Recently, I’ve read a number of articles by successful people about how they approach their lives and how these approaches got them to where they are in life and career.  These articles usually have a number of good ideas about prioritization, organization, and life management, and as these are typically highly accomplished individuals, their ideas certainly carry some pretty solid credibility.

It seems I’m not alone in feeling that these highly successful folks might have some key insights onto the way to big things.  Certainly recent books like Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” have stimulated a lot of interest and discussion.  Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten to read Lean In yet, but I did read Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs bio last year with great interest.  Along related lines, my parents (!) sent me the Tiger mom book, which I just couldn’t bring myself to read.

I’m a academic physician-scientist, and have been swimming in academia pretty much all of my adult life.  While interesting and rewarding, it’s a challenging profession that constantly makes me ask whether I’m “doing it right.”  For me, it’s the typical issues of professional and personal life balance, trying to do anything at all well, while trying to remain at the very least, sane and married.  On the professional side, there are a lot of examples of highly intelligent people who, for one reason or another, drop out of academia.  There are also a lot of examples of people who do extraordinarily well in academia, with many people wondering exactly why.  There are also examples of professionally successful people who have had to sacrifice relationships, family, on their way up.  I recall one of my professors in medical school saying, “Regarding research, medicine, and family, pick any two.”  Yikes.

But then, one of my friends highlighted a blog post by Radhika Nagpal, in which this highly successful Harvard professor talked about how she managed to balance work, life, and being a tenure track prof at Harvard.  It’s possible, by golly, success in academia balanced with a reasonable work week and family!  One key piece of her approach:  “I stopped taking advice.”  Wait, what?  Ceci n’est pas une pipe?

I actually liked Radhika’s blog post quite a bit.  Her non-advice about not taking advice highlighted an interesting point: the experiences of the people giving advice are not necessarily relevant to your experiences.  It got me thinking about how relevant any of these collections of success stories are to any specific individual.

A recent article in PNAS suggests that the experiences of the super-successful should probably not be emulated.  From their abstract: “the highest performers may not have the highest expected ability and should not be imitated or praised. We show that whether higher performance indicates higher ability depends on whether extreme performance could be achieved by skill or requires luck.”  Basically, they show that extreme success can depend on factors unrelated to the skill of the participant, and can be more influenced by the nature of the game.  If performance depends highly on prior performance (i.e. if you’re more likely to be successful if you were successful in the prior game), chance will greatly affect the final outcome.  How they put it: “Chance events can substantially influence outcomes when wi (the dependency on prior results) is high, because initial outcomes then strongly influence subsequent outcomes and players with low levels of skill who get lucky initially may have many successes. Similarly, players with high levels of skill could get unlucky initially and may have many failures. As a result, the association between skill levels and eventual outcomes will be weak when wi is high.”

There are examples where performance is highly related to skill and not chance.  As the authors write: “In other settings, extreme performance is unlikely to be due to luck. Skills may vary substantially whereas chance events can only have a limited impact, such as in a marathon race where both amateurs and professionals compete (amateurs of low skill are very unlikely to beat professionals). In such settings, performance is a good indicator of skill and, as our second model shows, extreme performance may be especially informative.”

But overall, the idea that chance (luck) plays a significant role in many competitive domains seems to have relevance to career performance.  While it’s pretty hard to quantify the relationship between prior results and outcomes, I would assert that it’s certainly not independent in most careers.  Most of us aren’t making our living running marathons.

This idea that luck plays a significant role in where we end up in our careers is not something that comes up much in many writings about and by highly successful individuals.  I’ve often pondered how my life would be different had I turned left instead of right at a particular juncture.  What would have happened if I had spelled “terrazzo” correctly in the National Spelling Bee when I was in the eight grade (only put in one “r” not thinking about the origins of the word)?  Probably nothing much different, but maybe…  more humanities, less science??

These stories of successful people also tend to focus on their successes.  We all love hearing about successes.  However, I’ve been getting more interested in failures.  I’m certain that successful people have had their share of failures in their careers and lives.  The story of former President Nixon springs to mind when thinking of failures.  The number of times Nixon’s career seemed to be over was remarkable (“you won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore” was quite early in his career).  Yet, Nixon would re-emerge in the public area, stronger than ever after his time in the wilderness.  This extreme performance can’t be pure chance, can it?

What is the relationship between chance and failure in our lives?  How much control do we have over our own destiny?  How significant are individual events in shaping the course of our personal history?  Can a butterfly’s flapping really cause a hurricane?

The significance of chance in our lives is both disconcerting and reassuring.  Disconcerting because it is chance, and we therefore have no control over it.  Reassuring because it is chance, and we therefore aren’t fully to blame for our failures.  And what of failure?  Inspiration can be found from the response to failure and reassurance from the knowledge that no one is immune from failure.

image: Frozen dice by ~ExtremoPenguin