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Why you will be beaten to success by people who are no better than you

You would have thought that being brilliant would make you a front-runner, but it is the average masses who are in the lead, and you are trailing badly. Why...?


There is no doubt that it is difficult to succeed in music. Commonly people fail to succeed because they don't realize just how difficult it is, so they don't try hard enough. But suppose you were gifted with natural talent, and worked your socks off. Surely success would be guaranteed?

Wouldn't it?

Well, I came across a startling demonstration of how difficult it is to succeed just yesterday at the annual Thame duck race. Yes, that's the annual duck race, at Thame (the 'h' is silent) close to where I live. And yes, it is relevant. Very relevant indeed.

What happens is that a local charitable organization has bought several thousand identical plastic ducks, of the kind you might have in your bath. Each duck is numbered and the public is encouraged to 'buy' a duck to take part in the race.

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On race day, the ducks are put in a dumper truck and dropped from a bridge into the river simultaneously. The winner is the one that floats to the finishing line first. There is even a podium for the first three that finish (ducks, not owners).

Now, the relevance...

All of the ducks are exactly the same so each has an equal chance of winning. Yet what happened in the race was that a few ducks immediately took the lead. Then during the course of the race the front runners got further and further ahead of the pack.

At the end of the race there was a gap of nearly a minute between the first and second place, then another minute from second to third. The pack was practically nowhere, and many had been caught up on the banks or by low-hanging tree branches.

Now, I would have expected a classical gaussian distribution, where most of the ducks finish in round about an average time, a few are spectacularly fast and some are spectacularly slow.

But those fast ducks... well, they could have taught Sebastian Vettel a lesson or two. They were blindingly fast in comparison to the rest.

What this says for us is that if everyone who aspires to success in music has equal ability and equal opportunity, a few will achieve fantastic success just by chance, and the rest of us will remain way behind, despite our equal ability and opportunity.

Now, suppose that you are brilliant, and you do work your socks off...

But chance has positioned you among the masses, and no matter how much you hone your talent, and how hard you work, you still can't get anywhere close to the front runners, whose talent and work rate is only average. Chance has selected them as 'lucky ducks' and you as merely an 'average duck'.

So you might think that, being brilliant and hard working, all you have to do is compete against people who are average, and you will be certain to succeed. But no, you have to compete with people who are average and have massive luck on their side.

So it's not just hard to be successful in music, you need at least a certain amount of luck to push you along.

Now here's a question, and it has to be asked...

Which of today's successful artists are nothing more than 'front-running ducks'?

By David Mellor Monday June 20, 2011