The role of luck in life success

“In the last few years, a number of studies and books…. have suggested that luck and opportunity may play a far greater role than we ever realized, across a number of fields, including financial trading, business, sports, art, music, literature, and science.” Scott Barry Kaufmann

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By Joe Papp – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26473455

I recently read an article by Scott Barry Kaufmann discussing “The Role of Luck in Life Success Is Far Greater Than We Realized, Are the most successful people in society just the luckiest people?” published in March 2018 in the Scientific American. Kaufmann’s article is largely based on a publication by Pluchino et al. (2018), who attempted to quantify luck and talent with some very interesting results*. Their findings fit very nicely with my view, as evidenced by what I wrote four years ago about luck as it applies to my own career in an Entomological Society of Canada blog entitled “Are you feeling lucky today? Is it possible to improve your “luck” in academia?” I firmly believe that you can ‘make your own luck’ in the context of career success. The Roman philosopher Seneca was attributed the quote “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity”, and Pluchino et al. (2018) show that this is indeed the case.

Although I mention a number of lucky events in my 2016 blog, it does not cover everything. Here, I will add four lucky events in my career that I did not mention then. The first one happened just after the teaching assistantship ended at the end of the spring term 1977 at Umeå University, which left me with two months with no income just before leaving for Canada. Because I had worked on spider sorting and identification for a PhD student at a field station just north of Umeå, I had gotten to know some of the graduate students and instructors that also did field work there. One of them mentioned that the Umeå Environmental Department were looking for a student to do some stream invertebrate surveys over the summer. The timing was perfect for me, and I had enough qualifications (and a friend who could guide me through the steep part of the learning curve) to do the job, so I was able to take advantage of that opportunity.

The second lucky event came just after I defended my PhD at Simon Fraser University. A colleague who was doing a special post-doctoral fellowship in forestry across town at the University of British Columbia accepted a position to lead an educational program abroad, leaving the position open. The PI had been on my PhD supervisory committee, and offered me to step into that position, which I happily accepted. Again, the timing could not have been more perfect.

The third lucky opportunity came about as a result of my PhD work. Because of an aversion to sticky material, I had invented a trap now called the “Lindgren funnel trap”

DFB trapping standing

Lindgren funnel trap

(Lindgren 1983), which had been adopted by a small spin-off company for a pest management program to control ambrosia beetles (pinhole borers) using pheromone-based mass trapping. Because I had unique experience with that particular trap, I was offered an Industrial post-doc, and later a position as Research Director, which helped me get landed immigrant status and eventually citizenship in Canada.

The fourth opportunity was really two separate, but linked events. The first was that a friend, who was also qualified to apply, sent a small notice regarding a faculty position at the brand-new University of Northern British Columbia. If he had not sent that to me, I may have remained unaware that the position had been posted since I was not really looking for a job at the time. In my position as research director at the pest management company mentioned above, where I had been for 10 years at this point, I had insisted on my right to publish, and as a result I had about 30+ publications at the time the UNBC position became available. This made me qualified enough to be short-listed along with one of my colleagues. Both of us were applied researchers with respectable CV’s, and we were chosen because the search was for team-players rather than superstars. Unfortunately for me I lost out, but this soon turned into my next piece of luck. My colleague’s spouse refused to move to Prince George, an industrial town with a reputation for cold, long winters and pollution from three pulp mills, so the position was offered to me. I was very happy to accept and never looked back over the 21 ½ years that I and my wife spent there. It should also be stated that my wife’s support and enthusiasm was key to whatever success I enjoyed at UNBC – another piece of luck!

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Evolution of success for the most succesful (a) and the least successful individual (b). From Pluchino et al. 2018.

It may seem that I had nothing but luck in my career, but my 2016 blog and the above is really looking back through rose-coloured glasses to some extent. There is no question that I have had more than my fair share of luck, but it really was a matter of preparation meeting opportunity in most cases. Pluchino et al. (2018) show that the most successful people have average or better talent, but the most successful people are not the most talented people, but do have luck on their side. Research impact is not correlated with productivity, and the dominant funding strategy to reward past excellence, e.g., exemplified by Canada’s Centers of Excellence and Canada Research Chairs, may not be the most productive use of available research fund. Gordon and Poulin (2009) concluded that NSERC could give every applicant a base grant of $30,000 and forego the enormous cost in time and money of the peer review process without loss of productivity. Similarly, Vaesen and Katzav (2017) calculate how much each researcher would receive if Government research funds were distributed equally to all qualified researchers for the Netherlands, UK, and US, concluding that  Bendiscioli (2019) highlight a number of issues with the peer review-based allocation system, e.g., increasing reviewer fatigue, a tendency to only fund “safe” projects (see also my blog “The inertia of science”), use of questionable metrics such as impact factors, journal quality, number of citations, and h-factors to judge excellence. All of these have their own set of problems which may create unwarranted bias against some researchers (Kumar 2009). In addition, Kaufmann lists some additional factors that are due to bias stemming from human nature that is more disappointing than insightful, e.g.:

Those with last names earlier in the alphabet are more likely to receive tenure at top departments;

The display of middle initials increases positive evaluations of people’s intellectual capacities and achievements;

People with easy to pronounce names are judged more positively than those with difficult-to-pronounce names.”

And to overcome those types of biases, you definitely need some luck!

References

Bendiscioli, S. 2019. The troubles with peer review for allocating research funding. Funders need to experiment with versions of peer review and decision‐making. EMBO Reports 20:e49472 https://doi.org/10.15252/embr.201949472

Gordon R and BJ Poulin. 2009. Cost of the NSERC Science grant peer review system exceeds the cost of giving every qualified researcher a baseline grant. Accountability in Research, 16: 13-40, DOI: 10.1080/08989620802689821

Kumar, MJ. 2009 Evaluating scientists: citations, impact factor, h-index, online page hits and what else? IETE Technical Review 26:3, 165-168.

Lindgren, BS.  1983.  A multiple funnel trap for scolytid beetles (Coleoptera).  The Canadian Entomologist  115: 299-302.

Pluchino, A., AE Biondo and A Rapisarda. 2018. Talent vs luck: the role of randomness in success and failure. Advances in Complex Systems 21, No. 03n04, 1850014 DOI: 10.1142/S0219525918500145

Vaesen, K and J Katzav. 2017. How much would each researcher receive if competitive government research funding were distributed equally among researchers? PLoSONE 12(9):e0183967. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0183967

 

*There are literally hundreds of papers and blogs discussing the validity of the peer review system.

About cinnabarreflections

B. Staffan Lindgren is Professor Emeritus at UNBC. Living in Nanaimo, BC. Jack of all trades trying to stay relevant.
This entry was posted in Careers, Opinion, Science, Scientists and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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