Gallery wall of Taylor Swift, William Shakespeare, Mona Lisa, Jane Austen, and the Beatles.

Illustration by Liz Zonarich/Harvard Staff

Arts & Culture

Better to be talented or lucky?

9 min read

If you want fame, Cass Sunstein says, it typically requires some of both — and is no pure meritocracy

The Beatles, William Shakespeare, or even Taylor Swift. The reason why these artists are so famous and admired surely must be because their talents are simply extraordinary and undeniable.

Maybe … maybe not, says Harvard Law School’s Cass R. Sunstein in his forthcoming book, “How to Become Famous.” 

Sunstein examines the career paths of ultra-successful individuals, bands, movies, and even the Mona Lisa in order to distill what separates the winners from everyone else. (Hint: Talent, ambition, and hard work matter, but so do luck and timing, among other factors.)

The Gazette spoke to Sunstein, the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard, about the ingredients of fame. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What are the biggest misconceptions that the public has about achieving fame?

I think the biggest misconception is this: Many of us believe that people become famous because they’re amazing in terms of quality. It’s tempting to think that if someone makes it big, it’s because they are musically extraordinary, or they have a fantastic business sense, or they’re politically gifted, or “Gosh, can they write a novel!” And while those things certainly are very helpful, it’s a misconception to think those will allow you to get to the top of the mountain.

Do the successful and famous share common set of characteristics or circumstances?

There is no set of shared characteristics that famous people have. Success and fame depend on 1,001 different factors, and there isn’t a unifying set. 

We see books and academic articles that purport to show that if you have certain characteristics, you’re highly likely to make it big. These extremely impressive works depend on a common error: They ask what are the unifying characteristics? But the unifying characteristics of the successful or the famous are often something that people who have failed and never become famous also have.

If you can show that famous people in business, for example, are impatient or are good listeners, or that they are decisive, you have not shown that those characteristics account for fame or success in business. There are plenty of people who are impatient or decisive, for example, who never make it. 

“If you look at Jane Austen’s success or The Beatles’ success or blues legend Robert Johnson’s success, they had a network of supporters who were pretty relentless.

To isolate the ingredients of fame or success is a fool’s errand. Having said that, it is true that people who become famous typically benefit from a network of enthusiasts. If you look at Jane Austen’s success or The Beatles’ success or blues legend Robert Johnson’s success, they had a network of supporters who were pretty relentless. That network of supporters could also have done very well if they’d been enthusiastic about somebody else. 

Let’s look at the example of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.” It was not immediately considered a masterpiece but became famous long afterward. What were the factors that came into play?

A key moment was that it was stolen in 1911, long after DaVinci produced it. The theft was critical to the emergence of the “Mona Lisa” as the most famous painting in the world. Without that theft, it probably would now be one of a set of paintings that people think are very good. 

The theft was valuable because many people thought: “Why would someone steal it if it wasn’t amazing?” Also, it made that particular painting extremely salient. It was very much the object of discussion as a result of the 1911 theft. But until the 1860s, even art critics didn’t say a whole lot about it. When it was painted in the early 16th century, it was well-regarded, but it wasn’t seen as a masterpiece.

Often, musicians or actors will point to one or two people in their lives or an incident they say put them on a path to success when talent alone had not. How did that manifest for The Beatles, whose success appears to many as having been inevitable?  

For The Beatles, the most dramatic point is they couldn’t get a record deal in England. They got turned down repeatedly. EMI, a big recording company, said no; Decca said no. The Beatles thought that was the end. Their manager, Brian Epstein, went to every record company and every one of them said no to The Beatles. 

What happened for them was that two people at EMI offered to pay for the cost of recording a Beatles record — two people who weren’t the bosses but who worked for the company. Without that, who knows what would have happened? It’s not clear The Beatles would have gotten a recording contract.

Of course, there were moments before that that made The Beatles possible. Paul had to meet John at a crucial moment when John was in a mood to invite Paul to join The Beatles, and at a moment when Paul was brave enough to play a song on the guitar for John. Might they have met on some other occasion? Maybe. Yes, they were in Liverpool. But would they have joined forces — who knows?

The first “Star Wars” movie was not expected to do well by the studio or the actors before its release in May 1977. Creator George Lucas thought it would bomb. Why is it so hard, even for experts, to predict who or what will succeed?

The reason it’s very hard to predict success and failure is that success depends often essentially on what happens to the product, not what happens in the product. If you release a movie, then there are things happening in the first weeks that determine success or failure, and those things are really hard to predict. 

“The reason it’s very hard to predict success and failure is that success depends often essentially on what happens to the product, not what happens in the product.

You can market it hard, but it might be that everyone’s busy and won’t take up your marketing opportunities. Or that it’s a slow time. There’s no crystal ball because there are a set of things that are going to follow a release that are extremely hard to predict. 

So success is just a matter of luck or pure randomness? 

Roughly, I would say that all successful persons or works have a particular narrative that overlaps with but isn’t the same as that of others — though there may be some common features (or not!). 

With “Star Wars,” the phenomenal originality of the movie was a necessary condition for its success; the visual amazingness of “Star Wars” wasn’t sufficient for success but was essential to its success. The narrative exuberance of the movie was a big boost. It also had the advantage of word of mouth like crazy. That is different from what happened with Jane Austen or The Beatles, but it overlaps. 

Is there a counterfactual world in which “Star Wars” didn’t make it? Because history is only run once, we don’t know. But we do know that the studio and the participants didn’t predict what happened, which raises doubts about the claim of inevitability. Because I love “Star Wars” so much, it’s very hard for me to think its success wasn’t inevitable. But what we know about success and failure, and fame and obscurity, suggests that its success was not, in fact, inevitable. 

To your point about luck and serendipity. Those are good words, but they’re black boxes, and it’s very good to peer beneath the hood. One thing that the book tries to do is to say, here’s what happened with Jane Austen; here’s what happened with The Beatles; here’s what happened with Stan Lee and Marvel Comics. 

But here’s what didn’t happen with the 19th-century literary figure Leigh Hunt, who’s very good, but relatively obscure, and here’s what didn’t happen with Scottish novelist Mary Brunton, who was thought by many, in her time, to be as good as Jane Austen, maybe better.

What about those you call the “lost Einsteins” — people who might have been great but never broke through or didn’t realize their full potential? Why are they important?

There are a zillion people in human history who could have been iconic, or something in that direction, who never made it. One reason is they may have been born in a time and place where they had the wrong gender or the wrong demographic or the wrong skin color or wrong religion. (By wrong, I mean unfavorable for opportunity or success.) 

Another possibility is that they really produced something, but it got lost while they were alive. Maybe it will be discovered in 2038, and we’ll think, “How did we not know about that person?” There are books in attics by people who had the capacity to write and the opportunity to write but got lost. It might be any number of things. 

They’re all around us — children who can do amazing things, who might do those things. The world might benefit from them if they get a chance. Muhammad Ali, one of my heroes, had his bicycle stolen when he was 12. He loved his bicycle. And he came up to a police officer and said, “My bicycle was stolen. I want to whup that guy.” 

The police officer, who happened to have access to a boxing gym, said to him, “Well, if you want to whup somebody, you better learn to box.” And Ali said, “Okay.” There are people like that all around. And that might give us a sense of inspiration, from the possibilities that are all around us, and a sense of humility about the modesty of the difference between people like Stan Lee, who became iconic, and people who didn’t become iconic. The difference isn’t that big.