Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Reasons for success


Success, recognition, publicity, etc. do not always go to the most deserving. Often, in fact, they go to some less deserving party based on factors like luck, who-knows-whom, image building, whatnot. In some cases, e.g. in politics, what brings success can be outright detrimental to what brings an ability to do a good job. (Consider time spent on campaigning vs. time spent on reading and thinking, or executive decisions made for the purpose of being re-elected vs. of furthering the well of the people.)

A very important point is that “how good someone is” often matters less than “how good others believe that he is” (with many variations). This, especially, when combined with how poorly qualified those “others” often are to judge such matters, be it because they do not understand the field or whatnot at hand or because their impression of the “someone” is too superficial. (I caution that we likely all are among those “others” on occasion. Not everyone is equally bad, but none of us is perfect.)

Over time, I will discuss this in more detail below.


Publicity is not automatically a good thing. (Ditto, e.g. fame.) However, even when it is not, similar mechanisms as with e.g. success can apply and both can be seen as special cases of a more general phenomenon. The inclusion also has the benefit of allowing me to use the below discussion around the 2024 Masters, which was the trigger to actually beginning this page. (Thoughts on the topic go back at least to my teenager days, however.)

As of April 2024, this page is very sports heavy. To some part, this is because sport can give many good illustrations; to some part, coincidence. Other types of success will certainly be discussed over time, including success in the office.

2024 Masters (golf)

During the 2024 Masters I had a few thoughts, of which at least two are relevant to this page:


I am not big on golf, but a fellow Swede, Ludvig Åberg, did exceptionally well in his first appearance in a major, eventually taking second, which gave me some interest.

Thoughts not relevant to this page include how golf is a statistical sport, where a temporary piece of good or bad luck can shift someone’s position considerably, but how this tends to even out over 72 holes, still leaving the better player with a considerable edge; and how small the margins can be, e.g. in that the considered-large gap between first and second of four strokes amounted to 1/18th of a stroke per hole over the tournament or approximately 1/70th of a stroke per stroke (comparing victory of margin to overall count).

  1. Publicity does not always go to the most deserving players, the ones that e.g. a true follower of the sport might be most interested in, or similar. Indeed, the single player who received the most publicity (in the reporting that I encountered) was Tiger Woods, who had nothing to do with the top positions and, in fact, did exceptionally poorly by his historical standards. Indeed, this disproportionate reporting is what makes me go with the word “publicity”.

    Now, Tiger Woods is a strong candidate for the golf-GOAT, he is one of the most popular players in history, and his “brand recognition” extends far beyond those actually interested in golf. (If we look at specifically U.S. media, a “local hero” factor could also play in, but the Woods-focus was present in e.g. Sweden too.)

    However, his relevance to this tournament was very low, be it in a realistic estimate of his in-advance chances or with an eye at how the tournament actually played out. (Checking with Wikipedia, it appears that his last victory in a major was in 2019 and the one before that in 2008 (!), and we might have to go back as far as 2013 to find a Woods that was truly a force in the game. Among those who played all four days, he had the worst score.)

    Here interest by the broad masses trumps what is truly relevant. (Worse, what media assume will be the interest of the broad masses, or what is the interest of the individual journalist, might be the deciding factor.) The result is multiple stories on topics like “Will Woods make the cut?”, “Woods made the cut!”, “Woods with worst round of his career!”, and similar, that dominate more worthy stories like “Who is currently in the lead?”, “Who has what chances over the following day?”, etc. (Gratifyingly, the story “Scheffler won!” did receive enough attention.)

    That Woods shot a horrible 82 might, at this stage of his career, be something worthy of mention as a curiosity, but is certainly is not headline news.

    In a next step, Woods might well be a bigger name than, say, Vijay Singh, but Singh certainly is no slouch either and he was arguably the greatest rival that Woods had in his prime. Singh also made the cut over the first two rounds, he also shot an 82 in the third round, and he edged ahead of Woods in the fourth to tie for 58th, while Woods came in 60th out of 60. Even if we apply a very “nostalgic” take on reporting, is it really fair to leave Singh unmentioned? Would it not have been better with e.g. a take of “two old rivals battle it out at the bottom of the field”?

    (Some other greats or former greats were also in the lower half of the field, but ahead of Woods, including Jon Rahm and José María Olazábal.)

  2. Publicity can depend on factors like luck, including luck with timing.

    For instance, I noticed one Tom Kim shooting a 66 in the last round. This made him the number one for the day, with (skimming a results list) a two stroke advantage over overall winner Scheffler and another also-ran (Kitayama). It also appears to tie for second best round of the tournament (with Scheffler, day 1; behind DeChambeau, day 1).

    Now, Kim was a lowly tied-for-30th and did not make a splash. Imagine, however, if he had shot the same score on day 1, and been temporarily tied for second, and what that might have done for his chance at publicity and sponsorship deals. Maybe, better, that he had shot this score on day 2, for a clear best-of-the-day, and a tie for the lead? (Keeping his actual day 1 score, he would then have had 72-66, to compare with e.g. ultimate winner Scheffler at the mirror score 66-72.)

    In a similar example, Woods had an average score over four rounds that was worse than what was needed to survive the cut after two days of play. Assume that he had missed that cut: yes, there would still have been similar reporting in the early phases, but the later publicity would have disappeared or been much diminished.


    Doing some further reading, Kim actually appears to have tied for second in the 2023 Open and, generally, to have had a quite decent 2023. Factoring in his youth, he could be a legitimate name for the future. The example would have worked better with someone with a lesser record, and it is possible that the 2023 Open would have been a better illustration, where he began with a 74 round, and edged himself up through the field over the following three rounds. Switch his first and last days (at 74 and 67, respectively) and he would have been among the top-few for four rounds straight, instead of being a came-from-behind tied-for-second.

    (I also caution that scores for different golf rounds need not be interchangeable, even on the same course, as factors like weather and wind can vary with the day.)

    The above, however, really has nothing to do with Kim, per se, and merely uses him to illustrate a general issue. Consider situations like the one alleged around Bell’s telephone patent or how, to remain in sport, a random difference can decide a close competition and leave the winner much better off than the second placer. (Consider the 2019 world championship in shot put, where even a slight and arbitrary difference in how the respective measurements were made or how the respective points of landing were judged could have made the difference between even first and third—or where the fact that third-placer Walsh landed his best put in the first round and the others in the last round might have made a difference, e.g. in terms of motivation and risk taking.) A particularly good example could be the space-race era, where astro- and cosmonauts might well have been chosen for excellence, but where much arbitrariness and chance was involved, the space travellers were more passengers than pilots, the main accomplishments were made by scientists and engineers (of much lesser public recognition than, say, Gagarin), and how being the first man in space, on the moon, whatnot, did much more for fame and fortune than being the fifth.

Failure as a source of fame

Some of the ideas from the above golf-inspired discussion can be taken a good deal further, including that failure can be a source of fame (in a positive sense) or that what should be infamy or notoriety (“negative fame”) is turned into fame.

A very notable example is the “Vasa”, a Swedish ship that sank on its maiden voyage in 1628 in front of (what was supposed to be) admiring crowds. While intended as a significant re-enforcement of the Swedish fleet, she, obviously, failed entirely in this, and left behind an enormous-at-the-time cost of construction. (Then there is the issue of a few dozen deaths. An exact number is, understandably, not available.)

In the 20th century, the ship was raised and an entire museum created around it, making it, likely, the most famous ship among Swedes and the most famous Swedish ship. As I remember a childhood visit, the take of the museum was one of admiration—despite the maiden-voyage fiasco and great reasons to attribute the fiasco to errors in construction. (What these errors were is still, in my impression, a matter of debate, but some variation on the “too many cannons” theme is commonly given.)


Looking at ships in general, it is not uncommon that the most famous ships (e.g. “Titanic”, “Andrea Doria”, “Estonia”) were involved in horrifying accidents, and they might, to some part, even be remembered in a proxy manner, e.g. in that the sinking of the “Titanic” is immensely famous and the “Titanic”, herself, is famous because of her involvement in that sinking. The “Titanic” did have some pre-sinking fame; however, this fame increased immensely with the sinking and she remains far better known today than several sister ships and other contemporary ships. (By now, it might even be that both the ship and the sinking are mostly famous for being featured in James Cameron’s movie, adding yet another layer.)

To some degree, they are similar to the “Vasa”; to some degree, dissimilar. Notably, they usually differ through a lesser failure: While virtually any major accident has some, often a considerable, involvement of poor decisions or other circumstances out of the ordinary, the respective ship was rarely more flawed than others. The “Titanic”, e.g. and to my knowledge, did not have any disastrous design flaws. Instead, it appears, poor decisions brought on an ice-berg collision that went beyond what she could reasonably have been expected to survive.

The “Vasa” should have been infamous but became famous, while the “Titanic” merely saw fame enhanced and prolonged out of proportion (relative a world without that sinking).

The accidents, themselves, do pose an interesting problem, as they are infamous, but, in a perverted sense, did excel within their category—just like an unusually large volcanic eruption, in some sense, excels among volcanic eruptions. To what degree, then, should the fame of this-or-that sinking, volcanic eruption, war, whatnot, be seen as deserved or undeserved fame? (With a secondary problem of where to draw the border between fame and infamy—an area where language might be too imprecise.)


The leaning tower in Pisa, which oddly did not occur to me during the original writing, is an interesting example in that it shows failure leading to fame without the additional boost of a disaster (unlike the “Titanic”) and while actually keeping the aspect of failure in focus (unlike the “Vasa”).

Looking at the below, it is also interesting how, without deliberate planning, the exact reason for fame is different in different examples.

Who is the most famous ski jumper in the world? Ask someone knowledgable and the name might be a recent world-cup winner or one of the all time greats. Ask some random person off the street and the answer might well be “Eddie the Eagle”. (This, especially, in Britain or, in a time-travel scenario, in 1988.) Eddie, however, was one of the worst jumpers to ever reach the Olympics, finished dead last in both events, and was (in my recollection) the cause of an actual rule change to bar jumpers of his calibre from future Olympics. His results might well have been better than that random person off the street would have managed—maybe, even after a similar amount of training. Nevertheless, he gained fame through being comically bad compared to the other competitors. His dedication and whatnot might also have been laudable—but hardly more so than the winner(s) of those games.


Who did win?

While the answer in both cases was not a big surprise, I honestly had to look it up—Matti Nykänen. He is certainly one of those “all time greats”, maybe the greatest, and I knew that he had won Olympic golds, but at what Olympics was another question entirely. (He also appears to have won one in 1984, for three in total; not counting team events.)

Who is the most famous computer cracker/hacker in history? Likely, Kevin Mitnick, who wrote several popular books and otherwise capitalized on his reputation (in a legal manner). The hitch? His fame arose from being caught during the criminal stages of his career. (And then being seen as a good story by various journalists and whatnots.) He might have been one of the greats or someone from the middle of the pack who got into the limelight, a matter that I will not presume to judge, but his fame arose from a failure—being caught. Had he been better, he might have avoided capture and never been known to the masses. Likewise, a great many others have not been caught and, likely, prefer that state to continue.


The word “hacker” is potentially misleading as it is also, especially in older generations, used in other senses and as the sense implied by the more accurate “cracker” need not even originally have been among them.

An interesting special case is when someone of some contemporary fame increasingly remains famous only through, and increasingly becomes associated only with, a failure, as with Amelia Earhart. (The “Titanic” could be another case, cf. above. See side-note for some words on Jimmy Hoffa.) A great many others have disappeared in a similar manner without being famous today, and chances are that she would be all but forgotten today, had she not disappeared under mysterious circumstances. (Which at least might have involved a failure on her part. As her fate is unclear, explanations like an unforeseeable engine failure over an unfortunate location cannot be ruled out. At any rate, failure was involved.) She is also a good illustration of the difference between a more stable “own fame” and “fame through failure” when contrasted with Glenn Miller. Glenn Miller also disappeared during air travel and in the same era (as a passenger going to France during WWII), but is still, today, remembered as a band leader—the exact thing that he was famous for prior to his disappearance. His fame might be far smaller today, but the fame that remains is solidly “band leader”, not “disappeared with an airplane”. And, no, as far as I can tell, Earhart is not mostly remembered as “that female aviator”—but as the “woman who disappeared while flying”. More: the fact that Miller disappeared is not even known to most, while it dominates the view of Earhart. In a sad next iteration, I suspect that Earhart, as the “woman who disappeared while flying” will remain a pop-culture fixture for the foreseeable future, while Miller disappears a second time, as he increasingly goes from “that guy that my grand-parents loved” to “Who?”. (Off-topic: As far as popular music goes, he is much more worthwhile than most or all of today’s top-40 music.)


My first impulse was to use Jimmy Hoffa, not Earhart, as the example, and Hoffa’s current fame is of a similar, almost proverbial, nature as “that guy who just disappeared”, with many having little idea of who he was beyond that. (With reservations for the effect of movies like “The Irishman” and who was born when and where. As a Swede born in 1975, I certainly first encountered his name in the context of jokes and pop-culture references in U.S. fiction.)

However, he was likely murdered, which removes or considerably transforms the element of failure relative someone like Earhart. In this, he might have more in common with Olof Palme than with Earhart. (My generation of Swedes knew Palme first as the prime minister, with a series of more detailed pieces of information, and then with the addition “murdered” and the modification “former”. Later generations might increasingly know “that guy whose murder they still have not solved” or, without further details, “that prime minister who was murdered”.


The category of celebrities who are “famous for being famous”, often to the point of earning a good living of their fame, has some similarities and might be worthy of further discussion, if with the caveat that they are usually more infamous or notorious than famous in the positive sense used above. (Eddie the Eagle and Kevin Mitnick are arguable cases, but, if so, they are small fry compared to the likes of the Kardashians.) Likewise the fact that, as with such celebrities, fame (notoriety, etc.) can be used to gain advantages in life that go beyond actual accomplishment.

However, I do not wish to spend even more time on topics like fame, publicity, whatnot: This page is intended to be a discussion of deserved and undeserved success, in general—not fame, in particular.

Chance, success, and systems geared against skill

The sheer influence of chance on success is often depressing, and countless examples can be found. A very notable is the paradoxical reward of a lottery winner for having done something stupid (viz. playing the lottery; this while countless others, who are contextually entirely fungible and made the same mistake, lost their money).

A particular problem is when something that is nominally geared at skill is, too a large part, turned into a matter of chance and/or the influence of chance is artificially increased at the cost of skill.

Several truly horrible examples are provided by various IAAF (“WA”) experiments, e.g. that a long-jump field might be reduced to three competitors after five jumps each, after which the sixth jump alone decides the top-three places. Here, we enter coin-toss territory for the last jump. While these experiments have been met with so strong criticism from the actual athletes, and many other parties, that they have yet to become the standard, the days of the sport might be counted.

To consider a more extensive example, contrast Swedish ice-hockey and German soccer:


The constellations are by no means unique, but it happens that I noted major events in both at around the same time (April 2024).

Note that the common U.S. systems differ in that the play-offs, post-seasons, or whatever the correct term might be, usually take place between teams from different divisions or whatnots—not just the same teams in a rehash. (Nevertheless, some similar criticisms can be directed against these systems.)

Further note that the modalities and whatnot discussed below hold at the time of writing, not necessarily at the time of reading.

The German Bundesliga has 34 games per team over 18 teams in a round-robin format. The team with the most points wins the championship (here and elsewhere with various tie-breaking rules when several teams have equal points). The two teams with the least points are relegated to the “second Bundesliga”. The team with the third least points enters a play-off against the third placer from the second Bundesliga to determine who takes a spot in the main/first Bundesliga and who in the second. The second Bundesliga is similar, except that the two first teams move up to the Bundesliga and (as implied) the third plays for a chance to move up.

Swedish hockey? The main league (“SHL”) contains 52 (!) round-robin games per team over 14 teams. This serves to determine the top-10 teams. (Note: top-10 out of 14!) Teams 1–6 are immediately qualified for the later quarter-finals. Teams 7–10 have a play-off for two further quarter-final places. Then follow quarter-finals, semi-finals, and a final—the final determines the champion. At the time of writing (2024-04-25), the best-of-7 final is still on-going, played between Skellefteå and Rögle, the respective 3rd and 9th (!) placers in the actual league play.

The last placer was (in my impression) the one team relegated, and was so without additional play; however, the same travesty was repeated in the second league (“Hockeyallsvenskan”): 52 games each for 14 teams to determine the top-10, after which play-off, quarter-finals, semi-finals, and finals follow in order to determine the one (!) team to advance to the SHL. (Here, however, the same team, Brynäs, was sufficiently superior to win both the league and the travesty with ease.)

This comes very close to having each team play every other team four times—and then just throwing the results away. (Bad enough with the 52 games for any given team; however, the overall number of games, over the 14 teams, is 14/2 times as large for 364. The Bundesliga, for comparison, has 306 games, which are not thrown away.) Out of the 14 teams, only 4 are out after the entire league is played. Another 4 has the additional risk of one additional round of play. Otherwise, it is a free-for-all beginning in the quarter-finals.

It might, of course, be argued that a team that cannot win in the knockout phase was not the best team, but that is countered by the common differences between knockout results and league play. Not only does the knockout format introduce a greater element of chance in game play, but it tests over a shorter time, which can punish teams who have bad luck with timing, and can cause complications of a rock-paper-scissors nature that are eliminated in league play. For the reverse direction, if the knockout format were equally good, why not just use the knockout format? (From a sports perspective. From a ticket-revenue perspective, there is an obvious answer.)


Such bad luck with timing can include a star player going strong for most of the year, only to be injured when the knockout phase begins, internal conflicts brewing at one point of the year and not at another, and similar. Indeed, the consequences of e.g. having a star player injured for just one single game might be disastrous in the knockout format.

For rock-paper-scissors, consider three teams or players (A, B, and C) that are clearly superior to the rest. Assume that A beats B, B beats C, C beats A. (With a systematic likelihood well above 50%, e.g. through some difference in playing style—something comparatively common in sports.) If they play each other in the round-robin format, as with league play, these systematic differences even out. In a knockout format, we might have a set-up where e.g. A is in one half of the field and reaches the final and B and C in the other half, meeting each other in the semi-final. By assumption, B wins the semi-final and A wins the final and the championship. However, equally probably, we might have A and C in the same half, the semi-final goes to C, and B then wins the final and the championship. In a third equally probable constellation, A and B are in the same half, leaving C the champion. (Where I assume sufficient seeding that the three are not all in the same half.)


Note a fundamental difference between regular leagues, where one can afford extensive round-robin play as the fairer alternative, and various shorter tournaments/championships, where either the number of teams/players or the duration of the tournament makes an at least partial knockout format a better alternative. For instance, to play the Wimbledon in round-robin, while keeping the current 128 players, would force everyone to play 127 (!) other players, and make the time for the tournament explode—possibly to the point of being a year-long event. In the knockout format, even the winner only plays 7 matches and the event fits comfortably in two weeks. (With reservations for walk-overs and other special cases.)

The SHL/Hockeyallsvenskan situation is the more absurd as they not only can afford round-robin play, but actually do round-robin play—only to largely throw the results away.

German soccer also does extensive knockout play, but this is done in a separate competition leading to a much less prestigious “DFB Pokal”. (A similar division is very common in soccer.) And, yes, that the Bundesliga and the DFB Pokal are won by the same team is the exception.

Misattributation of originality

A very common issue is the misattributation of originality, of having invented or created something, and similar. Quotations are a particularly common source of examples, where something clever is merely repeated by someone, often long after the original statement, and such a repetition is perceived as something original by others. (As quotations are cheap, we might then have a pretty-but-brainless pop star being seen as having had a profound thought by her fans.) Ditto jokes. Indeed, after moving to Germany, I encountered quite a few jokes and whatnots as an adult that I thought funny, clever, and/or exactly original, which a native German would have encountered already as a child and might now view as hackneyed. Even more general thoughts can be affected, as with Marcus Aurelius and his “Meditations”, which have given him a reputation as a wise man but contain very little original thought.


This is not to be confused with someone independently arriving at the same idea—one of my core observations is that it is truly hard to find a thought not previously put into writing by someone else. To determine whether a claim is a repetition or an “independent arrival” is not always possible, but a comparison of the exact formulations and the respective structure of the formulation can be helpful. Another potential tell is that the current speaker is known to have been exposed to the works of the original speaker or another repeater.

Also note that I do not necessarily raise accusations against the repeaters. Repetitions with no intention of e.g. self-promotion are very possible, especially, when the repeater (correctly or incorrectly) considers a particular claim sufficiently well known that an explicit attribution is not necessary. Marcus Aurelius, again, is an interesting example, in that the “Meditations” appear to be more a series of personal reminders than instructions for a wider range of readers.

An interesting variation is when someone works in a particular context, uses conventions and whatnots relevant to that context, and the result is later viewed with a loss of context, e.g. through the passage of time or because, for a book or movie, a reader encounters a particular genre for the first time. We might then have an author who is seen as much more original and creative than he actually was, because what arose from the context is attributed to him instead of the context. Similarly, someone in the past might have solved a particular problem in a manner that was reasonably standard at the time, but which is now misconstrued as some personal cleverness, because today sees other standard approaches to this type of problem. Ditto e.g. the sound of some music group from a few decades back.


My own thoughts were first turned to this area when I became aware of the “alba” and its off-shots: an entire genre of poetry that appears to deal with very similar ideas as the original-to-me nightingale–lark scene from “Romeo and Juliet”—just a few hundred years earlier. (And chances are that far earlier versions of similar scenes exist.)

At the same time, execution must be considered: While undue credit for invention is something negative, credit might still be a positive for a superior execution of something. Shakespeare, again, is not known for having created a long series of tales out of the blue—he is known for giving the tales a superior treatment. (But those not aware of how often he drew on existing sources might indeed fall into the trap of overestimating his originality as specifically a creator of stories.)

In a twist, the use of past conventions can have confusing results in terms of who is to be credited with what and who imitates whom. A very good example is the type of scrolling introduction today strongly associated with “Star Wars”. Someone else using this approach today would likely be seen as imitating George Lucas, with room to debate whether a particular use is borderline plagiarism, an homage, a parody, or something else yet. Such scrolling introductions, however, had a long history pre-Lucas and his own use was likely a deliberate attempt at being “retro” or similar.

First past the post and amplification of differences in success

The previous section saw several references to Shakespeare. He is also a good illustration of a “first past the post” issue, in that past greats are increasingly filtered away from mainstream knowledge, readership, or what else might apply, leaving a smaller and smaller group to represent the whole, thereby amplifying an original difference in success disproportionately. Shakespeare was one such great, no doubt, and I would not even rule out that he was the greatest at what he did. However, it is not plausible that he was so far above, say, the second best Elizabethan whatnot as it might seem from current readership, amount of scholarly writings, and similar.

But consider e.g. school: Given limited time, does it make more sense for school to focus on the best or on the second best? (Let alone third, fourth, etc., best.) Clearly, all other factors equal, picking the best is the most natural choice and we might now have a situation where more plays by Shakespeare are read than by Marlowe et co. put together.

Quality is not everything and “cultural significance” is one of the factors that need not be equal. However, the same “first past the post” idea applies here too. More, there is a reinforcing effect, as the plays read in school will become more “culturally significant” by dint of being read in school and, therefore, having an effect on more readers, being more likely to be quoted, being more likely to see references that require knowledge of the plays to be understood, etc.


However, there is some room for paradoxical effects. For instance, I have seen compilations proclaiming to be some variation of “The greatest hits of the 1960s!!!” that contained not even one single Beatles song, while a compilation that lived up to the name might have so many Beatles songs as to seem absurd in the eyes/ears of a younger generation. A partial explanation is likely that the Beatles sell well enough as is, while the compilation has a hidden agenda of giving exposure to other bands, in the hope that there might be additional sales for these other bands.

(Other potential explanations include the greater cost of using a more popular song and that the, already dishonest, proclamation might have an unstated “from specifically our label”.)

As might be suspected based on the phrase “first past the post”, sports and politics are two areas where such effects can be particularly large. (Even in an electoral system using another principle.) For instance, the difference in outcomes between being the Olympic champion and a very close runner-up can be enormous and enormously much larger than the margin of victory. For instance, even a very close runner-up in a POTUS election might soon be lost in the mists of time, while the victor might eventually serve two full terms, be involved in major national and international decisions, and go down the history books. (To which might be added the benefits of contemporary fame. For instance, books by even a “first lady” can sell enormous numbers without having any particular merit beyond the connection with the presidency.)