Both Stories are True
Sometimes people have trouble simultaneously holding both of these insights. There is a tendency to discuss outcomes in either a global sense or a local sense.
The absolute view is more global. What explains the difference between a wealthy person born in America and someone born into extreme poverty and living on less than $1 per day? When discussing success from this angle, people say things like, “How can you not see your privilege? Don’t you realize how much has been handed to you?”
The relative view is more local. What explains the difference in results between you and everyone who went to the same school or grew up in the same neighborhood or worked for the same company? When considering success from a local viewpoint, people say things like, “Are you kidding me? Do you know hard I worked? Do you understand the choices and sacrifices I made that others didn’t? Dismissing my success as luck devalues the hard work I put in. If my success is due to luck or my environment, then how come my neighbors or classmates or coworkers didn’t achieve the same thing?”
Both stories are true. It just depends on what lens you are viewing life through.
The Slope of Success
There is another way to examine the balance between luck and hard work, which is to consider how success is influenced across time.
Imagine you can map success on a graph. Success is measured on the Y-axis. Time is measured on the X-axis. And when you are born, the ball you pluck out of Buffett’s Ovarian Lottery determines the y-intercept. Those who are born lucky start higher on the graph. Those who are born into tougher circumstances start lower.
Here’s the key: You can only control the slope of your success, not your initial position.
In Atomic Habits, I wrote, “It doesn’t matter how successful or unsuccessful you are right now. What matters is whether your habits are putting you on the path toward success. You should be far more concerned with your current trajectory than with your current results.”
You can only control the slope of your success, not your initial position.
With a positive slope and enough time and effort, you may even be able to regain the ground that was lost due to bad luck. I thought this quote summarized it well: “The more time passes from the start of a race, the less the head-start others got matters.”
This is not always true, of course. A severe illness can wipe out your health. A collapsing pension fund can ruin your retirement savings. Similarly, sometimes luck delivers a sustained advantage (or disadvantage). In fact, one study found that, if success is measured by wealth, then the most successful people are almost certainly those with moderate talent and remarkable luck.
In any case, it is impossible to divorce the two. They both matter and hard work often plays a more important role as time goes on.
This is true not only for overcoming bad luck, but also for capitalizing on good luck. Bill Gates might have been incredibly fortunate to start Microsoft at the right time in history, but without decades of hard work, the opportunity would have been wasted. Time erodes every advantage.At some point, good luck requires hard work if success is to be sustained.