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Guest Article

Can We Really Systemise Luck Or Should We Rely On Hard Work All The Time?

By

Sean D'Souza





Is there a way to systemise hard work and luck?

Imagine a problem that's been unsolved for 64 years—and isn't expected to be solved for quite a few years to come.

The problem is a bit mathematical, so bear with me

Mathematicians have had a bit of a bugbear for a while. They're not sure if it's possible that the equation 33 = x³+ y³+ z³ has a solution. They've known for a while that 29 could be written as 3³ + 1³ + 1³, for instance, but 33—that number seemed to be slightly insolvable. What was even more maddening was, that unlike in the past, mathematicians have access to computers that can do wild and wonderful things.

And then, Andrew Booker, also a mathematician, solved the puzzle.

The problem that had confounded mathematicians since 1955, which is when they first started using computers, had been worked out by Booker. And Booker himself was a bit astounded.

He had access to a supercomputer, but he hadn't expected to see any solution for at least six months—if he got a solution, that is. Yet, in three weeks, he had his answer.

At this point, it's natural to make an assumption

He did have access to a supercomputer after all. But so did many others at this point. What made things utterly different was that Booker wrote a specific algorithm. “He has not just run this thing on a bigger computer compared to the computers ten years ago — he has found a genuinely more efficient way of locating the solutions,” said Tim Browning, a number theorist at the Institute of Science and Technology Austria.

And Booker went on to explain

“Previous algorithms “didn't know what they were looking for,” Booker explained; they could efficiently search a given range of integers for solutions, but they weren't able to target a specific one. The algorithm itself was so precise that it was about 20 times faster than any other algorithms that take a random approach.

Was it skill or luck that got Booker to his goal?

In retrospect it's a bit of both, isn't it? Sixty-four years is a long time, and yet not one person had sorted out the problem. It was mostly his own skill that got him there. But even Booker wasn't sure he'd get to the end point.

Moreover, he wildly underestimated how much time was needed. To attribute his work to luck alone would be silly. To say that his algorithm itself was the reason for the success would be pointless without the equipment.

The analogy of skill and luck can best be described by the sport of surfing

If you're a surfer, you go out with your surfboard. There are plenty of waves, but you're waiting for the right wave. If you're skilled, you're going to have the ride of your life. But waves are about luck. You could be twenty feet away, and you'd miss the wave. Or too many surfers could be crowding that one spot, which means you'd have to let the wave go.

But one thing is for sure. If you're on the beach, you're not surfing.

In short, skill matters right at a precise moment.

If you're around, you get to ride that wave, and if not, should you give up?

Not at all, because when you're skilled, an opportunity is almost like an endless flow of waves. If anything, your ability is in saying no to many possibilities, so that you can pick one that seems to make sense.

Will it work?

No one knows the answer. And we know there's no way to systemise the combination of skill and luck. What we do know is that just like a skilled surfer, you'll have a much better chance of coping with luck than anyone else.

Which, in turn, brings us to the whole point of this article. That the advice that our parents gave us wasn't entirely wrong.

They did use the term “hard work” which is off the mark.

But skill is a good replacement, and it's our job to improve our skills. Then instead of slaving like a crazy person for the rest of our lives, we need to put our faith in luck because luck forms the other part of the equation.

Which is why the next time someone pats you on the back for how hard you've worked, you can smile and say thank you. And then remember the role that luck has to play.


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