Talent or Luck?


There’s a lot of discussion about “bad luck” and “good luck” around here. My mom, who was visiting from Boston last week even asked me, “Do you believe in luck?”

My answer is that our concept of “luck” is fundamentally time-based. In other words, given enough time (or iterations), luck, or randomness, melts away, and each of us tends to our talent level.

For example, you can look at a guy like Matt Cohler.  He joined LinkedIn when he first got to Silicon Valley around 2003. Luck? Maybe. Then he joined Facebook. Luck? Hmm… Now he’s an equal Partner at Benchmark. At this point, it’s getting hard to claim luck as the explanitory variable for his success.

Were you unlucky not to raise money before the crash? Were you unlucky when your co-founder went wacko? Were you unlucky not to sell your company when it was soooo close? Maybe, but there may also be a pattern that a third party could easily discern.

I can point to 30+ lucky things that happened to me in the last 10 years that have allowed me to be where I am (where ever that is…). When people ask me about it, I tell them it’s mostly luck. And that’s true for each individual event. However, the full truth is that if you back away and look at a person’s career over 10-15 years, those thirty lucky things happen because of their processes and decision making.

For instance, those thirty lucky things happened because my team and I always work hard enough to have multiple options for every key success factor such as revenue sources, where to lease real estate, who to raise money from, who to hire for a key position, who to partner with, methods for trimming costs, etc. These thirty lucky things happened because I had reasonable judgment on who the good people were. They happened because I chose to move to San Francisco instead of staying in Boston. They happened because I stayed in the game long enough to survive 300 bad things so the 30 good ones could fall on me. Etc. My processes and judgment were such that over time, I am where I am. Over the same period, some people have soared higher, some lower.

It often feels like luck plays a huge role. But as time goes on, there is no such thing as luck.


4 thoughts on “Talent or Luck?

  1. carl says:

    May I recommend you read “The Black Swan” by Nassim Taleb or “Fooled by Randomness” from the same author and – also perhaps – you want to reconsider afterwards…

  2. Vikramaditya says:

    What about being at the right place at the right time? Is that a greater factor than luck and time combined?

  3. I agree. While I do believe that things happen outside of one’s control, in the long run, patterns in life are not a series of coincidences. As someone who spends a lot of time looking at resumes looking for patterns and clues to someone’s makeup, I see this profoundly.

  4. I agree, James. Your point is well-said. Luck does have some impact, but personal decision making usually matters more. That said, I believe that best “luck” any American ever had was being born in the USA. Our country still provides more opportunity and more freedom than any other country in the world.

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