Strong opinions, weakly held

Sergey Brin on luck

The Business 2.0 weblog has a recap of Sergey Brin’s talk at the Web 2.0 conference. Here’s my favorite quote:

The No. 1 factor that contributed to our success over the past seven years is luck.

One of the biggest mistakes people make in assessing their success or failure is discounting the effect of luck. People prefer to think that they are masters of their own destinies but the truth is that in large parts we are victims of circumstance. Yes, you should avoid problems that you see and make the most of the opportunities that you are presented with, but luck is the main factor. Heck, I was born a white male American with responsible parents who placed a high premium on education. Furthermore, I was born during the period of time when a natural curiousity in computers and the Internet could lead to a decent career. That alone makes me luckier than a huge majority of the people in the world. People are fools not to take those sorts of things into consideration.


  1. Robert X. Cringely has a fantastic treatise on this very topic: http://www.pbs.org/cringely/pulpit/pulpit20010614.html

    This is actually an older article reprinted from his excellence “Accidental Empires” published back in the early nineties.

  2. I had a coworker (well, probably more than one, but I’m thinking of one in particular) who would insist that his position in the world as a well-paid programmer was entirely due to his skills, mental capacities, & choices. He was, of course, also a Republican.

    Not that those things are irrelevant, but luck is much higher than personal virtues in my list of reasons for being successful (ish). I could’ve been born in the middle of the jungle in the Congo and never made it past my 5th birthday.

  3. I am not sure I agree. While luck is definitely a huge factor when it comes to starting conditions — what we are born as, how our parents are, whether they give us a good education, lalala — later on skill, attitude and determination are definitely important too. Just look at different people with very similar backgrounds and what they make of their lives. You can immensely influence how your life turns out through the choices you make and while luck is always an important factor there, from personal experience I do not think it is the most important one.

    Disclaimer: When it comes to starting conditions, I am probably as lucky as can be, so maybe I am just a spoiled brat.

  4. To paraphrase Warren Buffett badly, the fact that he and his secretary have such vastly different net worths is a result of where and when they were born as much as anything else. Had they both been born in just about any other place at just about any other time, his unique set of skills for assessing the value of companies would have gone to waste. Obviously it’s up to us what we make of our potential, but our potential is established by factors far beyond our control.

  5. Obviously it’s up to us what we make of our potential, but our potential is established by factors far beyond our control.

    True, just wanted to see that distinction. 🙂

  6. on luck

    Posting has been patchy lately because I find myself starting up the same pattern that precipitated my recent hiatus — too much to think about, too much to cover here, what to do what to do? I will have to find a better way to cope than throwing up my…

  7. I think my trackback doohickey is broken, so I’ll do it the old fashioned way.

  8. There’s a saying about luck: It’s what happens when preparation meets opportunity. There’s also at least one interesting study on how lucky people make their own luck.

    Luck is just a way of saying that something happened by chance. While chance can’t be predicted, it can to some degree be anticipated and planned for. For example – the fact that Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans this year was a a matter of luck, but the devastating effect it had on the city and on those who voluntarily stayed behind is in most cases a matter of improper preparation for the chance that a large hurricane might hit.

    To take the example further, it was almost inevitable that a hurricane of such force would hit New Orleans. We just didn’t know when it would hit until a few days before. The longer the time period, the closer to certain such an event would be to take place. (Hence, scientists talk of 10-year floods and 100-year floods in the same way).

    Given that chance events will happen during our lifetimes, even if we can’t predict what they will be and when they occur, how we prepare for them makes a substantial difference in the way they affect our lives.

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