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The first principle of being successful is to be lucky

I read with great interest Sam Altman’s essay *How to Be Successful. Five years after it came out! Better late than never. It presented many interesting nuggets of wisdom, such as:

You get truly rich by owning things that increase rapidly in value.

The best way to make things that increase rapidly in value is by making things people want at scale.

So, can someone please explain to me, like I am a nine-yer-old, how did Sam Altman become successful? It couldn’t possibly have been Loopt, a little-known geo-social service. Well, the very last sentence in the essay, added as a response to Hacker News comments, gave it away:

I am deeply aware of the fact that I personally would not be where I am if I weren’t born incredibly lucky.

He should have started with that! Silicon Valley people apparently like talking about “first principles”, and it seems clear to me that the first principle of being wildly successful (or “truly rich”, which Altman tellingly equates) is to be lucky; everything else is ex post narration. I want to read an essay that starts with luck: how to recognize it, how to expose yourself to it, how to benefit from it. This will inevitably become an essay about probability, so Nassim Taleb would be the perfect person to write it, and indeed he did! Only the topic is much too complex for a short essay so yes, it’s a book, and to fully appreciate it you may as well read the whole of Incerto.

And if I am contrasting Taleb with Altman — which may be an unfair comparisson to Altman as there is a bit of an age differential — here is what Sam says about hard work:

I think people who pretend you can be super successful professionally without working most of the time (for some period of your life) are doing a disservice. In fact, work stamina seems to be one of the biggest predictors of long-term success.

The parenthetical is doing a lot of work here, and the thing left unsaid is that with this ethos you can end up working really hard your whole life and end up safe from poverty, but not wildly successful… like most Americans! Here is prof. Taleb:

Solid financial success is largely the result of skills, hard work, and wisdom. But wild success (in the far tail) is more likely to be the result of reckless betting, extreme luck, & the opposite of wisdom: folly.


P.S. While the essay reads better than the recent Techno-optimist hocum (a low bar), did he really need 17 people to review his drafts, including… Diane von Fürstenberg? Seriously?

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