On the dangers of conflating luck with talent
The Dunning-Kruger effect posits that dumb people are too stupid to know they are dumb. They are not perplexed by difficult situations but overconfident — not knowing what they don’t know. As few people believe they are stupid, or a bad driver, a more relatable component of Dunning-Kruger is incorrectly believing one area of skill translates to another.
I suffer massively from this. I’m smarter than your average bear when it comes to marketing, so I’ve come to believe that makes me an expert on pretty much anything. I don’t know much about physics but constantly reference Galileo despite knowing little besides the fact that he dared challenge the church.
There is evidence of this all over the marketplace. Great P/E guys believe they would make great VCs and vice versa. Hedge fund managers believe two years of above-market returns means they are also great operators. To disabuse anybody of this notion, take them to a Sears. Billionaires running for president, actors starting skincare lines, and tech CEOs founding media firms. Being rich also naturally makes you a great film producer.
Masayoshi Son created $64 billion in shareholder value, mostly through deft acquisitions. Mr. Son can also boast of perhaps the best venture investment in history, $20 million into Alibaba that became $100 billion. That investment is tantamount to Michael Jordan hitting a grand slam on his first at bat wearing a Birmingham Barons hat.
Mr. Son has mistaken luck in venture investing for the ability to responsibly allocate billions based on a gut feeling. The size of SoftBank investments, relative to the diligence, now looks stupid, if not negligent. A writedown on an investment in a dog-walking app may have been avoided had someone in the SoftBank diligence team taken the time to discover they were investing $300 million in… a dog-walking app.
Conflating luck and talent is dangerous. As I get older, I’m struck by how big a part luck played in my life, and how much I mistook it for skill, well into my forties. The Pareto principle shows that even if competence is evenly distributed, 80% of effects stem from 20% of the causes.