The role of luck in creative career success

Luck has been always considered an essential ingredient for exceptional success. Yet we still lack its quantitative theory. In this research, we track down several general patterns of luck by analyzing the career trajectories of thousands of individuals from film, music, literature, and science.

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One of the crucial questions a movie producer, a scientist, or a musician, has to face during her career is: When will she produce her biggest hit? Can one predict when she will direct a blockbuster movie or make a fundamental discovery? Our research, with Roberta Sinatra and Federico Battiston, showed that this million-dollar question cannot be answered: the occurrence of the biggest hit is inherently random. This finding is also known as the random-impact-rule: Every creative product of an individual has the same chance to be the best, let it be the very first, or even the last piece of one's career. This finding is in line with Simonton, Sinatra et al., and Liu et al. as well.

Apparently, luck is the main driving force behind the timing of the biggest hit. Then, the question arises: How does luck influence the magnitude of the hit? To answer this question we built on the random-impact-rule and on a formerly introduced modeling framework [rob], to decompose the impact of the individual products, such as books and movies, into two components: randomness and individual ability. We then compared the effect of these two components on impact across career 28 creative professions, ranging from movie directors to jazz musicians. Our findings, detailed in the second figure of our paper, uncover that randomness has a similar effect across creative domains and that its role is more pronounced than the role of the individual ability. In addition, our comparative analysis shows (Figure 1) that for instance, the musical fields most dominated by luck are electronic and rock music, while the least dominated one is classical music. For scientific disciplines, on the luck-end of the scale, we can find political science, contrasting to computer science which is the least exposed to luck.

Figure 1
Comparing the influence of luck across creative professions.

Finally, we investigated how the temporal changes in networking patterns may help to understand the occurrence of the big hit. Here our findings are twofold. First, we discovered that for creative individuals, two types of networking patterns exist. Namely, there are people who become central in their collaboration networks first, gaining access to connections and resources, and then produce their biggest hits. However, the opposite behavior exists as well: many produce their greatest piece first, any become central only afterward (Figure 2). Surprisingly, luck is still unavoidable: whether someone falls into the first or the second category happens at random. 

Figure 2
Two types of networking behavior exist in relation to the evolution of impact: for the first group, network measures peak first and success follows, while for the other group, this happens the other way around.


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Go to the profile of Milan Janosov

Milan Janosov

PhD in Network Science, Central European University

Physicist, network scientist

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