The Secret to Artistic Success is…Luck

As our old G-paw used to say, “If you’re lucky you don’t have to be smart.” But what he didn’t know is that even if you’re lucky you still need to be talented. (Oh, the humanity of it all!)

iStock_000014701722XSmall_610_300_s_c1_center_centerby Mike LaBossiere

As a writer and someone who teaches an Aesthetics course, the cause of artistic success is a matter that I find rather interesting. When I was an undergraduate I was involved in a faculty-student debate about artificial intelligence. In the course of the debate, I defended free will. The professor on the other side made an interesting point in claiming that I believed in free will because I wanted credit for my success. That remark stuck with me and I found it applied elsewhere, such as matters of luck (that is, chance that turns out favorable or unfavorable).

Since I have been a gamer for quite some time, I am well aware of the role (or roll) of chance in success. However, as the professor noted, I wanted credit for my successes and hence while I acknowledged the role of luck, I tended to minimalize its role. However, after having some modest success with my books and teaching Aesthetics for years, I came to accept the view that luck (that is, favorable chance) has a large role in success. Of course, this was a largely unsupported view. Fortunately, Princeton’s Matthew Salganik decided to investigate the matter of success and had the resources to do so.

In order to determine the role of chance in success Salganik created nine identical online worlds. He then distributed the 30,000 teens he had recruited for his experiment among these virtual worlds.  Each group of teens was exposed to the same 48 songs from emerging artists that were unknown to the teens. In return, the teens were able to download the songs they liked best free of charge.

One world was set up as the control world—in this world the teens were isolated from social influence because they could not see what songs their fellows were downloading. In the other eight worlds, they could see which songs were being downloaded—which informed them of what the other teens regarded as worth downloading.

This experiment was certainly well designed: each world is identical at the start and the test subjects (the teenagers) were randomly assigned to the worlds.  Given the quality and size of the experiment, the results can be safely regarded as statistically significant.

Given that the same 48 songs were available in each world, if quality was the defining factor for success, then it would seem to follow that each world should be fairly similar in terms of which songs were downloaded the most. However, Salganik found that the worlds varied a great deal. For example, 52 Metro’s song “Lock Down” was first in one world and 40th in another world. Salganik concluded that “small, random initial differences” were magnified by “social influence and cumulative advantage.” In short, chance was the decisive factor in the outcome. As a gamer, I certainly appreciated these findings and could easily visualize modelling this process with some dice and charts—like in games such as Pathfinder and D&D.

Lest it be thought that chance is the sole factor, Salganik found that quality does have some role in success—but much less than one might suspect. Based on additional experiments, he found that succeeding with a work of poor quality is rather hard but that once a certain basic level of quality is achieved, then success is primarily a matter of chance.

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