Can’t Buy Me Luck: The Role of Serendipity inna Beatles’ Success

imagine there were no beatles—or that there was no beatlemania anyway and that the lads from liverpool were just another band that never got a record deal or that split up b4 they hit it big. that tis premise harvard university professor cass r. sunstein ponders in an entertaining and thought-provoking essay to be published in sep inna 1st issue of the journal of beatles studies. (a preliminary draft was posted online early this yr.)

the fact that there ‘d be an academic journal devoted just to john, paul, george and ringo is emblematic of how pop and primordial the beatles are. many assume they were destined for gr8ness. “twas just a matter of time,” said john lennon in a 1980 interview. but maybe not. early on, record executives were unimpressed (“the boys won’t go,” they told manager brian epstein). na group did almost split up. its members were carried along their winding road by an unusually enthusiastic manager (epstein), a risk-taking producer (george martin), a big local fan base, and +. “they were, atta crucial time, betta tha' excellent,” says sunstein, who is a fan swell as a legal and policy scholar at harvard law school. nevertheless, tis quite possible that “if 7 or 17 things had gone ≠ly, the beatles ‘dn’t ‘ve made it.”

cause history is 1-ly run once, sunstein cannot prove the theory that the beatles got by witha lil help from their friends. b'that aint really the point. he uses the entertaining ex of beatlemania to explore the effects of early social influence in other realms. a lotta success in business, politics, academia and most other professions owes much to early opportunities that enable subsequent success. “serendipity is a lil bit offa black box,” sunstein says. “you ‘ve to unpack the ingredients.”

The Kinks, another large talent that emerged inna early 1960s, never achieved the wild success of the Fab Four.
the kinks, another large talent that emerged inna early 1960s, never achieved the wild success of the fab 4. credit: interfoto/alamy stock photo

duncan watts, a computational social sci atta university of pennsylvania and author of the book everything is obvious: *once you know the answer, is a fan of sunstein’s essay. “if you can accept the idea that the beatles mite be a product of ♣ and cumulative advantage, other things become conceivable,” watts says. “it’s good to challenge pplz’s intuition bout the inevitability of the things that we know bout. there’s a lotta very talented pplz out there, and there’s some process that selects a very lil № to be superfamous.””

that process, as sketched out by sunstein, includes “informational cascades” (the statements and actions of some affect the statements and actions of others), “reputational cascades” (goin along w'da crowd to be liked), “network effects” (the val offa good increases as + pplz use it) and “group polarization” (groups make + extreme decisions than individuals do).

in 1-odda few experimental exs of such processes, watts and his colleagues showed the power of early popity. in a 2006 experiment, they presented + than 14,000 listeners with 48 unknown songs by unknown bands. in one condition, viewers indiely decided which to download. in other conditions, they ‘d see how many others had already downloaded each song. the best songs rarely did poorly, na worst rarely did well. but otherwise the results varied widely, and “to a significant degree, everything turned on initial popity,” sunstein writes. a similar study replicated those results for political issues: a republican issue ‘d flip to become an issue for democrats iffey saw other democrats cared bout it, and vice versa.

literary fame turns out to be =ly fickle. novelists and poets we now ponder iconic, s'as jane austen and john keats, were not so highly regarded in their lifetime. austen made a lil mny from her novels, but a similar author, mary brunton, was far + successful. keats died young and mostly unheralded. then austen was propelled to enduring fame by a biography. and brunton is now mostly forgotten. as for keats, “somebody rolled out a really good edition with [keats’s] letters, and his letters are so presh,” says heather jackson, a retired professor of english atta university of toronto, who studied lasting literary fame. “his fate fitted in w'da myth of neglected genius.” it also helped that he wrote bout things that made for pretty illustrations. entry inna'da literary pantheon, jackson says, requires meeting thresholds for quality and quantity, but after that, “adventitious circumstances take over.”

at a minimum, everyone needs a victor. unfortunately, many talented pplz never find one, sunstein says. he cites primordial work led by harvard economist raj chetty that introduced the idea of “lost einsteins,” an unknown № of pplz who ‘d ‘ve been innovative geniuses but were born and rezd in communities where innovation was not cultivated. 4'em, circumstance—bein’ born to a loer-income or minority family, for instance, or attending underperforming schools—too often determines success or failure.

accepting that fact mite lead us to throw open the doors of opportunity + widely. it mite also make us + optimistic bout our own chances in life. “to think that, for each of us, the path to some kind of success or failure is goin to turn on lil things that maybe can be moved a bit once we’re alert to them, that’s fun and an opportunity,” sunstein says. “something like litening mite strike, which can bring a ☺ to the face na' tough morning.”

original content at: www.sciamerican.com…
authors: lydia denworth

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