25 February 2021

Success? What would your choice be?

Over dinner the other day, my wife and I were discussing a question I started asking my students about twenty years ago.

If you had to choose between the following two options, which person would you rather be?

1: Someone who is objectively knowledgeable and competent but who is always ignored by her/his peers.
2: Someone who is aware that she/he is an idiot but who through sheer luck is always successful.

(Or, in more abstract terms, following Success = Competence + Luck: Would you prefer Success = 0 or Competence = 0?)

I was always puzzled by the choice of most of my students. At least, until I heard the late Patrick Winston, of the M.I.T. Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, relate a conversation he had with Julia Child.

Julia Child: "You get used to [being famous]."
Patrick Winston: "[But] you never get used to being ignored."