Nassim Nicholas Taleb on Role of Luck

Nassim Nicholas Taleb has a new short paper titled “Why It is No Longer a Good Idea to Be in The Investment Industry” (PDF link). The concluding argument is:

To conclude, if you are starting a career, move away from investment management and performance related lotteries as you will be competing with a swelling future spurious tail. Pick a less commoditized business or a niche where there is a small number of direct competitors. Or, if you stay in trading, become a market-maker.

Felix Salmon weighs in and argues the opposite:

The professions you really want to avoid, after reading Taleb’s paper, are not financial but rather creative. Where do you find millions of people all trying to succeed against the odds? Just look at how many bands there are, how many aspiring novelists, how many struggling artists. Nearly all of them think that if they create something great, that will improve their chances of success in their field. But given the sheer number of people they’re competing against, and given the fact that the number of breakout stars in each field is shrinking rather than growing, the fact is that just about everybody with massive success will have got there by sheer luck.

Sometimes, the luck is obvious: EL James, by all accounts, is an absolutely dreadful writer, but has still somehow managed to become a multimillionaire best-selling author. Carly Rae Jepsen has a catchy pop tune, but is only really successful because she happened to be in the right place at the right time. Dan Colen might be a fantastic self-publicist, but not particularly more so than many other, much less successful artists. And so on.

Salmon is strong in his conviction that every successful musician, artist, novelist became successful mainly because of luck. I don’t agree with that premise entirely: I believe there are things you can do to sway the chances of luck helping you along the way. But that doesn’t mean hard work, confidence, and talent should be discounted.

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