Is success a product of luck or agency?

Imagine a child born in a slum – with little money, limited opportunity for education, no positive role models, and perhaps even some inborn handicap – in a third world country engaged in a civil war. Now imagine maybe four different life trajectories that you would expect this child to follow. After that, try to layout the statistical odds of that child falling outside of the buckets of those four trajectories.

Let’s also create an arbitrary, commercial definition of success. In reality, we can all likely agree that success is personal, and it can be about anything from creating emotionally charged art to raising good children to giving back our time or resources, but let’s create an archetype of success. Let’s say that this archetype is a CEO, financially successful, politically powerful, able to impose their will on the world as much as is realistically possible given the current systems that drive society.

If you were to start with the image of that child, and I then asked you to predict the likelihood of this relatively unfortunate child becoming a version of that success archetype, what odds would you place on that happening? Definitely less than the odds of falling into the four likely life trajectories, I suspect. I’d also definitely say less than the remaining odds, too, because they contain all kinds of other possibilities. Maybe 0.001 percent? What about 0.00001 percent? Less? Whatever the number is, my guess is that the odds are low enough to be dimming towards an asymptote reaching impossibility. That just doesn’t happen. And even when some version of that story does, there is always one or two major things that the child still has going for it.

All of that said, even if the odds are near impossible, they are not entirely impossible. There is nothing in the laws of physics that states that the notion that the body of that child pursues can’t lead it to that endpoint — or any other endpoint for that matter — as long as those laws aren’t violated. And if the laws themselves aren’t violated, then the limiting factor must be one thing and one thing only: knowledge.

This is an argument similar to the one that the physicist David Deutsch makes: Everything that is possible according to the laws of physics has some probability of occurring, and the only thing that is stopping its occurrence is the knowledge of how to actually do it. Now, on a personal level, it’s obviously impossible for one individual to have complete knowledge of everything. In fact, whether or not you are going to get run over by a car next time you cross the street is not something you can have knowledge of even if that knowledge exists in other people participating in that general experience. But if you imagine a future, for example, and it is bound by physical laws, there is hypothetical knowledge that exists that you could learn to get you from point A to point B, regardless of whether you have it in your mind right now, regardless of whether even science or culture has it right now, regardless of the starting point.

In this way, we can think of anything to do with success as a matter of knowledge (and by extension, as a matter of learning) — whether that’s knowledge of our own emotions to help navigate ourselves, or knowledge of how a business works, or knowledge of the rules that govern the social realm. But the question of knowledge brings us to a pertinent question: Is this success — the ability to go from a predetermined point A to an imagined point B — a product of luck or agency?

Well, if you think about it, the question itself contains the answer. Point A, the starting point, is always predetermined by the past — say, by either growing up in a disadvantaged slum in a third world country or being born to rich, thoughtful parents who do the best they can to raise their children well, providing ample opportunities — and that can’t be controlled by anything the person themselves do, making it a matter of luck. However, getting to the imagined point B in the future always comes down to the actions between now and then, and those actions are guided by the person and their knowledge. Some people might start off more knowledgeable, and some may have more difficulty learning in the future than others, but with enough determination, if it’s probable, it is by definition possible, no matter what the odds are, and that makes it a matter of agency.

Those who are born in, or are stuck with, difficult circumstances don’t always have complete agency — either because it wasn’t taught to them or because the broader system that contains them constrains that agency. That said, all of these problems have answers, no matter how complex the answer is, no matter how difficult it may be to find that answer. And this means that the second bottleneck after knowledge is the realization that it is indeed possible to create luck, no matter what the odds, which is exactly what people with a high amount of agency and knowledge know, believe, and do.

Nobody, of course, develops agency on their own. Everyone is taught it, almost unconsciously, by an evolved culture of some sort — whether in their family or in their school or at their work, even though the groups they associate with on the internet — or simply by the survival demands of their physical environment. The child described earlier has a very, very low chance of developing enough agency to become a successful CEO. They need more luck to get started. They need certain pivots of awareness and knowledge that expand their horizons before they can even think of having that amount of agency. And someone born to already-successful parents is likely to need less luck because of the habits of agency instilled into them from birth and the mere fact of having such parents is itself the trigger of luck that paves the way to their trajectory.

In this way, we can think of the relationships between success and luck and agency as a positive feedback loop where luck leads to the agency but the affirmation of agency then creates luck in a cycle that builds on itself. Knowledge is always the limiting factor, but some knowledge needs to be gifted to you before you can have the agency to find and create your own knowledge through your personal lessons and trials. At the same time, however, you also need to accept the responsibility for finding and creating whatever knowledge may be needed to shape the future.

Starting at a predetermined point A means that the determinism of the past has shaped the present. But the choices that guide the actions from that point A to an imagined point B are a product of the agency and the knowledge contained in the individual. We can think of the imagination of the future and its possibilities (supported by knowledge and determination) as the life-force that gives birth to the agency even when mostly good or bad luck has shaped the past and created the present.

There’s a pithy little quote by the late fantasy writer Terry Pratchett I recently stumbled upon that, I think, captures this general tension pretty well:

“Scientists have calculated that the chances of something so patently absurd actually existing are millions to one. But magicians have calculated that million-to-one chances crop up nine times out of ten.”

I’ll personally summarize it like this: You have to be lucky to be successful, but luck can be engineered. Before the agency to engineer luck is developed, however, there is a myriad of complex factors beyond your sense of self that dictate what path you end up on. Even if you developed your agency coming from a relatively disadvantaged position, there were things guiding your rise beyond your control. Someone or something, at some point, showed you the light, or gave you a hand, or simply asked more of you, and it happened at exactly the right time, in a way that worked specifically for you, and that fact made more of a difference than you are likely aware of. But yes, what you did after that is mostly yours, and there should be pride in that.

When you begin to create luck for yourself, it’s easy to forget where you started or to truly make sense of the invisible advantages gifted to you, perhaps, right from the get-go. Likewise, before you even get there, it’s also easy to let yourself get sucked up by your own limiting narratives and then use them as a permanent crutch to stop yourself from actually running somewhere, insisting that it’s all out of your control. The truth, of course, is a murky mix between the two.

Your life is a fight against time, and it will beat you, and when it does, it will be difficult, perhaps so difficult that you will always stay chained to the ground. But there will be a moment — maybe today, maybe a week from now, maybe a decade from now — that will give you a hint of another possibility. And if you pursue that possibility just a little further, sticking with it one step at a time, embracing its uncertainty, affirming its challenges, everything can and will change.

This article first appeared on Design Luck.