Is it your skill or dumb luck?

Most people seem to get confounded by the question. They answer with either skill or luck without pausing to think of the origin of either and the real implications of their answer. It’s often the simplest questions that unearth the deepest insights and have the potential to shake you to the core.

I should make it clear that I consider the question in the context of rewards, not prediction. It is quite common for people to assume they have earned some rewards and not earned others. What distinguishes one possibility from another?

Underlying most people’s intuition behind the answer of skill or luck is an illusion of the self. I won’t go into detail as to why the sense of self and free will is an illusion. People like Michael Gazzaniga and Sam Harris have done a good job of explaining it. A simple exercise of thinking through the concepts of self and free will from first principles can also work to disabuse oneself of their primacy.

Almost everything that one calls skill has been accumulated through a series of chance encounters one was fortunate to have. Such chance encounters might include being born to parents with means, being exposed to the right teachers, having the right peer group and so on.

It’s also worth pondering why the question is important in the first place and what answering it well might bring us. If one recognizes that the self-importance one might feel on account of skill is illusory, a deeper sense of humility might result. It might also bring about a more optimistic view of humanity in general and the people around them in particular.

Let us return to the issue of rewards that motivated the post. It is possible to argue that rewards should exist in society to incentivize behavior the society deems worthy in some form. Investing in projects that brings value to the society tends to return wealth to the investor for example. Understanding and rethinking rewards for what they are helps us create a societal and cultural framework that benefits the most people. On the other hand, clinging to the traditional notion of earned rewards breeds entitlement or resentment depending on where one lands.

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