Marty Kaplan: Is luck dead?


The trouble with kids these days is that they think luck counts more than they should.  That’s the diagnosis of America’s young people offered by a New York Times opinion piece this past weekend.  Generation Y has moved back home and given up on gung-ho because in these recessionary times, they’re putting too little weight on the importance of effort and too much weight on the riskiness of risk.

This indictment of “” target=”_hplink”>Thinking, Fast and Slow, the one most startling to me is the power he attributes to luck.  This isn’t a philosophical or theoretical point that he’s making; it’s an empirical observation, based on data.

Stock traders, financial analysts, economic forecasters and CEOs may believe that their results are based on research, experience and skill.  On the contrary, says Kahneman, the overwhelming evidence – and he provides plenty of it – is that monkeys throwing darts would be just as good (that is, as bad) at doing their jobs.  Small businesses fail: that’s the rule.  To believe you’re going to be the exception requires not just confidence, it takes a resolute denial of reality.  (Intuition, by the way, is also wildly overrated.)  Every startup inevitably, and usually fatally, overestimates the brilliance of its own vision and underestimates the genius of its competitors.  Entrepreneurs maintain that success derives from sweat and indefatigability, but in fact it nearly always hinges on random, unpredictable events.

Look at the case histories of the wizards of the digital age, says Kahneman, and virtually all of them are testimony to luck.  Pundits and political scientists who get it right are shockingly rare, and when they do, the reason is luck.  The track record of clinicians and therapists depends more on fortune than is humanly bearable to acknowledge.  How an athlete performs on a given day always involves a roll of the dice.  All of history is driven by chance.  Choose any historic figure you like; the sperm and egg that produced them were brought together by blind odds, not by destiny, design or divinity.

This weekend also brought word of the death at age 87 of ” target=”_hplink”>Chance and Necessity, the book by Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist Jacques Monod published a few years later, that opened my eyes to the disturbing notion that chance, not a Book of Life written in the clouds, was the name of life’s game.

Back then, when I first entered college, an ” target=”_hplink”>Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the martyk@jewishjournal.com.

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