Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Is it better to be lucky than good?

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Over the past few days, I’ve been devouring the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, which I’d mentioned here before but only recently got around to reading. It is, as promised, rife with fascinating insights and stories—my wife says that I seem to have underlined every sentence—and I’m still only halfway through. In particular, Chapter 17, “Regression to the Mean,” is one that everyone should read, even if it’s just standing up at Barnes & Noble. The chapter is only ten pages long, but it’s packed with more useful insights than a shelf of ordinary books, and I can all but guarantee that it will subtly change the way you think about a lot of things. The key passage, at least to my eyes, is one that begins with Kahneman sharing what he calls his favorite equation:

Success = talent + luck
Great success = a little more talent + a lot of luck

This is something that most of us know intuitively, but Kahneman takes it one step further. Basically, if we accept the premise that a single instance of exceptionally good performance is due largely to luck—or, more precisely, to positive factors outside the performer’s control—then our best guess about the next performance is that it won’t be quite as good, as the performer’s luck regresses to the mean. We can’t predict anything about luck except for the fact that, in general, it will be more or less average. As a result, someone who has excellent luck on one occasion, like an athlete who makes a great ski jump, will probably only have average luck the next time out—and the better the original performance, the more extreme the regression will be. And while we might be tempted to ascribe all kinds of causal factors to the change, it’s really nothing but simple mathematics.

This is obviously true of sports, given the important role that luck plays in most sporting events, but it’s also fascinating to think about its implications for the arts. In particular, regression to the mean is the most likely explanation for what I call “the New Yorker feature curse” in my recent article in Salon. When we interview movie stars or directors based on a recent great success, it’s likely that we’ve caught them just before they regress to the mean, which is why their next project—the one we’ve spent the entire article extolling—often seems like a relative disappointment. And this has nothing to do with the talent of the subjects involved. The movies are such a volatile business that even successful filmmakers can only be expected to succeed perhaps half the time, so it shouldn’t be surprising when a big success is followed by a movie that seems like a failure in comparison, and vice versa. For a particularly stark example, one need look no further than the recent career of Woody Allen, who, in Match Point, had a character say:

The man who said “I’d rather be lucky than good” saw deeply into life. People are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent on luck. It’s scary to think so much is out of one’s control. There are moments in a match when the ball hits the top of the net, and for a split second, it can either go forward or fall back. With a little luck, it goes forward, and you win. Or maybe it doesn’t, and you lose.

And this applies to literature as well. If athletes have the Sports Illustrated cover jinx and directors have the New Yorker curse, novelists have second-novel syndrome: the big debut novel followed by a sophomore slump. We like to ascribe all kinds of causal explanations to this—pressure, time constraints, authorial self-indulgence—but most often, it’s just another case of regression to the mean. Luck, as I’ve learned firsthand, plays an enormous role in a book’s publication and reception, and it’s mathematically unsound to expect lightning to strike twice. This is true, most obviously, of a book’s commercial prospects, but also, oddly, of its artistic merits. Luck plays a larger role in a novel’s quality than many of us would like to admit: like ski jumpers and golf players, we benefit from moments of serendipity and inspiration that may never return. Until, of course, we try again.

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