Luck and Reward

Luck plays a role in success in life. The richest people have usually been lucky. Is that a problem? Here are three considerations.

1. The sports photographer Neil Leifer took the iconic photo of Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston just after he had knocked him out in their rematch. Mr. Leifer had originally been on the other side of the ring, with the officials, but when a more senior photographer (Herb Scharfman) arrived, he had to move. If that hadn't happened, he would not have been in position to take that picture.

But there is more to the story. Mr. Leifer knew that this was going to be an important event, so he bought a special camera with a nonstandard aspect ratio. He also bought special film. When he was later asked about the role of luck in sports photography, he agreed that luck played a big role: "Luck in sports photography is everything". But he added: "what separates the really top sports photographer from the ordinary is that when they get lucky, they don't miss." The saying is: chance favors the prepared.

2. Most people are risk adverse. They will choose a sure thing rather than take a risk to get something better. In order to persuade someone to take a risk (e.g. start a business), he has to see an opportunity to get really rich.

3. Some people (e.g George Bernard Shaw) have suggested that instead of rewarding people with riches, we should give them honors. The idea is you wouldn't get rich, but you would get a statue. There are two problems with that.
a) Friedrich Hayek pointed out that if we tried to reward each person based on what he deserved, then people would spend their time trying to prove they are deserving. That would make them conformists, reluctant to challenge conventions.
b) An inventor told a story about a man who liked to tinker with things. He was generally looked down on in his town: people thought him odd. Eventually he invented a gadget that made him rich. The people in his town still didn't respect him, but he didn't care: he was rich. Truly innovative people aren't motivated by honors or public approval. The speaker added that people become inventors for many reasons: money, the challenge, to help people. But he had never seen a case where someone had become a successful inventor because he wanted to be known as an inventor. He had known such people, but they never quite became successful: something always stopped them. It was probably a reluctance to take a chance that might make them look ridiculous.

Posted 2019/September/19