Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Reel Genius?

A recent article in the Los Angeles Times makes a convincing argument that people consistently underestimate the role that luck plays in success or failure in Hollywood.

But while we may be tempted to dismiss this finding as simply a fact of life in topsy-turvy Hollywood, research shows that believing in our illusory ability to control things that are actually determined by chance is a basic human failing:

The temptation to believe that you or others are causing chance events is so strong that psychologists coined a term for it: the illusion of control. In a classic study, psychologists Ellen J. Langer and Jane Roth recruited Yale undergraduate psychology majors to watch an experimenter flip a coin 30 times. One by one, the subjects watched the coin flips and tried to guess how the coins would land. They found that, although students at an Ivy League university are surely aware that a coin toss is a random event, those who experienced the early winning streaks developed an irrational attitude of confidence that they were "good" at intuiting the coin toss. Forty percent said their results would improve with practice; 25% even reported that, if in the future they were distracted during the test, their performance would suffer.

Now here's the rub--how is Silicon Valley any different from Hollywood in this respect? Does success make you a genius, or just lucky? Are Valley Gods like Steve Jobs really that much above us all, or are they simply six sigma events?

I like to believe in the possibility of genius, but I think a healthy skepticism is a good cure for hubris.


Justin K said...

Well one would only need to look at the big GOOG to know how much luck plays in the happenings of Silicon Valley.

As much as I love their apps (esp Search and Google Maps), their cash cow was copied from a busines model they pooh-poohed in early 2000.

Chris said...

I remember skipping the Google launch party back in 1999, since what was the point of yet another search engine.

Google came very close to bankruptcy a number of times...people tend to forget that. Back then, Larry and Sergey were "arrogant punks" as opposed to "farsighted visionaries."

The line between success and failure is a narrow one!