Of luck and “failures”

Robert Frank writes in the Upshot that “Chance events play a much larger role in life than many people once imagined.” Maybe so, but this piece is poorly argued. Frank is first quoting some small marginal effects, like time of year birh effects and author order effects. These factors probably play a role, however, in absolute size I am pretty sure they are dominated by other non-random factors. Being born in the right country is a good example, though.

This reminds me of Johannes Haushofer‘s “CV of Failures,” which made the rounds in the blogosphere and several newspapers earlier this year. (He got the idea from a piece by Melanie Stefan.) He writes in his CV of Failures:

Most of what I try fails, but these failures are often invisible, while the successes are visible. I have noticed that this sometimes gives others the impression that most things work out for me. As a result, they are more likely to attribute their own failures to themselves, rather than the fact that the world is stochastic, applications are crapshoots, and selection committees and referees have bad days. This CV of Failures is an attempt to balance the record and provide some perspective.

I like this a lot, and kudos to Haushofer (and others he references as having done the same thing), but of course he is doing this as a hugely succesful guy. His actual CV lists PhDs from Harvard and Zurich, academic positions at Princeton, Harvard, and MIT, along with publications in top journals. What about the “failures”? Several other top schools and papers rejected at AER, QJE, Science, …

This point is that although there is some randomness along the way, it is not random or due to luck that Haushofer have accomplished a great deal.


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