Practical analysis for investment professionals
12 August 2016

There Is No Single Formula for Success

What is the recipe for success?

Whatever the precise combination of ingredients, most would say that hard work is a critical component. But is it the only one? The most important one?

For insight on these questions, we asked readers of CFA Institute Financial NewsBrief how much hard work and diligence contributed to their success.

Approximately what percentage of your professional success do you attribute to hard work/diligence versus other factors (e.g., luck, education, skill, etc.)?Approximately what percentage of your professional success do you attribute to hard work/diligence versus other factors (e.g., luck, education, skill, etc.)?

Of the 1151 respondents, 97% recognize that success takes more than just hard work. The plurality (35%) said hard work was responsible for half of their achievement. Nearly half of respondents (49%) said hard work accounted for more than 50% of their success. On the other side of the spectrum, a mere 16% thought hard work was responsible for less than 50%.

But other than hard work what else contributes to success? Talent and skill, advantage and privilege, not to mention sheer luck, also likely play their parts.

It might be tempting to throw advantage and privilege into the category of sheer luck. After all, no one would begrudge a competitive swimmer of average stature pointing out that Olympians Sun Yang and Michael Phelps, 6’6” and 6″4′, respectively, sure did luck out in the height department.

While there are semantic debates as to what constitutes “luck” to be had, for the purpose of analyzing the factors that most contribute to career success, let’s say luck refers to instances — not states of being — where at the end of exerting whatever control you have over a situation, the outcome could go in any direction, but falls distinctly in your favor.

An example of this is meeting the right person at the right time — someone who knew about a position that would be perfect for you happened to be at a party you were at; a potential mentor takes the seat next to you on a plane; or, a future business partner turns up at the same networking reception just when you decided to start your own firm.

People do not attribute their successes and failures in equal measure to the same elements: Self-attribution bias in investing is a well-recognized behavioral bias. And more generally, we know instinctively this is true of success.

When we have worked hard and applied our skills to an endeavor and the result affirms those efforts with success, we rarely look for evidence to suggest a different causality. When we apply hard work and skill to an endeavor and it doesn’t turn out the way we had hoped, we are forced to take further steps to account for the unexpected outcome. It is worth keeping in mind that we may not be especially objective or diligent about attributing our success to all relevant factors.

So we’re talking about hard work and diligence, talent and skill, advantage and privilege, and sheer luck. Why does it matter that we think at all about how these elements combine to result in our success?

There are two reasons: It helps ensure continued success, and it contributes to our understanding of how to help others succeed.

Ensuring Success Continues

In addition to hard work, communicating what skills and talents you can contribute to achieve specific goals helps distinguish you from every other professional competing for jobs, promotions, and other opportunities. You don’t just need to have this knowledge at the ready in case someone asks. The truth is that there are fewer and fewer circumstances where simply working hard gets you enough attention to be asked. Even if it is uncomfortable to do so, professionals who want to be noticed and to advance in their roles and organizations must take the initiative and let others know how they are uniquely poised to make a positive difference.

Leading — Helping Others Achieve Success

In her book The Loudest Duck, Laura Liswood, a senior adviser for Goldman Sachs, describes the constant, subtle, and unconscious advantaging and disadvantaging that occurs in diverse work environments.

While instances of favoring some and slighting others are small and unintentional, they can add up to a reality of meaningful advantage for a dominant group and unwanted obstacles in the path to success for others. An honest look at how this reality has manifested itself in your own career gives you a chance to mitigate the challenges others in your organization may face, especially those whom you manage, mentor, or otherwise support.

Think about this formula: Hard Work + Skill + Advantage + Luck = Success, or 100%. What values would you give each attribute? This little mental exercise is worth revisiting from time to time.

If you would like to share your formula or thoughts on how each of these factors have mattered to your career, please feel free to do so in the comments section below.

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All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.

About the Author(s)
Julia VanDeren

Julia VanDeren, manager, career services at CFA Institute, serves as the subject matter expert in career management skills, curating and developing career resources for members and program candidates. Previously, she served CFA Institute as career services representative, managing the CFA Institute JobLine (now Career Center) and Career Centre (now Career Tools) resources. VanDeren holds a BA from the University of Virginia and an MPA from Virginia Commonwealth University.

4 thoughts on “There Is No Single Formula for Success”

  1. Robert F Boyd, CFA says:

    Success factors: curiosity, knowing what questions to ask of management, ongoing close study of history, recognition of risks (overpaying for uncertain returns, the highest of all), determination.


  2. DonkeyKong says:

    How about this formula, which is maybe more applicable to the reality in the market:

    0.1*hard work + 0.6*financial situation of the family you’re born in + 0.1*talent (social engeneering skills) + 0.2*gray market business skills (capabilty to selling yellow painted rocks as gold) = career level to achieve

    1. Robert F Boyd says:

      Espial might add that each person in the business has different experiences, skills, and goals. I’ve seen many of the well-born predictably blow themselves up; likewise the seemingly well-educated do the same.
      Most common weakness: not knowing the most important drivers of each situation. They vary and are very seldom the same.

    2. “DonkeyKong” – I’m sorry that you don’t live in the United States. If you did, you wouldn’t not have weighted ‘financial situation of the family you’re born in’ @ 60%. I also find it most regrettable that you hide behind a pseudonym.

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