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Analysis: If you’re rich, you’re more lucky than smart. And there’s math to prove it

No one who’s studied business as long as I have — more than 40 years now — should be shocked by the headline above. In fact, I’ve believed for years that luck is a better determinant of success than smarts (or effort). It’s why I adopted a motto soon after my journalism career kicked off that tried to capture the perception: “There is no big-time.” That is, it’s remarkable how many at the top are, well, unremarkable. So I figured luck had to play a lead role in their ascension. I’ve never had occasion to change my mind.

Solman's Sense and Sensibility

But of course, this was a subjective judgment. Now, however, comes support for the cynicism: a study that claims the predominance of luck over talent in the distribution of wealth has been mathematically confirmed. Two Italian physicists — Alessandro Pluchino and Andrea Rapisarda — and one economist — A. E. Biondo —make the case, and they’ve got a computer model to back it up.

Let’s back up a step. The economic inequality data are so familiar by now that they’ve lost the ability to surprise: the world’s richest 1 percent control almost half the world’s wealth; the richest eight men have wealth equal to something like 3+ billion of the world’s poorest.

But why? The most common explanation is that the wealthy have earned it, whether by IQ or intelligence or talent, virtuous hard work (Horatio Alger) or sheer rapacity (The Wolf of Wall St.) Or all of the above, though it’s kind of tough to be both virtuous and rapacious.

But what about good old dumb luck? After finishing the first year of Harvard MBA program (on a journalism fellowship) and then reporting, pondering and writing about business, I couldn’t avoid the conclusion that luck was a — if not the — key determinant of success. And so at the end of our 1983 book, “Life and Death on the Corporate Battlefield: How Companies Win, Lose and Survive”, co-author Tom Friedman and I summed up by writing that “[a] brilliant strategy may prevail in one instance and a brilliant new product may spell victory in another, but behind the bottom line, there are many more crossed fingers than the traditional view of business would lead us to believe.” More recently, the great economic thinker Bob Frank wrote a whole (if short) book featuring its importance, “Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy”.

The academic paper agrees with all three of us. “The largely dominant meritocratic paradigm of highly competitive Western cultures,” write the authors, “is rooted on the belief that success is due mainly, if not exclusively, to personal qualities such as talent, intelligence, skills, smartness, efforts, willfulness, hard work or risk taking.”

Who would disagree? And meritocracy — rule by the merited — sounds so fair, so just.

“Sometimes,” the authors concede, “we are willing to admit that a certain degree of luck could also play a role in achieving significant material success.” But — and here’s their bottom line — “as a matter of fact, it is rather common to underestimate the importance of external forces in individual successful stories.”

How do they know? Look, they write, we take it for granted that intelligence, talent, personal qualities, are all “normally distributed.” That is, there are roughly as many super smart people as super slow ones (with most of us in the middle); roughly as many great athletes as stone klutzes (with most of us in the middle); as many Mother Teresas as Jack the Rippers (with most of us in the middle); as many midgets as giants; and so on.

Yes, it’s the good old “bell curve”: the “normal distribution.” Most human traits are arrayed along it. But wealth, the authors write, follows something called a power law, also sometimes called the “80/20 rule,” with a vast majority of poor people and a very small number of billionaires. The richest eight men having wealth equal to something like 3+ billion of the world’s poorest would be an extreme but telling example.

But think about it, the authors suggest. If smarts and talents and even effort are so normally distributed and wealth is so abnormally distributed, what’s missing to explain the disparity?

“We suggest that such an ingredient is just randomness,” write the authors. “In particular, we show that, if it is true that some degree of talent is necessary to be successful in life, almost never the most talented people reach the highest peaks of success, being overtaken by mediocre but sensibly luckier individuals.” The practical implication is pretty clear: “It underlines the risks of distributing excessive honors or resources to people who, at the end of the day, could have been simply luckier than others.”

For the details, and the math used to “prove” the argument, here’s the paper, and a clear write up of it from the MIT Technology Review. A note that this paper has not been peer reviewed and the model relies on a computer simulation, rather than humans. See if you buy it.

Editor’s note: This post has been updated with more details on the methods and nature of the study.