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Want Career Success? Study Shows You Can Work Hard Or Just Cross Your Fingers And Hope For The Best

A team of Danish and Hungarian academics sought to find out how much of a person’s career success is the result of sheer luck in creative industries like film and books as well as in scientific jobs.

Roberta Sinatra at the IT University of Copenhagen, Denmark, lead the study that measured both individual ability and luck when it came to thriving careers in creative and scientific industries.

It's generally assumed that success if a result of talent, mental toughness, hard work and tenacity. The basis of this study sought to challenge this and determine if the most successful people in society are just the luckiest.

And it turns out that about half of career success comes down to luck (depending on what field you’re in).

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The researchers looked at works from more than four million people across the publishing, film and music industries, as well as more than a dozen scientific fields.

"The idea that there is a mixture of talent and luck in careers is not new -- probably we all have this intuition. The question is how much is talent and how much is luck," Sinatra told 10 daily.

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Sinatra worked with Milan Janosov and Federico Battiston at the Central European University and the researchers looked at works from more than four million people across the publishing, film and music industries, as well as more than a dozen scientific fields.

When it came to measuring impact, the researchers based it on things like the number of reviews that movies or books had accrued on IMBD or Goodreads.

The team also looked at more than 87 million research papers on the Web of Science database, measuring an article’s impact based on the number of times it was cited within a ten years of it being published.

The researchers concluded that luck had a relatively consistent effect across all the fields they studied.

The jobs most dominated by luck are those of movie producers, in the movie industry, and electronic music artists in music, and astronomy for science. Sinatra said.

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The team was able to come up with a basic estimate of how much luck was involved. They called this a 'a randomness index, R'.

For example, an entirely luck-based activity such rolling dice would have an R score of 1.

"On the other hand, there is pure talent -- this is the case, for example, of chess, where the result of a game is (usually) determined only by the skills of the two players.

In between, there are all the other careers, which are shaped by both luck and talent. But in which proportion? In our work, we wanted to translate this idea in rigorous mathematical terms, and quantify this proportion in real-world data."

The careers of Michael Jackson and Stanley Kubrick were analysed as part of the study, so how much were there careers luck-based?

"I can't measure that,  the mathematical framework can tell me only on average how much luck there is in a field. But I can tell you these numbers by category, for both pop singers and for movie directors luck is about 52 percent," she said.

Previous research has found that the biggest success –- a hit song or a bestselling book -- in a person’s career randomly occurs at any time. This was backed by Sinatra's research.

"We found that the highest success within a career can happen with the same probability at anytime -- it could be at the beginning, in the middle of a career or at the end, close to retiring. From past work, we knew this happens in scientific careers.

But it was surprising to find this result in all analysed fields," she said.

IMAGE: Getty Images

So should the age-old school teacher and parent message that 'you can achieve anything if you just work hard' be snubbed?

"That they should continue giving this advice. We can't avoid luck, that will be always in the mix," Sinatra said.

She argues that the importance of talent cannot be overlooked. . And even if sometimes a person don't get the success they want, because of bad luck, this cannot happen forever.

"Just to make an example, a professional basketball player might miss a one-shot against a small kid, because of bad luck.

Yet, we are almost certain that the player will certainly win if they play a 1000-shots sequence, although occasionally missing some shots. Indeed, the only way to contrast luck is persistence - the more one tries, the more clear is the contribution of talent to one's results."

Contact the author alattouf@networkten.com.au