Montreal, March 4, 2007 • No 215




Gennady Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist and philosophical essayist, and is Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator. He lives in Chicago.




by Gennady Stolyarov II


          Luck exists. Success through luck does not exist. A coin can be tossed; money can depend on the outcome; you can bet, and it can come up your side. That is luck. If you follow that as a systematic strategy, however, probability theory states quite clearly that you can expect to end up approximately where you started. Real-world outlets that sustain themselves on their customers’ expectations of success through luck will not give you such generous odds.


          No lasting and permanent good comes to man through luck. It might seem at first that money could. After all, some inherit enormous sums of it – others lack any to begin with. Some win the lottery. Some profit from a rise in stock prices they did not foresee. Yet this is not success; success lies in keeping those chance gains – and no accident of fortune can assure this. The wealthy heir will not remain well-endowed for long if he recklessly squanders what he has. To continue to enjoy prosperity, he must abstain from frivolous consumption, engage in prudent, foresighted investment, ever remain productive to replenish the stuff his affluence is made of. This is not luck: it is thrift, innovation, discipline, consistency; it is the human character at its best. If an heir has kept his fortune for decades, it is all his own doing; no luck need be invoked.

          The man who wins the lottery expected success to come to him by chance. By a minuscule chance, his expectation was fulfilled, once. If he continues to maintain this expectation, however, the laws of nature dictate that prosperity will be lost to him just as quickly as he gained it. He will have more money to bet with; the stakes will be higher; the astronomical probability of loss will not change. To become successful, he will need to reverse his past habits entirely and resist the temptations that suddenly gained vast sums of money inevitably pose. He will want to spend his winnings to live in luxury; if he does, his prosperity will be as a shooting star, extinguished entirely after a mere few seconds of radiance. Only the wisdom and prudence of putting all his money away and letting the law of compound interest augment it to furnish a perpetual income stream will save him from once again plunging into the gambler’s desperate rut. But luck cannot furnish this outcome. Only forbearance and foresight can.

          Nor is it different with great discoveries of science – though popular myths have unfortunately spread the contrary impression. An apple might indeed have fallen on Newton’s head. The apple did not create the Universal Law of Gravitation. It was neither necessary nor sufficient for the discovery to arise. Other apples also fell on other heads – thousands of them. No other man would have arrived at Newton’s insight if struck by a similar apple – because he did not do what Newton did. To what moments ought history credit the discovery of the Universal Law of Gravitation? To the hours Newton spent in his study, day after day, year after year, inventing the Calculus, analyzing astronomical data, writing, reasoning, struggling. The struggling was likely the most important of these. A genius succeeds not through flashes of inspiration, not through some light-headed caper in the land of the muses. This misconception is the reason why those who hold it do not accomplish on the level of Newton, Leonardo, or Voltaire. The great man works, he strains himself to conquer problems at a level of difficulty unimaginable to most.

"[Some] watch the great man – Mozart at his piano, Edison at his laboratory – and think: how easily and how effortlessly these prodigies seem to accomplish their feats! But such observers see only the results; they do not see the process that attained them."

          The true genius is a man, in body and mind like other men, who chooses for himself an exceptionally difficult task and gives it the full effort it demands. No luck is involved; he was not just born that way; no intricate combination of genetic base pairs can pre-determine a man’s resolve and the number of hours he puts in at night after the rest of the world has long gone to sleep. Nor were special, mystical faculties anywhere to be seen. One does not intuit the Calculus or the motion of planets. The men who make history understand that the results of their work ultimately depend on the strength of their will, the potency of their effort, and the rigor of their reasoning – on them and them alone. Serendipity might offer an occasional clue to the proper path – but it is a man’s own responsibility to notice it, interpret it, and apply it with the utmost diligence. Another man, had an apple struck him, might have thought it only an occasion to get his head inspected for bruises.

          The delusion that any success can be easy – attainable through mere chance – is the reason for the continued prominence of disappointment, disillusionment, and unhappiness in an age which abounds with material goods and opportunities alike. If a man thinks he can succeed through mere chance, he sees no need to exert himself; if a man attributes his failure to pure luck, he will not accept responsibility for his own predicament. The great man accomplishes more precisely because he recognizes that – in the long run – he is the sole determining factor of his fate. No obstacle, not even death itself, can ultimately undo the fruits of his resolve; Newton’s discoveries have survived him by centuries – and the generations that followed him did not preserve his work by random chance or whim. The Nobel, Ford, and Rockefeller fortunes continue to shape the economic and cultural dynamic of the world, over a century after they were accumulated.

          Others watch the great man – Mozart at his piano, Edison at his laboratory – and think: how easily and how effortlessly these prodigies seem to accomplish their feats! But such observers see only the results; they do not see the process that attained them. They do not see the hours of methodical preparation, the days of developing incomplete but promising thoughts, the months and years of building on a base of skill and knowledge at the expense of leisure and luxury. The regular times Mozart spent alone, experimenting with combinations of notes to find those fruitful few; the thousands of failed attempts Edison made at a technical problem before finding one that solved it – those the public does not see. This omission distorts, discolors, and impoverishes the prevailing view of men who succeed at monumental tasks.

          There exists no special breed of men with extraordinary faculties or propensities for success. Biologically, all men are quite indistinguishable from Paleolithic savages who lusted after nothing less ignominious than the blood of the neighboring tribe. The men who build a civilization, the men who through inaction allow it to fall into disrepair, and the men who wantonly tear it apart, differ only in how they choose to approach the world. Those who succeed in their endeavors – at whatever level or occupation – do so because of a thorough and active reliance on themselves. Those who fail waste time in idleness, hoping for luck to bring success to them. Or they accumulate resentment of the successful – wishing to expropriate, to equalize, to pull down those they consider undeserving of riches and honors. The jealous think that they will somehow become better off if they undermine the men who struggle to produce, to furnish the goods and ideas used by the rest of mankind – who ask for nothing more in exchange than the liberty to act as they reason fit and the right to keep what they have earned. Yet the expropriators will ultimately be as undermined – as greatly worse off – as the expropriated; they will think that they suffer only because their luck has changed for the worse. Yet reality will remain adamant. Like millions in the oppressing and oppressed, regulating and regulated, commanding and obeying nations of the world, those who believe success is a function of luck will continue to suffer.