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Is Your Success Due To Hard Work Or Luck?

by retirebyforty on April 18, 2014 · 38 comments

in fun stuffs, stay at home dad, wealth


Let’s continue with the TED talk today. For a while now, I have been meaning to sit down and listen to this talk from social psychologist Paul Piff – Does money make you mean? Their research team conducted various experiments to see how wealthy people behave. I’m interested in the topic because I’m very curious about the role of luck in life. Let’s see what they did in the Monopoly experiment.

success due to luck or hard work monopoly research

Winning in Monopoly

I’m sure everyone played Monopoly at least a few times when they were young. It’s one of the most well known board games in the world and even I played the game as a kid in Thailand. I never liked Monopoly much, though. Someone always cheated and the game would finish with a fight. I also remember the game taking way too long and I’d lose interest after a while. I guess being rich didn’t attract me even as a kid.

Paul Piff ran a very interesting Monopoly study with hundreds of people at UC Berkley.  First, they determine a “rich” and a “poor” player with a coin toss before starting the game. The “rich” player got more money initially, rolled more dice, and received double $$ as they pass GO.  The game was rigged so the “rich” player can’t lose.

The result was quite interesting. The rich players consumed more (pretzels), became louder, more assertive, more confident, and yes, more full of themselves. When the game was over, the rich players attributed their success to their own individual skill and talent. They felt  they deserved to win because they played well. Largely forgotten was the coin toss at the beginning to determine who would get the advantage in the game. I’m sure the loser didn’t forget that coin toss, though.

Wow, that’s an interesting result. As a successful early retiree, I feel like I’m doing very well in the game of life. I attributed this to hard work, perseverance, entrepreneurial spirit, the ability to try something new, and A LOT of luck. I know I’m extremely lucky that I have a supportive family and a good education. I also feel incredibly lucky that I live in the good old U.S. of A. Unlike many of our readers, I wasn’t born here. My parents immigrated to the US when I was 12 and that made a huge difference in our lives.

Sure, it was difficult in the beginning as immigrants, but we worked hard and improved our lives over the years. I have no idea where I’d be if we stayed in Thailand. Most of my cousins there are college educated, but there are not many good employment opportunities. Most jobs don’t pay enough for them to buy their own home and many of them still live with their parents. That’s the norm over there, though. One girl kept changing majors and she is having a difficult time finding a good career. Some started their own businesses and they are doing okay. Everyone is making do, but I feel incredibly lucky to be where I am – a stay at home dad/blogger in the US.

Start with a good hand

Now that I think about it more, I realize I started out with a lot of advantages.

  • My parents were college educated and they valued education highly.
  • My parents were middle class city folks in Thailand when most of the population worked in agriculture.
  • We lived a modest lifestyle when I was a kid and it became habitual.
  • My dad was entrepreneurial and he was never afraid to extend himself and try something new.
  • I’m a lucky optimist. Is it genetic? I don’t know, but I’m glad I see the best things in life.

Anyway, I know many of us believe we make our own luck, but is that really the case? In the personal finance blogosphere, we have to believe we are working hard to better ourselves. If you think it’s all down to blind luck or faith, then there really isn’t much to blog about.

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” –Seneca

Yes, I completely agree. I’m also sure that wealthy folks have much more opportunities and they are more prepared to take advantage of them. Poor folks have to spend a lot of time and effort just to make ends meet. They have fewer opportunities and they are rarely prepared to take advantage of them. In the end, we probably shouldn’t dwell on whether or  not we got the good flip of the coin. We just have to do the best with what we started out with and work hard to be more successful.

What do you think? Are you successful and is it due to your hard work and dedication? Did you start out with a good hand in this game of life?

Photo credit: flickr wwarby

{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark April 18, 2014 at 4:02 am

I think you would enjoy Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers for a more sophisticated analysis of luck and skill, as well as perspective on the role of unique opportunities in the end result. Gladwell follows this theme further in his most recent book David and Golliath as well, for identifying individual strategies to turn perceived disadvantages into advantages. Gladwell also cuts cross cultures in identifying different successful strategies using Asian rice farming as a somewhat surprising example.

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retirebyforty April 18, 2014 at 9:30 am

Thanks for the suggestion. I’ll put it on my reserve list at the library. I’m curious how he use Asian rice farming in his book.

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Kat April 22, 2014 at 7:42 am

I just started reading David and Goliath this morning. It looks like it’s going to be a fantastic read, as one might expect.

This topic is really interesting to me. I have long wondered how much different my life would have turned out by this point if only a few little things had been a more stable in my early years. If I’d stayed in one town long enough to develop a good network. If, in particular, I’d stayed in the one town that had excellent schools and very comfortable, driven, well-networked people living in it. If my parents had graduated high school, much less college, and given me any hints on how to get through college myself.

I live by this sentiment, though: “In the end, we probably shouldn’t dwell on whether or not we got the good flip of the coin. We just have to do the best with what we started out with and work hard to be more successful.”

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Mom @ Three is Plenty April 18, 2014 at 6:05 am

I definitely had a major stroke of luck in the socioeconomic situation I was adopted into (no clue what the one I was born into was). What’s interesting is I can see it in my maternal and paternal family lines. My father went to the navy (to avoid a draft to Vietnam) and then to college – he didn’t finish until he was almost 40. His father was a coal miner, his mother stayed at home or occasionally worked at a department store, and his sister didn’t go to school until she was almost 30, and finished a few years ago – at early 50s. My mother’s father was an industrial engineer and her mother stayed at home. My mother went to college right after high school, and had an associate’s degree (as a secretary) before marrying my father. Her sister also went immediately to college and became a teacher. There’s a very obvious difference to the standard of living and the expectations of each side of the family. We’re seen as “super rich” to the rest of the family because of where we live and the fact that I travel so much (they forget that it’s usually on my company’s dime).

Yes, I worked hard in school to get good grades and a good job that I enjoy, but I wouldn’t have had those opportunities if it weren’t for my starting situation.

The way I see it is that the luck dictates which doors are open to you, but you have to work to go through those doors.

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retirebyforty April 18, 2014 at 9:33 am

Luck play a huge role, but we live in the US. We’re not stuck where we are. There are opportunities for everyone to be successful. Sure, some have less opportunities, but we have to make the best of what we got. Thanks for sharing. It made me think more about my parent’s family too.
My dad’s family are all micro business owners. They didn’t get much education because the family was poor. On my mom’s side, everyone is a professional.

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Justin @ Root of Good April 18, 2014 at 7:42 am

I think we created a lot of the “luck” that we have today. My wife immigrated here 30 years ago this month (when she was a young child) and she has done pretty well. Her family had a host family here in the US sponsor them, so that was obviously a huge “leveling” opportunity to get them at a somewhat even starting point to others here in the US. But after that, it was a lot of hard work, diligence, planning, and saving.

I was born to working class parents who ended up in college and they are both professionals today. We moved to a city with good schools and a good culture when I was young, and I’m sure that put the odds in my favor to succeed in life.

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retirebyforty April 18, 2014 at 9:35 am

Congratulation! Hard work is a huge factor. Being an immigrant really has both good and bad points. It’s hard to get going with nothing in your pocket, but you work much much harder than regular folks. We always lived in a pretty good area too so that’s another big factor.

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krantcents April 18, 2014 at 8:09 am

I think I make my own luck. The usual definition (as I interpret it) is random. I think as individuals we can do a lot to influence the outcome. The usual axiom of the harder I work, the luckier I get misses how much determination plays in achieving results.

My parents were immigrants and placed a great of importance on education, hard work and success. High expectations is a big part of it.

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retirebyforty April 18, 2014 at 9:36 am

You’re right about determination. You have to keep going no matter what. How are your children doing? Are they still very hard working?

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JayCeezy April 18, 2014 at 8:17 am

Super interesting subject and TED talk. I have thought about this since I was a kid, and have come to a few conclusions…
1) The sample at UC Berkeley is pretty homogenous, high-performing and motivated young people. The world is full of slackers, cheaters, liars, and by definition 50% of us are ‘below average’.
2) Money does confer power (boss, parents, hosts, benefactors, governments, etc.)
3) Power over others allows an assertion of behavior (boss, parents, hosts…)
4) People are not “naturally good”. People are a blank slate, shaped by parents, education, culture, and environment. And just about everybody learns they can behave in such a way as will be allowed by others, and they can get away with.
5) Being ‘mean’ is an assertion of ‘power’. Children, bosses, bullies, gangs, gossips, etc. And being ‘mean’ is a fast way to ‘power’, if only for a short while; one can control another’s feelings, opportunities, status, etc.

In conclusion, I’m not sure that ‘money’ makes one ‘mean’. But I am sure that ‘power’ exercised without consequence does make one ‘mean’. Great post, Joe.

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retirebyforty April 18, 2014 at 9:39 am

Thanks for your well thought out response. I guess money equal power to many people. It make you feel more secure and you don’t have to watch your manner as much. The good thing is that people are still malleable. We can help make powerful/rich people nicer by just exposing them to various triggers.

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JayCeezy April 18, 2014 at 11:50 am

Having spent quite a bit of time with those in the lower socio-economic strata, I have unfortunately witnessed a huge amount of ‘not nice’ behavior, which is often conflated with irresponsible action and lack of impulse-control. There are a lot more of them, than there are rich people. And poor/ignorant people have a lot less to lose (i.e. they won’t get sued, divorce results in half of nothing, having unplanned children isn’t the concern it might be for a university-educated professional couple, etc.). Violence upon the weaker, substance abuse, criminal behavior, and various sociopathies. I have a friendly acquaintance who worked undercover in gang detail for a major metro police agency, and he said in four years of this work he never met a single nice person. Not one. Like the UC Berkeley students, though, that was also a ‘homogenous sample’.

The idea of ‘nepotism’ in government leaders (Syria, N. Korea, the U.S. and through the Middle East, etc.) and even corporations (the Ford Corporation, the Murdoch empire) and the combination of genes and environment in some pro athletes (Manning Brothers, Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds), is evidence that success might be a combination of hard work, ability, and luck. Again, really thoughtful post Joe, you have me thinking hard again on this subject. Thanks.

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retirebyforty April 18, 2014 at 10:13 pm

That’s really unfortunate. I’m sure people with nothing to lose act out much more. Unfortunately, it’s much more difficult to get out of that environment. I guess the middle class are the most well behaved people. :)

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Embrace the struggle April 18, 2014 at 8:23 am

I think the family one is born into is a huge advantage or disadvantage. My cards could have been worse, but I definitely was not dealt a strong hand to begin with. I was raised by a single mom with an associate’s degree from a community college. Frugality was the norm in our home. This frugality taught me to save at a young age, and even though I heard, “no I don’t have money for that” often, I always managed to get what I wanted. I would work odd Jobs, save my birthday money, and sell things at school. I remember around age 10 I brought a dozen donuts to school for a friend’s birthday or something. Well I had kids offering me a $1 for one donut and when demand was high the price got bid up to $2. I ended up about doubling my money each time I brought donuts to school. I learned to be creative, think outside the norm, and realized that others are willing to spend when I see it as an excess. I’m not super successful, yet. .., but I’m doing well for my age. I’ve had to work very hard to get where I am, move about 2500 miles from where I grew up, and I’ve had to be willing to fail a lot. The luck one is given with the family they’re born into gives them a head start, but the drive and determination of those who have struggled give them the chance to catch up; they just have to want it enough to take action.

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retirebyforty April 18, 2014 at 10:16 pm

Congratulation on your success. Hard work set you apart. I still believe if you work hard enough and are determined enough, you can reach your goals. The US is still a great place with a lot of opportunities. There are more opportunities for rich folks, but there are plenty of opportunities for the regular hard working people as well. Cheers.

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Robert April 18, 2014 at 8:23 am

A great study on the lifestyles and habits of the wealthy is presented in The Millionaire Next Door. This book breaks down many of the habits, as well as the demographics and backgrounds of actual millionaires. The results seem to point much more to wealth being a matter of skill (or at least discipline to living beneath your means), than to luck.

Furthermore, first generation immigrants tend to have a much higher percentage chance of building wealth than do American born children. In my opinion, this is because the American born children are born into a “rich” lifestyle, where all of their basic needs are taken care of, and in general, they know no real struggles. Even the lowest 10% in America are considered rich on a global scale. While the first generation Americans have taken a major risk in the move itself, and come here without the fear of taking risk, and with an entrepreneurial spirit.

From what I took from the book, a much higher percentage of the wealthy are self-made, rather than heirs to their fortunes. Hard work and calculated risk taking, while remaining disciplined to live below your means is the recipe. Luck has very little to do with it (unless you’re a lottery winner).

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retirebyforty April 18, 2014 at 10:19 pm

I liked that book. The millionaires in that book are much more disciplined than most regular folks. I don’t think they look at luck very much in The Millionaire Next Door.
Immigrants really bring a lot to the US. They bring the determination to better their lives and we need that.

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Money Beagle April 18, 2014 at 9:00 am

I think many people start off luckier than others, but what you do with that is the work that’s involved. In other words, for most people I think you need both, though work is more important than luck

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Even Steven April 18, 2014 at 10:59 am

I would like to think my life choices by my parents, family and friends, and of course myself is more than coin flip. The study hands money to the winner in the game where in life, very few are actually handed the money to start(take out a Paris Hilton). Most are hard working and some of those do have a head start with college educated parents, but those like myself do not. In many cases I worked harder for those exact reasons, asked more questions, and instead of being loud, became humbled, despite the character of Even Steven.

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retirebyforty April 18, 2014 at 10:21 pm

That’s a great attitude to have.

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Mike April 18, 2014 at 12:03 pm

I have a big problem with the whole premise of this talk. Our culture increasingly wants to attribute success to luck over skill, which conveniently diminishes the role of skill in the eyes of the less successful. The message to younger generations is that the deck is stacked against them so why bother strive to succeed through hard work, perseverance and diligence. Ironically, lately it is the ones that succeeded through hard work that want to somehow downplay their own efforts. Maybe this is the rise of populism, maybe this is collective guilt by the successful. Whatever it is, it doesn’t solve the inequality problem in my opinion.

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retirebyforty April 18, 2014 at 10:23 pm

That’s true. I don’t want to discourage young folks to slack off. I still think it takes both luck and hard work. If you don’t work hard, then you won’t get anywhere even if you’re really lucky with your family.

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davidmichael April 18, 2014 at 1:25 pm

In doing seasonal work for a few years when I reached age 75 to increase our cash flow, my first job was at a Christmas Tree Lot in San Mateo County Fairgrounds for five weeks. It was a physically, brutal job. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it and met some of the wealthiest people in the Western USA as a result; reason being that we had the tallest Christmas trees (18 feet) in the Bay area (from Oregon) which sold around $300 each.

Our surrounding buyers came from Los Altos Hills, Hillsbororough, Atherton, Portola Valley, etc. In other works, some of the richest suburbs in the country where billionaires were not uncommon and millionaires were the norm because of outrageous real estate values. What made this job interesting was that I carried the freshly cut trees out to their cars, roped them on top, and offered great service with a smile. Many of the buyers had a Mercedes, BMW, Lexus or other luxury car, so it was fun was to see who would tip and the amounts. Make a guess! Who tipped the most and who tipped the least?

Out of five weeks, there was one $5 tip from the luxury crowd. The other $295 came from the middle class to upper middle class with families. I wouldn’t say the ultra wealthy is mean but I think they often lack compassion and understanding of those less fortunate than them, or they just don’t want to even consider others in their daily equation. The Eastern Europeans were the worst. Rarely a thank you much less a tip.
The largest tip was from a man who was collecting Christmas tree boughs for his church. I had saved many on the side, and I said “Help yourself.” He gave a tip of $20 and thanked my profusely.

Moral of the story…don’t expect much help or understanding from the top 10% of our nation. They live in another orbit much different from the rest of us…the other 90%. It was a great lesson for me as I had expected all people, regardless of income, to be generous during Christmas time. No wonder that Reagan Economics never trickled down to the general population.

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Ravi April 18, 2014 at 7:08 pm

Tipping is also a matter of custom/social norm. In many parts of Europe, you don’t tip when you go to a restaurant. I experienced this most recently early this year on a trip to Spain.

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retirebyforty April 18, 2014 at 10:27 pm

Wow, that’s an interesting story. I think the luxury crowd are out of touch with the regular folks too. They probably think you don’t need the tip…
Another study they touched on in the video is how luxury car drivers stop for pedestrians less. I think they just don’t walk much so they don’t really look out for pedestrians.
Thanks for sharing this interesting story.

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peter April 19, 2014 at 6:46 am

Any valet would tell you that – the fancier the car the smaller the tip.

I were to guess, I’d say more than 3/4 of the cars are driven by people that are living above their means.
What one drives ought not to be an indication of wealth. If anything, it should be an indication of vanity and ugliness (as is gold chains and other bling).

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EscapeVelocity2020 April 18, 2014 at 5:41 pm

Thanks for the entertaining post. I think the outcome was obvious, when people are given the upper hand in a board game. I’m finding the frugality sub-culture to be very interesting. I never viewed my situation as deprivation, but I guess I’d look back on myself with pity :) But I would never change my life now or then for anything

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Ravi April 18, 2014 at 6:58 pm

Interesting presentation. Fascinating how perception changes as one’s station in life increases.

I was in a similar boat as you. Neither of my parents went to college, but both worked very hard and today are definitely top 5% earners in the US. They also valued education a lot and went to great lengths to save/invest so that my sister and I could go through our undergraduate studies, and have also supported my sister to become a Doctor and have told me they would support me going back to business school if I choose.

In some way, yes, I had a lot given to me that I know with certainty most people don’t have. However, I have also worked very hard to achieve so far and will not stop as I continue in my career.

Did other people born in the US have similar opportunities as my parents? Most definitely, yes. However, once you are pushed into a corner you either fight back or surrender. My parents fought their way out of the corner and never stopped swinging. For that, I am eternally grateful.

I hope all people realize their station in life and do their best. There will always be someone with more money, faster, stronger, etc. We really do have to play the hand we are dealt.

Is that fair? No. But, it’s life.

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retirebyforty April 18, 2014 at 10:29 pm

That’s great! Congratulation to your parents for being so successful. Keep working hard. It’s a great thing that you saw how people can improve their lives with hard work.

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Ron April 18, 2014 at 9:26 pm

Put me down in the luck category. My parents were not college educated, but by the time I was of college age, they were able to afford college for me. I suppose I worked a bit in college to get a good degree, but mostly I got by on a high IQ. I got real lucky with my first job, which entitled me to a draft deferment during Vietnam. From then on, I pretty much coasted work-wise and retired at 55. So, I think my life was too easy to provide any sense of accomplishment for being “successful”, but as a self-absorbed baby boomer, I never found anything to make it seem worth working any harder.

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retirebyforty April 18, 2014 at 10:33 pm

Timing is also part of the luck. Some people went to college when it was still cheap. Some got rentals in Northern California when it was affordable. It seems much more difficult to get lucky these days. Maybe there are just too many people.

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C. the Romanian April 18, 2014 at 11:40 pm

A really interesting study! One would think that those “rich” guys would remember the coin toss at the beginning…

But to answer your question, I guess that luck always helps in life and even though I consider myself to be where I am thanks to my hard work only, I admit that I have been extremely lucky. Family was my luck, too, as they always supported my dreams and encourage me to pursue this untraditional career – being a blogger in Romania is not a title that makes others envy you. However, they have always supported me and encouraged me to carry on even at first when things were picking up really slowly. And even though there was so much (and there still is) hard work involved, I always said that unless you’re at least a little lucky, you can’t really make it big!

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Mortgage Free Mike April 19, 2014 at 5:30 am

I consider myself a self-made success. A former high school dropout, I went to college, got a job and paid off my mortgage in 2 years. That was HARD WORK. With that said, I believe we are all LUCKY to be living in the best country in the world. The first 16 years of my life were a struggle, but there is no place I would rather struggle in the world than right here in America!

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Kat April 22, 2014 at 8:29 am

Wow, what an accomplishment! And I felt proud of paying my car off in one year. I bet that was hard work, but I also bet you are so happy you did it!

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Little House April 21, 2014 at 6:51 am

I think people that start out with a solid family foundation, good education, and support have a better chance at being prosperous that those that don’t have these things to begin with. Working with children, I see a huge difference between those that have a nuclear, supportive family, and those that do not – they clearly have a disadvantage. For those disadvantaged, they have to work twice as hard and be willing to do so.

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retirebyforty April 21, 2014 at 9:39 am

Thank you for sharing your experience. I can imagine it would be much more difficult to succeed in school and in life if you don’t have a good support network.

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Done by Forty April 21, 2014 at 8:42 am

I agree with your take, Joe. I definitely started with a good hand. The rub is that successful people downplay luck’s role in that success, and when someone is unsuccessful, they often downplay their own role in that. We’re all susceptible to that logical fallacy.

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Felix Lee April 29, 2014 at 1:50 am

I believe that success is always a combination of luck and hard work. But hard work should be given more emphasis in life rather than depending more on mere luck.

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