Why Do We Value Luck Over Effort?

If this blog post makes me a million dollars, I will just keep it a secret and tell everyone that I won the lottery. That would earn me more respect.


Old money vs. New money


Guy from office buys flowers, puts on his best shirt, turns up at girl’s door – it’s an effort. Girl underwhelmed.

Girl’s favorite song plays while talking to the guy in the office – it’s a sign. Girl feels guy is the one.

Call women stupid an irrational if you want, but this pattern runs through all of society. We consistently place luck above efforts, “signs” above intentional actions, the accident of birth above merit.

We suck up to royalty, because they didn’t grab power themselves – their ancestors did. We are more interested in people with a ‘von’ in their names than mere commoners. We suck up to rich men and listen to their business advice – even when we know they had the government enriching them. After all, that support must have been achieved somehow…

We think coincidences have a deep meaning but intentional efforts are suspicious. But why is that?

Because deep down the superstitious mind makes the implicit assumption that “signs” are from above but efforts are by mere humans.

The consequences are ubiquitous.

Take the noble idea of meritocracy, the pure dismissal of luck as a source of getting ahead. Today it is used as a reference to a good thing and it may be better than its alternatives.

But even the original term was coined with a satirical intention.* Because what are the standards of merit? Indeed, who would choose those standards? How to test it? Are we sure we are right to pile resources upon a person with an arbitrary set of skills we now happen to deem more valuable? What happens to those who have different skills?

But even as Plato used the concept (under a different name) to come to the (not at all surprising) conclusion that his own kind, the philosophers should rule – meritocracy today is often just an elegant cloak covering a hidden agenda or self-deception about the true source of success. Is being born with a higher IQ or a philosophical bent a merit?

Just as we don’t respect effort (and new money) as much as inheritance – we don’t really want to be friends with the poor guy who made it rich, when we have the choice of a friendship with a ‘von’ – even HR administrators are more likely to contact people with a noble-sounding or aristocratic name. Someone who bakes cakes for a living and worked her way into affluence is dull. A guy who won the lottery makes us feel that he must be something special to get it.

Today, deference to the idea of meritocracy often just cloaks an underlying structure of luck. It sounds great that every success is the result of some proportionately sized underlying merit, and it serves our inner need to believe that it is a just universe (and someone is keeping scores and sending signs) very well.

Take higher education, for instance. The ethos that a poor but smart guy can enter and end up in the same graduation class as Mark Zuckerberg – and thus, presumably, with the same life chances – is a joke. Firstly, because even the entry tests, whether a standardized test or a subjective essay, is harder for someone who wasn’t prepped or doesn’t think the same way as the insiders. Also, higher education is ‘costly signaling’, a way to get a badge that I know – as opposed to actually knowing it. In an extreme case, someone who goes through and understands everything a university teaches for a course couldn’t get the same opportunities without the badge of a degree because the world truly has no means to ascertain merit and worth. (Plus licensing rules that are completely beside the point 99% of the time.)

But it gets worse, because only in very specific fields does the actual knowledge matter when it comes to life success after graduation. Success, in many fields are still about connections. Life success will require that invisible touch of an uncle’s recommendation, that step up the ladder at a friend’s company, things that a poor graduate still has to apply for to prove his ‘merit’. Merit that recruitment finds very hard to assess.

And this is why Zuckerberg could make it without the badge. A degree is a side effect of education. Very often so is knowledge. But the ethos of meritocracy makes outsiders helpless arguing it, and it also creates the self-serving delusion that inherited genetic or social capital is really earned educational capital.

What are the standards of merit these days? IQ tests are amusing. As academics of the field jokingly admit, IQ is whatever those tests measure. Everyone would quickly point out that IQ is not the only thing that matters – not even to intelligence. And as of success? There are always new trends de jour. Perseverance, self-esteem, grit, empathy – all get their single-minded hype and much money is made on the back of these trends. But other than that, we are still clueless as to what we need to succeed.

Consider this: you can go back to the past, and armed with today’s knowledge, you can try to make a success. You may take your knowledge of an innovation, an idea, a new trend that you now know had changed history. Could you make it? Or would you rely on connections? Circumstances? Luck? Could you spread your economic ideas with the same (unfortunate) success Keynes had – if you were not at the intellectual hub of that world, Cambridge? revered by your peers and moving on to get a job with a government that was just too keen to hear that they can totally manage through manipulating aggregate demand in the economy? Could you convince anyone without being a don at Cambridge, out of Eton, etc?

No, the idea itself would not get you far.

In the end, we all think so and people have an unhealthy reverence for luck in their revealed preferences every time they make a choice. Maybe just another symptom of their underlying sense of not being control of the universe and their own lives in it.

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The Rise of the Meritocracy is a satirical 1958 novel by British sociologist and politician Michael Young that describes a dystopian society in a future United Kingdom in which intelligence and merit have become the central tenet of society, replacing previous divisions of social class and creating a society stratified between a merited power holding elite and a disenfranchised underclass of the less merited. It ended counter-intuitively…

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