Thursday, January 1, 2015

What to do about the fact that chance plays such a big role in one's career/life trajectory?

 Adam Ruben writes about Pure, Stupid Luck: how luck governs success in academia:

Although he's absolutely right, I feel that this article's point is beside the point for an academic for whom the dice didn't give all sixes, or indeed for anyone. First, luck plays a role in everything (not just academia). That is something outside your control, so you'd better learn to accept what you can't influence. Second, bad luck comes in different variants. A terminal illness that gives you weeks to live is catastrophic. Not becoming the world's leading scientist is...well, if you consider that bad luck, then ask yourself why you do science. If it is for the fame, then you're better off in the film industry. Scientists who are able to publish in top journals with ease are not just lucky; more often then not, the editor in chief works down the hall from them in their own department, or they have worked on building such a vast network of friends that usually get friendly reviews. Or indeed they are just that good. The unethical aspect of publishing (using your colleagues' influence to get published) is unethical and not something you should emulate. The ethical way to proceed to is to try to become just that good. That's a constructive thing you can do to thwart the inevitable buffeting chance will subject you to. You will get as far as you will get---even there chance plays a role---but that is a much more constructive thing to do than to say it's pure, stupid luck.  Why does one become a scientist? For many the answer eventually becomes: for the power, for the fame. But that should not be your answer. The answer should be: to do the science.

I have been thinking about this question---the role of luck---in response to a question from a student. She was worried about her future in science. The question for me is: what can the individual do? One answer comes from So Good They Can't Ignore You. The basic thesis of this book is that you need to develop unique skills. That's something largely under your control and will have unexpected (positive) consequences for your life. It may not make you the world's leading authority in whatever, but as I said, that should not be your goal in the first place.

The final point emerges in this amazing book, Worldly Philosopher. This is a biography of a Berliner who went on to become an economist: Albert O. Hirschman. Although the story of AO's escape from Nazi Germany and the aftermath itself is an amazing one, one basic insight I got from this book was that nothing goes as planned or hoped for, but you have to try to turn that to your advantage. You have to try to make a virtue out of the unexpected outcome. A related idea is that you should try to turn a disadvantage---a bad outcome from said dice roll---to your advantage. There is often a way if you think about possible ways to leverage your bad luck. I think these are much more useful observations than Adam Ruben's.

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