In a WTF with Marc Maron podcast episode from 2012, musical comedian Bo Burnham said his fortune felt unreal, as if his life were a futuristic VR game. “I could die, take off a helmet, and, look: It’s the Bo Burnham 2000. There’s a whole line of people crying waiting in line,” he told Maron. “I really do think: What’s more likely? That I’m this lucky, or that I’m living in the future.” He’s only gotten luckier. Burnham put out two Netflix specials, what. in 2013 and Make Happy in 2016 (which Sam Harris, host of the Waking Up podcast, said was “wonderful…the final song is one of the best things I have ever seen.”) Last weekend, at 27 years of age, he made his screenwriting and directorial debut with the film Eighth Grade, an anti social media comedic-drama that has 99 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. In the run-up to its release, The New Yorker profiled Burnham: “The former YouTube star turns on the medium that made him famous.” (His fame began in 2006 when a song of his went viral.)
Burnham’s remark on Maron’s podcast recurred to me last week after reading a 2018 paper on talent, luck, and “the role of randomness in success and failure” by a trio of physicists and economists. Burnham confronts his own luck and the feeling of having unearned respect in his work directly, as if he’s intuited what the authors—A. Pluchino, A. E. Biondo, and A. Rapisarda—found. “We show that, if it is true that some degree of talent is necessary to be successful in life, almost never do the most talented people reach the highest peaks of success, being overtaken by mediocre but sensibly luckier individuals.” This isn’t to say Burnham is mediocre. For example, in a song from his 2009 musical comedy album Words Words Words that entranced Ray Romano, Burnham says:
I must be psychotic
I must be demented
To think that I’m worthy of all this attention
Of all of this money you worked really hard for
I slept in late while you worked at the drugstore
My drug’s attention
I am an addict
But I get paid to indulge in my habit
It’s all an illusion
I’m wearing makeup, makeup, makeup
And more recently in a moment of candor before Make Happy’s final song, Burnham diagnoses the cause of his fame. Millennials were raised to believe in the value of self-expression, but “I think we found out no one gives a shit what we think,” Burnham says. “So we flock to performers by the thousands because we’re the few that have found an audience, and then I’m supposed to get up here and say ‘Follow your dreams,’ as if this is a meritocracy? It is not. I had a privileged life. And I got lucky. And I’m unhappy.” Naive meritocracy—the presumption that success is an accurate proxy for talent, skill, and determination—“fails to give honors and rewards to the most competent people,” Pluchino, Biondo, and Rapisarda conclude, “because it underestimates the role of randomness among the determinants of success.”
They built a mathematical model that allowed them to simulate luck and quantify its effect on the success of a group of individuals. At the beginning, 1,000 20-year-olds have the same amount of capital, this model’s measure of success, but not the same amount of talent, which remains static for each person. Over a 40-year timespan, with 6-month timesteps, random events—500 lucky and 500 unlucky during each timestep—affect the capital growth of various people. Getting lucky doubles your capital—but only if you have a sufficient amount of talent to exploit the opportunity. Getting unlucky halves your capital regardless of your talent. At the end of 100 trials, the best performer, in terms of total capital, had a slightly better-than-average talent level (0.6 on a scale from 0 to 1). The authors write that their model “seems able to account for many of the features characterizing the…largely unequal distribution of richness and success in our society, in evident contrast with the Gaussian”—or normal—“distribution of talent among human beings.” In other words, luck explains why there is a gross mismatch between the range of wealth among people and the range of talent and intelligence. “Average IQ is 100, but nobody has an IQ of 1,000 or 10,000,” as the MIT Technology Review put it in an article on the paper.
Their result is consistent with the argument the economist Robert H. Frank made in his 2016 book, Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy. “The whole process of constructing life narratives is biased in ways that almost guarantee that people won’t recognize the role of chance events adequately,” he told interviewer Bob Henderson for Nautilus. We remember the moments or months of perseverance that contributed to our triumphs, but forget, or even fail to notice, when Lady Fortune smiles on us: a great teacher, a chance encounter, or—in Breaking Bad actor Bryan Cranston’s case—having other A-list actors not take up the role of Walter White. “He is today one of the very most sought after actors in his age group,” Frank said. “But I still wouldn’t have heard of him except that [John] Cusack and [Matthew] Broderick turned the role down first.”
But don’t tell your successful friends that they’re lucky, Frank warns. That always seems to backfire. People take it as a put-down: You don’t deserve what you have. To have people grasp the role of luck in their lives, Frank said ask them instead “if they can think of any examples of times when they might have been lucky along their path to the top.” Rather than get angry or defensive, people’s “eyes light up,” Frank said. “They try to think of examples, they recount one to you, and that prompts them to remember another one, they tell you about that one too, and soon they’re talking about investments we ought to be making” in helping the most talented people with less or average luck realize their potential.
New technology has increased the significance of chance events even further, Frank told Nautilus features editor Kevin Berger. “Technology lets the people who are good at what they do extend their reach much more broadly than before. If you’re the best author of tax software, now you can do the taxes for tens of millions of people everywhere,” he said. “So what those kinds of markets do, is they set up huge tournaments. Thousands, tens of thousands of people try to become anointed as the best at what they do and so the prize, if you win, is much, much bigger than before even if the person who wins is only one-tenth of 1 percent better, or just a little luckier, than the next best contestant who didn’t win.”
Frank read and made comments on Pluchino, Biondo and Rapisarda’s paper, which they acknowledge in a note at the paper’s end. The authors echo Frank’s support of ways to raise the average level of luck, like replacing the income tax with a progressive consumption tax, “to counterbalance the unpredictable role of luck and give more opportunities and resources to the most talented [people]—a purpose that should be the main aim of a truly meritocratic approach.” Frank said, to him, good luck seems to matter more than it did when he was growing up in a family without much money. He graduated from Georgia Tech without any debt. “Today to graduate from a good school I’d be $40,000 in debt coming out of college. That’s if I got to college,” he said. “The poor kids today don’t get to participate in music programs, art programs, sports programs—there’s extra fees for those.”
On Maron’s podcast, Burnham admitted that he’s struggled with dealing with the meaning of those dynamics. But Maron eventually had enough of Burnham’s modesty. “What it really comes down to is, when you get your break, and you’re a performer: Can you take advantage of it? Can you build a career out of it?” Maron said. When Burnham acknowledged that he had, Maron added, “So give yourself a break on that one.” Luck isn’t everything.
Brian Gallagher is the editor of Facts So Romantic, the Nautilus blog. Follow him on Twitter @bsgallagher.
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