Monday, October 31, 2016

On the Paradox of Skill

The relationship between talent, hard work, success, and luck is complicated.

Generally, this is what people think:

talent + hard work = success

If you read biographies of famous, successful people, this is the message that is repeated ad nauseam. The role of luck is absent or downplayed. "The harder I work, the luckier I get."

It is amazing how large of a role luck plays. Robert Frank recently wrote a whole book about it. You should read this writeup in the Atlantic, or listen to this EconTalk podcast. In it, he paints a beautiful picture of how the difference between the person who comes in first, and the one who comes in second isn't talent or hard work. It is usually, luck.

In our increasingly "winner take all" world, this can have serious consequences.

This essay by Michael Mauboussin elaborates on a point first made by Stephen Jay Gould. As talented people in a given field relentlessly work hard, they do two things. They raise the bar (the average increases to a point), and they narrow the distribution of skill (the standard deviation shrinks). As relative differences in skill diminish, the role of luck is enhanced.

This paradox - dubbed the paradox of skill - is extremely counter-intuitive. In "professional" fields, where the overall level of skill is high, there is increasing reliance on luck.

In my own field of academia, one sees instances of this phenomenon everywhere.

Consider finding a tenure-track position at a decent university. I have been on both sides of the equation. When I am evaluating applications, I am often awestruck  by the generally high level of competence. Most of the serious candidates are talented, and have got to where they are by working extraordinarily hard. Due to the extreme imbalance in the demand and supply of potential faculty, the applicants who rise to the top often get a huge assist from Lady Luck.

This is not to claim that the winners don't deserve their success. Of course, they do. But one has to be generous to the "losers". What they lacked was luck - a factor over which they had no control, almost by definition.

What does this mean? If you are outmatched in terms of skill, you shouldn't play by the standard rules. Change the rules, or change the game.

If you are David, you don't engage with Goliath in hand-to-hand combat.

If you are Small Community College playing Alabama, you try as many trick plays as you can.

If you are investing in stocks, find illiquid small-caps, which the Warren Buffets of the world cannot consider.

If you are planning a career, look at intersections of traditional domains, which are not particularly crowded.

No comments: