New research simulated over 1,000 40-year careers using a computer model and found that good fortune (not talent, hard work, or passion) was the biggest driver of success. The paper is currently available to read on the pre-publish website arXiv, where it is waiting to be peer-reviewed.
Scientists came to this conclusion after building a computer simulation that monitored the life success of 1,000 virtual people during a 40-year career from the age of 20 to 60. As in the real world, these people had differing levels of talent, which could include traits such as intelligence, creativity, determination, ambition, and wealth.
These virtual people were also hit with various “lucky” and “unlucky” events over the course of their career, striking at random. When presented with a fortuitous opportunity, they could exploit their talent, intelligence, and skill set to climb the career ladder. In the real world, this "luck event" could be a chance meeting with an influential person in your line of work. But if a bad situation arose – equivalent, say, to an episode of poor health – the virtual person would have a slice of their wealth taken away from them.
When the virtual 40 years were over, the scientists ranked each of the characters to see if there were any similarities between them.
First of all, they were able to confirm the "Pareto Principle", which involves wealth being concentrated in the hands of a small percentage of people. In the real world, the world's eight richest men possess the same amount of wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion. In the simulation, the 20 characters who performed the best owned 44 percent of the total "success".
They also discovered that talented individuals tended to be more successful than averagely gifted individuals but, interestingly, they were rarely the most successful overall. In over 100 simulation runs, the character that "won" was considered a “mediocre agent”. This high-performing individual tended to be 128 times more successful than the majority of talented characters.
We'll have to wait and see if the study is published after going through the peer-review process, but it does seem to support older research that suggests "that everything in life is luck". For example, studies have shown that scientists with a surname beginning with a letter early on in the alphabet have a higher chance of achieving tenure in top university departments, people with easy to pronounce names are judged more positively than those who don’t, and birth month can even affect your chances of making it as CEO.