Magic and Luck

Note to my future self..

If you look up the definition of success on Google this is what comes up:

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I think the key word in this definition is apparently. I think that if we can’t attribute success to any particular fact/reason, we believe that success is the culprit.

For a while now I’ve been writing a lot about luck and the role it plays (or that we at least attribute to) in our lives. One of the ideas that kept popping up is this notion that luck is like a a variable that we use to explain a phenomenon for which we have no other reasonable explanation. For example, let’s say:

Success = Timing + Effort + Environment + Knowledge + Luck

I think this is a relatively comprehensive formula for the main attributes of success and anyone who’s successful employed a combination of these factors. Now if you try to explain anyone’s success using this formula you should be able to pinpoint exactly what’s the underlying event/action behind this variable. For example, let’s consider this question → Why did Uber become a success.

Timing: the release of the iPhone and Google Maps a couple years before the start of Uber meant that everyone had an accurate GPS in their pocket. Without it Uber wouldn’t be possible.

Effort: Travis and Garrett (co-founders of Uber) are hustlers and even if they outsourced the initial development of the app they went all in once they saw the opportunity.

Environment: Travis and Garrett lived in SF where public transportation and taxis are pretty bad. Had they lived in NY or London Uber they might have never seen the opportunity.

Knowledge: Again Travis and Garrett where engineers so they were aware that it was possible to build the product given the current technology.

Luck: but why Uber? There were tons of other people w/ similar characteristics some of which even tried to start something like Uber. Why did others fail and Uber win? This is were more information helps answer these questions.

My hypothesis is that you can deconstruct Uber’s (and anyone’s) success if you just had enough information about how things went down. If you had that information, you would still be surprised by the outcome but it would make perfect sense because you could understand the inputs that drove the outcome.

Now I believe that successful people are genuinely surprised at what they’ve been able to accomplish and they attribute that surprise to luck. However, It’s not a probabilistic type of luck. It’s more a “I have this feeling of awe that I can’t really explain in any other way” kind of luck. Understanding this difference is fundamental for seeing that luck is just a variable to help us account for what we don’t know.

Now how does luck then relate to magic?

A quick search for the definition of magic brings this back:

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Again here we see how “apparently” becomes the common thread between both concepts. If you think about it magic is similar to luck in the sense that it’s a word that we use to explain something that we don’t fully understand.

A lot of products and technologies are described as “magical” but in reality what this is saying is that to the end consumer the product feels magical because he or she can’t fully understand how a product/service can do what it does.

Going back to the Uber example, Uber feels magical to many people because you can press a button and a car will “magically” show up on your doorstep. However, if you’re an engineer at Uber chances are that you don’t feel that the product is really magical because you know exactly how the service matches riders and drivers. You might still describe the product as magical because (similarly to the example presented above) you are truly in awe at what the product can do at that scale and have no other words to describe it. The fundamental difference is that for consumers the concept of magic comes from a place of misattribution whereas for the engineer it comes from a place of admiration.

The Takeaway

I think that if we had perfect information, we wouldn’t need the concept of luck. At least not in its current form. If we had all the relevant information about what allowed something/someone to become a success and the mental capability to analyze that information, then we would come a conclusion that draws a causal relationship between the inputs and the output.

This can be super helpful next time I think to myself that someone just “got lucky”. I think that when this happens it’s useful to take a step and realize that I probably don’t know enough about this person to attribute their success to luck(:

That it. Now back to work…