A recent article in the Los Angeles Times makes a convincing argument that people consistently underestimate the role that luck plays in success or failure in Hollywood.
But while we may be tempted to dismiss this finding as simply a fact of life in topsy-turvy Hollywood, research shows that believing in our illusory ability to control things that are actually determined by chance is a basic human failing:
The temptation to believe that you or others are causing chance events is so strong that psychologists coined a term for it: the illusion of control. In a classic study, psychologists Ellen J. Langer and Jane Roth recruited Yale undergraduate psychology majors to watch an experimenter flip a coin 30 times. One by one, the subjects watched the coin flips and tried to guess how the coins would land. They found that, although students at an Ivy League university are surely aware that a coin toss is a random event, those who experienced the early winning streaks developed an irrational attitude of confidence that they were “good” at intuiting the coin toss. Forty percent said their results would improve with practice; 25% even reported that, if in the future they were distracted during the test, their performance would suffer.
Now here’s the rub–how is Silicon Valley any different from Hollywood in this respect? Does success make you a genius, or just lucky? Are Valley Gods like Steve Jobs really that much above us all, or are they simply six sigma events?
I like to believe in the possibility of genius, but I think a healthy skepticism is a good cure for hubris.