luck - whether we're lucky or unlucky - but we can control our efforts and our preparation. Luck smiles on all of us from time to time. And when it does, the only way to reward your luck is to work hard and make the most of it.

A simple piece of advice by, A promising digital HR platform.

The ultimate productivity hack is to say "no"

Not doing something is always faster than doing it. This statement reminds me of the adage from computer programming, "Remember that no code is faster than...

What I do when I want to give up

I am struggling today. If you have ever struggled to consistently follow through on something you care about, perhaps my struggle will touch you as well....

IceHrm   Create your IceHrm, installation today.