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6. Februar 2014

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Life is Luck - Here's How to Plan a Career Around It

Daniel Kahneman has claimed the following as his favorite equation:

Success = talent + luck

Great success = a little more talent + a lot of luck

Is the difference between moderate and great success mostly luck, and not skill?
DPA

Is the difference between moderate and great success mostly luck, and not skill?

Kahneman's implication is that the difference between moderate and great success is mostly luck, not skill. Chance plays a much greater role in our careers than we might wish or even realize. Most of us can live with the upside of this observation: we tend to claim credit for good luck anyway. But the downside - the thought of our careers as the playthings of fate - is almost unbearable. Fortunately, we can make decisions that help minimize the influence of bad luck on our lives.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues that $1 million earned as a dentist is not the same as $1 million earned as a rockstar because success as an artist depends much more on chance. If you imagine a game of "career roulette," you end up a starving artist 99 times for every time you end up a rockstar. If you want to minimize the chance of bad luck, he says, be a dentist. There are no "starving dentists."

But our goal isn't simply to minimize the influence of luck; it's to minimize the chance that bad luck will lead to an unacceptable circumstances, be that starving, divorce, failing to achieve the autonomy you crave, etc. In other words, we want to minimize the risk associated with high uncertainty in our careers.

If minimizing the chance of an unacceptable outcome is our goal, what should we look for, when career decisions loom? Here are three answers.

The role of chance in determining performance

The first question to answer is how much of the success in a given field, or for a given project, is due to chance. Domains with a lot of uncertainty - where cause and effect are not well understood, or the context is changing constantly, or factors over which you have no visibility or control play a large role in determining performance - have the highest likelihood of skilled people failing. Evidence of the role of chance often comes in the form of high variance of performance - a right-skewed distribution of project outcomes. We see high variance in investment performance, new product launches, startups, creative industries, and academia, all areas where luck plays an outsized role.

The number of tries you have before poor performance is attributed to skill

Extreme uncertainty is only a problem if the organization holds you responsible for failure that has more to do with chance than with your skill. Well-run organizations will deal with high-variance projects by relying on process metrics and by judging you on diversified outcomes. Process metrics are easiest when the causal mechanism linking behavior and performance is well understood: driving down cycle time in software experiments allows for more experiments, which produces better results. Diversification is either concurrent (making a portfolio of many investments that are held over the same time horizon) or serial (making a series of investments that average out to a portfolio).

The startup world offers an example of serial diversification: everyone recognizes that, even entrepreneurs who "do everything right," will fail more likely than not. But entrepreneurs can diversify over time by being involved in different ventures - dramatically increasing the chance that skill will pay off over time. While luck is the biggest factor in "home-run" successes, the ability to have investors say "call me when you're starting your next company" can be achieved mostly through skill.

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