Does the most talented succeed?

3 minute read

The most talented succeeds. This is one of the most pervasive concepts in modern culture. The way our education system is organized, the way most funds are allocated, the way businesses make deals, the way people are promoted in the media, the way governments shape society: all of these are deeply rooted in this idea about talent and success.

Unfortunately “the most talented succeeds” is a myth, and recently we had another interesting proof:

“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”

A. Pluchino. A. E. Biondo, A. Rapisarda (2018)
Talent vs Luck: the role of randomness in success and failure

In this research they created a simulation that had a sample population with the same distribution of talent of real population (gaussian curve). Then, they simulated a random distribution of lucky and unlucky events over 40 years. At the end of the simulation the result was the normal wealth distribution we observe in society: some people ended up incredibly wealthy (Pareto law).

Unfortunately the most successful people weren’t the most talented. In multiple runs of this simulation, the result was always the same: the most successful people were the luckiest. And since luck had a random distribution over the population, and most of the population has average talent, the result is the large majority of the succeeding group had average talent.

It’s also interesting to observe how wealthy these successful people became:

  • A moderately talented but luckiest individual was 128 more successful than the average.
  • 20% of the population owned 80% of the capital.

If we try to summarize the above “Pluchino Law”:

A successful person is more likely to be of average talent.

This is interesting in multiple regards.

Regarding ourselves, I’ve often noticed how hard it can be to not compare our success with other people’s. Once we acknowledge this law, we should get a more balanced perspective. Our self-worth isn’t connected to how successful we are.

Regarding our actions, we might want to consider – on the side of improving our talents and our skills – to also improve our ability to find these “lucky” events. In the simulation above the events were random, but luck is just a judgemental word for a statistically improbable positive event. Probabilities can be raised, so we can also try to raise it for ourselves. Excellent ways to do this could be networking with new people or moving to a new place (physical or digital).

Regarding the idea of meritocracy, this law also highlight a major flaw in how success is attributed today in society. We often use curriculum vitae to evaluate people, but these documents are a combination of both talent and luck: an average person with some lucky events can end up having an impressive career, while a more talented one might not. Yet, curriculum vitae are the the foundation on how we select people. That’s one of the reasons why meritocracy ends us just reinforcing bias and making already successful people more successful. Until comes the day we can properly attribute “merit” (as in, talent that was put to work) a positive form of meritocracy is impossible.

It should also be quite clear at this point how investing twice in the same person just because they have succeeded before isn’t too wise — it just represent a new “lucky” event in their life. The person should be evaluated as any other.

We should always remind ourselves of the Pluchino Law. While in some situations the successful person in front of us is truly talented, most likely than not they the same level of talent as most of the people. This applies to them, as it applies to us. This is very hard, given how brainwashed we are every day of the opposite.

Further Sources

Thanks to Mirabai Galati, via Technology Review.