Friday, February 17, 2017

Luck or Hard Work?

As I was doing research for another entry, I ran across an interesting Quote of the Day on the Forbes website.  “People that work hard and legitimately do everything they can, tend to be luckier” – Julian Edelman.  For those who are not sports fans or happened to miss it, Julian Edelman is the receiver on the New England Patriots who made the spectacular, shoestring catch near the end of regulation time that allowed the Patriots to win the Super Bowl.  It looked like luck was involved as he sprawled between two defenders to keep a deflected ball from barely touching the ground, but a great deal of skill and excellent reflexes were evident in the many replays.  (Google Super Bowl highlights.)

It struck me as a very good thought, along the lines of people making their own luck, the saying popular among motivational speakers.  But do most people really believe this?  And if so, does our behavior reflect it?

My first stop took me to this headline from 2006, again from Forbes:  “Research now shows that the lack of natural talent is irrelevant to great success. The secret? Painful and demanding practice and hard work.”  Worldwide research, including many studies over the prior decade usually in sports, music and chess where performance is easier to observe and assess, but also in other areas like business, have supported a few surprising conclusions.  The first is that “nobody is great without work…  There's no evidence of high-level performance without experience or practice.”  Second, there is a difference between deliberate practice and mere repetition.  “Consistency is crucial.”

Though there are some skeptics, experts pretty much agree that success depends on hard work.  But do ordinary Americans believe hard work is superior to luck in most cases?  I searched for likely poll questions for a clue.

This source shows results from a Pew Research worldwide questionnaire.  In less developed countries citizens believed luck or political connections were more of a factor, but the US led the pack with the opposite stance.  When asked, “Which forces affect your success?” 79% listed hard work and only 19% mentioned being lucky.  (More than two answers were possible with the sum being more than 100%, so some may have answered both.  It wasn’t a pure either/or question.)

A Reason-Rupe Poll from the fall of 2011 asks a similar question but sorts the responses by political affiliation.  They asked which was more important, either hard work or luck and help from others.  Overall, 81% voted for hard work over the luck and help, which got 15%.  The range was surprisingly close. Tea Partiers were at 89%, Democrats at 74%, with Republicans and Independents in the middle.  In a separate analysis by race, findings were similar with the lowest agreement by African-Americans, who still favored hard work by about three out of four, a sizable majority.

More recently, a 2013 Rasmussen Reports of American attitudes found “86% Believe Individuals Make Their Own Success” by hard work and good decisions.

It appears that the sentiment expressed after the Super Bowl is widespread in America and not divided across political, racial or any other lines.  Most Americans think you get ahead through hard work.  It is difficult then to explain how politicians can get any support for notions like the one-percent haven’t worked hard for their wealth and don’t deserve it.  Conversely, why are we expected to assume that everyone who is not making it in America is a victim?  The behavior factor in most cases is totally ignored.  The news media always portray the homeless and others in difficult situations as being “down on their luck,” downplaying at best any poor decisions that may have led to their predicament.  Hence young people today who could benefit by learning from the mistakes of others see only victims of circumstance rather than behavior to avoid.  Great learning is lost by our need to be compassionate in all cases and a failure to be intellectually consistent.

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