Several dice on a table
(Featured image: Jacqui Brown/Flickr CC BY SA 2.0)

I should be so lucky

How can we estimate the importance of the role of luck on individual success?

Koen Smets
6 min readOct 27, 2023

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Andrew Carnegie was an exceptionally lucky man. The fortune he amassed, adjusted for inflation, amounted to about $310 billion, give or take a few billions, putting him firmly in the top-5 of all time richest individuals. To accumulate such wealth in a lifetime is simply impossible through sheer hard work. He certainly did not start life in any sort of material wealth, born in a poor family in a Scottish industrial town, and growing up in a weaver’s cottage with one room serving as living, dining and sleeping quarters.

His biography on Wikipedia lists a sequence of events that all likely played a role in how his life panned out. Young Andrew was able to attend school — a school gifted to the town by a philanthropist. His uncle George Lauder was not just a significant intellectual influence on him, but also lent his parents the money with which they were to emigrate to America when he was twelve. Moving to America spelled the end of his formal education, and Andrew went to work changing spools in a cotton mill, when he caught the eye of, and was hired by John Hay, another Scottish émigré who owned of a factory producing spools for the cotton industry. A year later, he got a job as a messenger boy at the Ohio Telegraph Company, and within a year was promoted to telegraph operator. Meanwhile he had also been furthering his education by taking advantage of the offer of Colonel James Anderson, a wealthy businessman who, every Saturday evening, opened up his considerable library to working boys. In 1853, aged just 18, he was offered a position at the Pennsylvania Railroad, and Carnegie decided this offered better prospects than the telegraph sector. Within six years he made it to divisional superintendent. That was when he began to invest in industries that supplied the fast-growing railway network (iron and construction), as well as in two budding sleeping car companies. After the civil war he left the railway industry, concentrating on steel production (with the railways still a key customer, as well as a supplier of transportation for his products). Thanks to innovations he introduced, both technically (cheaper and more efficient mass production) and structurally (vertical integration), by the late 1880s, Carnegie steel was the largest…

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Koen Smets

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius