Early on in my career, one of my mentors told me that “Success in your job is 10% education, 20% hard work, and 70% luck. But without the education, your hard work will be useless, and without the education and the hard work you will not get lucky.”
This advice has stayed with me ever since and in my experience, it is largely correct. First of all, it emphasises the dominant influence of luck on your career. Whether you are an investor or a corporate leader, it is largely a matter of luck that we have achieved the positions we are in. And if you think you are not as far up the corporate ladder as you deserve to be, that too is a matter of (bad) luck. In most cases, it is not that people have discriminated against you or that your talents aren’t appreciated (emphasis on the word “most”, because there are instances of true discrimination). Instead, it is just a random decision here and another random decision there that accumulate over time and put you on your career trajectory. So, if you think you have been treated unfairly, take a deep breath and remember that life is unfair simply because it is so random. But it is equally random and unfair to everyone.
Unless that is if you are good-looking.
There is plenty of research that shows that attractive people are treated better in life and that they tend to get promoted more quickly in their jobs, earn higher wages, etc. I have written about that here, but you can also read a more comprehensive study on the US labour market here or international results here. Being born good-looking is obviously a matter of luck, but what bugs me about these results is that good-looking people seem to get ahead without the necessity of hard work and a good education.
But a new study has calmed me down at least a little bit. They didn’t look at the general relationship between looks and career success as the other studies I have mentioned. Instead, they looked at the extreme end of career success: Billionaire entrepreneurs and executives. Using the 2008 Forbes list of billionaires they asked a panel of 16 students (split appropriately across ethnicities and gender) to rate the attractiveness of these billionaires and then compared the rating to the educational attainment and wealth of the individuals. The study showed that at these extreme levels of wealth, there is no more link between looks and professional success or wealth. Billionaires are on average more attractive and better educated than the general population, but the study showed that once you compare them to successful people that are not billionaires, they are no better looking nor better educated than the rest.
So, looks might give you a bit of an advantage, but that advantage wears off after a while. And when it comes to being extremely successful, education, hard work, and looks don’t make much of a difference anymore. All that matters is luck. And that means that my mentor’s advice still holds true, in my view. Education and hard work are the foundation of success. But once you have taken care of that, luck will decide your career path.