The Secret of Your Success? Start early

An Op-Ed in the New York Times by Robert H. Frank an economics professor at Cornell, “Luck vs. Skill: Seeking the Secret of Your Success,” discusses some research by Duncan J. Watts, Matthew Sagalnik and Peter Dodds that I’ve read a few times; it was also discussed in the Fast Company article “Is The Tipping Point Toast?” by Clive Thompson.

In a nutshell, Watts’s experiment demonstrated the effect that social proof can have on individual behavior. The experiment created a website called the “Music Lab,” in which subjects rated and downloaded songs from a collection of 48.

Eight times, the experiment was run with subjects who couldn’t see what others had downloaded or rated. In the experiment’s second “social” condition, subjects who were on the same website could see how any times the songs have been downloaded by others in their group.


What happened? In the social condition, a few hits in the beginning meant increasingly skewed effects. The number one song in one “world” can easily be the least popular in another. There’s no disputing that the role of luck in the markets can far outweigh so-called skill. In the best example of how random the outcomes were:

The song “Lockdown,” by the band 52 Metro, is a case in point. Ranked 26th out of 48 in the objective ratings, it finished at No. 1 in one of the eight groups, but at No. 40 in another.

Watts’ experiments help prove that in markets, success has a lot to do with early luck. Just like Olson’s experiments on the social effects of luck helped demonstrate, our behavior is easily influenced by others: we swarm to what looks promising, even if those early hits were the result of pure chance.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that the Op-Ed piece made a strong connection between the experiment and real-world success. But there are plenty.

The meatier topic underneath is cumulative advantage. While Frank never mentions it in his Op-Ed, the researcher whose study he explains, Duncan J. Watts, wrote about it for the New York Times Magazine a few years ago; he even used the same example of the song “Lockdown” to demonstrate the possible range of outcomes (Whether the song was by 52metro or 52 Metro, apparently, depends on which Times editor was working that day.)

We don’t have to go very far to see where cumulative advantage, which Malcolm Gladwell referred to in Outliers as the Matthew Effect (PDF of that chapter here), comes into play in the real world. As Dan Pink has demonstrated, and the NY Times Economix blog has written about, there’s a pretty hefty correlation between a student’s SAT scores and parental income. One of my jobs in college was working for a small and pricy tutoring company that specialized in teaching standardized tests. To earn goodwill, some of the tutors took on pro bono clients, typically high-achieving students from Harlem or the Bronx who couldn’t afford our crazy fees. The difference between the pro bono students and their paying counterparts was remarkable. Not only were the children of well-off parents always given the best education, their environments were supportive and conducive to study: they didn’t have to work, could spend more time studying, and always had their own rooms and computers. They were picked up by nannies who immediately started encouraging their efforts.

The best advice we can take away from cumulative advantage is to start piling on those successes early. Unfortunately, in the academic/professional realm, early success (not to mention how much money we eventually make) stems from something that’s entirely out of our control: how much money our parents make. In the marketplace, most successes I’ve interviewed/read about treat their wins as inevitable. Our inability to run Watts-esque experiments in the real world lets them believe it’s true. But repeatedly demonstrating the large effects of small differences tells another story.

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