The Game of Life: Luck, Privilege, Hard Work, and Strategy
I recently was discussing with my partner the role that hard work has played in our lives. We had worked hard all throughout our lives to get to a point of mild success. Yet, through the conversation, it became clear that while I attributed my success to hard work, she attributed hers to luck. This feeling, called “Impostor Syndrome” — the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills — plagues many in the workplace, especially women and minorities.
While reflecting on this, it became clear that my own story was shaped in many ways due to luck — the family I was born in, the school I went to, the people I met that helped me along the way. More than “luck”, many of these forces were circumstances of privilege. While luck is the outcome of a dice roll, privilege is how much the dice is loaded. Strategy is how you capitalize on the outcome. And hard work is how much you try and practice.
While luck is the outcome of a dice roll, privilege is how much the dice is loaded.
This should not be surprising. Many research studies show that wealth or luck, not ability, is the biggest predictor of future success. If life was a game, it would have some players starting with better positions on the board, playing with a loaded dice, with different rules for how often to roll. In such a game, it becomes clear that strategy alone doesn’t explain the difference in outcomes. Let’s break it down:
- Luck — your share of the world’s entropy
- Privilege — your unearned advantage
- Hard work — your effort
- Strategy — how you choose to apply your effort
These four forces influence the outcomes of each event in out lives. And they are not independent from one another. In fact, privilege and luck influence everything. For example, those with more privilege can develop stronger strategies and have more time and energy to do hard work. No matter how hard you work, you can’t change your luck or privilege. All this to say that when trying to account for each of these forces in our lives, we will consistently underestimate luck and privilege.
How do you explain your own circumstance? The narrative we tell ourselves as to how we got to where we are colors how we see the world around us.
The narrative we tell ourselves as to how we got to where we are colors how we see the world around us.
From this framework arises many different identities all struggling to make meaning of their circumstances:
- The Lucky Impostor — attributes most of their success to luck, such as the people that gave them these opportunities.
- The Privileged Impostor — attributes most of their success to their privilege (rare).
- The Typical Successful Man — attributes most of their success to their hard work and strategy.
- The Equalitarian — attributes their success equally so as not to think about it too much.
It’s very common for successful people to attribute their success to hard work and strategy. After all — if it wasn’t because of these things, they wouldn’t deserve it and would have to face the hard reality that someone else deserves it more. No, it’s easier to say you got here because of hard work.
So easy in fact that one can quite simply ignore any role luck or privilege had in it — a dangerous circumstance which further reinforces the false premise that if you didn’t make it, it’s because you didn’t work hard enough. The comic below is a great illustration of this.
And I fell into the same trap.
All of a sudden the narrative I have been telling myself was flipped. I started to separate “hard work” and “strategy” from “privilege” and “luck” which continuously built on top of itself throughout my life. Here are some examples of two internal perspectives of the same events:
- I worked hard throughout high school, graduated at the top of my class, studied hard for the SATs, and got into a good college→ I went to an expensive private school with great teachers, had educated and supportive parents, and didn’t wake up hungry. I received SAT training and coaching for college applications and applied early to college to increase my chances.
- I worked hard throughout college, graduated at the top of my class, interviewed at many companies and landed a job at a top management consulting firm → I went to a strong institution designed for learning, got support from smarter friends, had money to buy books and food, benefited from the brand to get in the door, and appealed as a white confident male to a white dominated industry.
- I worked hard throughout my first job, struggled through adversity, got promoted, and courageously took a bet on a startup → I didn’t have crippling debt and enough disposable income to live close to work, fit into the company culture since everyone looked like me, and had a financial safety net to rely on to take more risks.
- I worked hard throughout my next jobs, always taking on more work to get more responsibility and rose through the ranks → I got referred to another company and practiced the interviews to get the job, built upon the brand I accumulated on paper, and got mentorship from senior leadership because they liked me.
- I worked hard to make the company successful, quit while I was on top and started by own consulting business → I was in the right place at the right time, leveraged my Silicon Valley brand and accumulated wisdom I copied to tell other, more competent people how to operate their business.
Yes, I worked hard. But that’s not why I got to where I am today. Not even close. On the flip side, impostors need to realize that they deserve to be here just as much as the next impostor. Because we’re all impostors. This creates a nice progression in how we see ourselves.
We’ll never know how much privilege, luck, strategy or hard work played to get you to where you are today. The point is not to debate how to slice the pie chart, or make people feel like impostors. We’re all impostors. The point is to recognize the role that each of these forces has on your life — and to fight against the easy notion that the forces affecting you are the same as those affecting others.
Attributing your success to hard work is even more common the more successful you are. Lewis wrote his 1989 best seller, Liar’s Poker, “People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck — especially successful people. As they age, and succeed, people feel their success was somehow inevitable.” This is due to the fact that events that work to our disadvantage are easier to recall than those that affect us positively (source: Atlantic). The result is ‘successful’ people not recognizing their privilege and not working to support those less so.
America stands by its “self made man” philosophy — a belief that if you work hard you can make it. Yet studies show that social mobility in the US is dramatically lower than in other so called “socialist” counties (source: Economist). This is largely impacted by the systemic discrimination and injustice plagging the country — it is harder to move up if you are poor, black, gay, trans, female, etc. — the list goes on. A recent study, for example, found that employer callbacks for resumes that were whitened fared much better in the application pile than those that included ethnic information, even though the qualifications listed were identical (source: HBS).
So if we’re all so hard working, then we should be working harder to help those less privileged have an equal footing and break down injustices that create privilege in the first place.
Thanks for reading.