20th August 2012: Artistry + Luck

Is success in the arts largely due to luck? Reuters blogger Felix Salmon has argued so in a blog post about why people should choose a different career with better probabilities of success. Salmon was responding to philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s latest paper on ‘spurious tail’ (luck) dynamics in the investment industry. Taleb argued that new trainees will be out-competed by an existing power elite that has succeeded due to ‘winner-take-all’ effects, fat-tailed randomness, scalability, and luck. Taleb’s insight holds for academia and Salmon felt it was relevant to artists as well. Investment manager Joshua Brown made two counter-arguments: (1) investment banking has survivorship bias; and (2) sustained artistic success usually requires talent. I wish that Salmon had read Nicholas Reschler‘s Luck or was familiar with the innovation case studies in Simon ReynoldsRip It Up And Start Again on the 1978-84 Post-Punk or New Wave period. Reynolds highlights that in many cases the New Wave success was due to a combination of skill; awareness of aesthetic and sociopolitical currents; being in a networked city like London or New York; gaining mentors and producers in the music industry; and using ‘risk ignition’ to proactively deal with novelty.