I happened to glance at a recent issue of Forbes [yes, I read both Forbes and The New York Times, not to mention The Economist, New Scientist, Scientific American, and even occasionally those left wing publications like Sierra and Mother Jones] and ran across a poll that asked fifty billionaires to what factor(s) they most attributed their success. While a number mentioned more than one factor, the leading factor given was “discipline and hard work” (cited by 35), followed by “willingness to take risks” (24); education and intelligence (20), and, oh, yes, “luck” (14).
The funny thing is that I know and have known quite a few people who are intelligent, educated, disciplined, and work hard, and out of several hundred I’ve met well enough to make some personal observations, only two of them are multi-millionaires. And in fact, the idea that all it takes to become a multimillionaire, let alone a billionaire, is intelligence, drive, and persistence is in fact an American myth, and a rather damaging one at that. Now, I don’t deny that the overwhelming majority of multi-millionaires are reasonably intelligent, work hard, and persist in a disciplined fashion. They’d have to have those characteristics to succeed, but what I strenuously doubt is that any single factor, or even one or two, can make someone that successful. It takes a whole constellation of factors, including but not limited to having good ideas, being in the right place at the right time, having or making the right contacts, being able to raise the necessary investment, and a certain amount of luck. And a great number of those factors are environmental, and so obvious that they’re taken for granted, such as a stable home life and decent schools while growing up. A single factor just doesn’t cut it.
The same principle applies to other situations as well. Most industrial accidents, especially major ones, aren’t the result of a single factor going wrong, but a combination of at least two, if not more, problems. The same thing is definitely true in aviation accidents, and even though the NSTB often cites pilot error, it’s almost always a mechanical or weather problem, or something else, combined with pilot error. Most automobile accidents involve two factors, if not more.
So why do we persist as a society in trying to identify the single factor, or the “key” factor, when life is so much more like a jigsaw puzzle, where every piece plays a part? Are we trying to make things too simple? Or is it just intellectual laziness?