On Luck, J.K. Rowling, and the Chamber of Literary Fame

I had a conversation today at lunch with a lady about the role of luck in her career. We both agreed that we shouldn’t underestimate chance encounters and how certain circumstances bring us opportunities. Too often we attribute success to diligence and/or hard work, while we (strongly) discount the role of luck that played in our successes.

In this spirit, I thought this was an excellent piece by Duncan J. Watts on the discovery of J.K. Rowling’s pseudonymously published novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling:

In the real world, of course, it’s impossible to travel back in time and start over, so it’s much harder to argue that someone who is incredibly successful may owe their success to a combination of luck and cumulative advantage rather than superior talent. But by writing under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith, an otherwise anonymous name, Rowling came pretty close to recreating our experiment, starting over again as an unknown author and publishing a book that would have to succeed or fail on its own merits, just as Harry Potter had to 16 years ago — before anyone knew who Rowling was.

Rowling made a bold move and, no doubt, is feeling vindicated by the critical acclaim the book has received.

But there’s a catch: Until the news leaked about the author’s real identity, this critically acclaimed book had sold somewhere between 500 and 1,500 copies, depending on which report you read. As they say in the U.K., that’s rubbish! What’s more, had the author actually been Robert Galbraith, the book would almost certainly have continued to languish in obscurity, probably forever.

“The Cuckoo’s Calling” will now have a happy ending, and its success will only perpetuate the myth that talent is ultimately rewarded with success. What Rowling’s little experiment has actually demonstrated, however, is that quality and success are even more unrelated than we found in our experiment. It might be hard for a book to become a runaway bestseller if it’s unreadably bad (although one might argue that the Twilight series and “Fifty Shades of Grey” challenge this constraint), but it is also clear that being good, or even excellent, isn’t enough. As one of the hapless editors who turned down the Galbraith manuscript put it, “When the book came in, I thought it was perfectly good — it was certainly well-written — but it didn’t stand out.”

I highly recommend reading the entire thing where the author discusses a social experiment about the discovery of music by unknown artists.


Recommended related reading: Nassim Taleb on the role of luck.

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