We’re often reluctant to credit our good fortune purely to luck. We’d much rather put a material gain or positive outcome down to our brilliant intelligence, smarts, skills or hard work.

But if success is directly correlated to our ability, why do there seem to be so many rich people with mediocre talent? And why aren’t the smartest people in the world also the wealthiest?

A new paper authored by a team of Italian researchers, physicists Alessandro Pluchino and Andrea Rapisarda and economist Alessio Biondo, used a computer simulation of success defined by financial wealth to show that the most successful people in the world aren’t necessarily the most talented. They are the luckiest.

Good things happen to mediocre people

The researchers created an imaginary world, filled with 1,000 individuals with varying levels of talent in random positions who were exposed to random lucky and unlucky events.

Each person started with the same amount (10 units) of capital. Their level of talent (characteristics like intelligence, skill or effort) influenced the probability that they would be able to turn a lucky opportunity into more capital. After a simulation of 40 years, meant to represent a person’s career, the distribution of wealth looked an awful like it does in the real world, with a small percentage of people obtaining the most capital.

Very often, the most successful people are moderately talented but very lucky - Alessandro Pluchino

“Were the most successful people also the most talented ones? That’s what we would expect… if we assume that we reward the most successful people because they are more talented or intelligent than other people, says physicist Pluchino.

“But we discovered that this is not the case. Instead, very often, the most successful people are moderately talented but very lucky.

“We discovered a strict correlation between luck and success. Encountering a series of lucky events was responsible for incredible success even if their individual talent was lower than super talented people.

“This is what we usually see around us in the real world. There are plenty of instances of people who we don’t consider particularly smart but in some way they reach a high level of wealth and success.”

Of course, you need a certain level of talent to be able to exploit those lucky opportunities, the researchers say, and this "talent" can be anything from capacity for hard work to intelligence, to actually being hard working.

But talent alone is not enough. In the simulation, the people who had the highest level of talent only made up a small portion of successful people.

Share the wealth

These results could have implications for the way policy makers and funding agencies distribute opportunities, such as handing out financial grants for academic research. And this could mean that the most talented people – the people most likely to progress innovation forward – get a better chance to shine through.

The team found several alternatives that could change the way we currently reward people who are already successful.

For instance, instead of handing out bonuses for already high-performing sales people, one strategy could be giving a small amount of money to everyone, which was more effective than the meritocratic system in the computer simulation.

Even giving money to 25% of people at random (regardless of their past performance) led to a higher percentage of the most talented people in the computer model who achieved success than rewarding the most successful people, since as we know, success was largely a proxy for luck.

But past performance is no guarantee of future performance, warns Biondo. “If you value merit exclusively by means of past results, once you realise your past results can be generated not only by talent, but also because of fortunate events, then you are rewarding luck, not merit.”

By exposing people to more fortunate events, you provide more opportunities for hidden talent to emerge in society - Andrea Rapisarda

This has interesting implications for society as a whole and could creating more opportunities for everyone across the board. “It means improving education, healthcare, all of this is part of the project,” says Rapisarda. “By exposing people, especially at a young age, to more fortunate events, you provide more opportunities for hidden talent to emerge in society.”

The rich get richer

Other than informing policy on a macro-economic level, there are individual benefits to understanding the role of luck – for example being born in a developed country, or to wealthy parents – in our fortunes.

We remember when we overcome barriers, but often overlook the advantages we’re given to reach a goal

We tend to pay special attention to the factors in our lives that we see holding us back from success, and forget about all the factors that help us. A 2016 study labelled our tendency to overlook luck as a headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry: we remember when we overcome barriers (working against a headwind), but often overlook the advantages we’re given to reach a goal (like a tailwind).

Luck can also make us more generous. Another study, by author of Success and Luck Robert Frank, demonstrated that when people realised they were lucky or fortunate, they were more likely to give money to charity.

In the study, three groups were asked to recount a positive event. One group was asked to list personal traits that caused the event, another was asked to list external causes, and a control group just recounted the positive experience. They were all given a monetary bonus and opportunity to donate it. Participants who listed external causes donated 25% more to charity.

“It’s hard to get people to think about external forces and events,” says Frank. “But we find that if you prompt them to think about it – by asking about a time when they were lucky, rather than telling them they were lucky – the more generous people become and more willing to contribute to the common good.”

By definition, lucky events – where you are born, what family you are born into, who you meet – are largely out of your control and up to random chance. But even the Italian researchers believe there are things we can do to try to increase our luck.

“Expose yourself to as many casual interactions and opportunities as possible,” says Pluchino. “It’s also true that if you will still need luck.

“But you probably won’t find lucky opportunities if you stay locked in your room.”

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