What Playing Solitaire Can Teach Us About Luck And Success
Is our success a product of luck or hard work? How spending a little too long on the couch at Christmas helped me think about this.
Over the Christmas holidays, between wrapping presents and preparing food, and then later, between throwing out gift wrapping and eating leftovers, I found myself playing Solitaire on the Apple TV.
It says so much about our present moment; playing one of the first card games to be ported onto a computer, on a big high-definition TV, via a media player, which we tend to think of as a simple device, but which is actually a small computer with the kind of processing power tech-heads used to dream about only a few years ago.
Colossal amounts of technology and human ingenuity employed, so that we can play a digital version of something we used to play with pieces of paper.
This version of the game has a setting where every hand dealt has a potential solution. If I couldn’t solve the game it was because of my own choices, not just “bad luck.”
So, every time I failed, I asked the game to re-deal the same cards, the same layout. Doing this helped me learn a few tricks, moves and strategies, which quickly improved my results.
Pretty soon I was solving the game more and more often, faster and with higher scores. The time it typically took to solve a game fell from about five minutes to something closer to half that, and I was also getting all the cards out in fewer moves.
But the best scores, the times when I solved the game in about 90 seconds and in under 100 moves, were very rare.
Playing the game more often seemed to incrementally improve my average but didn’t seem to make it much easier to beat the best scores, once I had reached what looked to be the limits of my potential.
Or, to put it another way, acquiring skill through effort and practice made me a better solitaire player; it made me good at the game. But being great in any single game still seemed to have an element of randomness to it, to be in some measure a matter of luck, of the cards falling in such a way as to allow the game to be solved quickly and with few moves.
It might be hazardous to try to draw big life lessons from a few days of holiday-time laziness. But there could be something to this experiment (even if calling it an “experiment” is clearly a cover for the truth, which is that holidays make me tired and find me retreating to the sofa).
When people are asked about what role, if any, luck played in their success, the answers often fall at one of the two extremes: luck played no role in their success, or it was all because of luck.
Maybe this is because to admit that luck was involved seems to diminish the effort and skill involved in succeeding. Luck alone feels like an inadequate explanation. Or, conversely, denying that luck played any role at all seems to lack humility, and compassion for anyone who works hard and yet isn’t as successful. Hard work alone feels like a harsh explanation.
Maybe the old saying is true, the harder we work, the luckier we get. Or perhaps there’s a little more to it than that. But, either way it feels like the answer is to say yes, it’s both, luck and hard work.