10 May 2012

Beginner's luck

“I am afraid I will have to do emergency endoscopy tonight,” AL said on the day of her first gastroenterology call day. She just noticed that I would also be on-call that day.

The other teammates were very kind and tried to soothe her. “Most people have beginner’s luck,” they said.

I smiled and said something else instead, “If we have to do an emergency case, we will do it happily.” And we did. (I mean we did an emergency case. I am not sure if she did that happily.)

Beginner’s luck is widely accepted among gamblers. If you ask experienced gamblers, many would recall they won quite a bit during the first few games. On the other hand, the Chinese have a more logical saying – “People lose because they won before.”

Beginner’s luck is one manifestation of survivorship bias. People who lost bitterly in the beginning will less likely become habitual gamblers. So if you only survey current gamblers, chances are that the majority are early winners.

The same holds true among academics. I love to read the Masters’ Perspective in the Hepatology journal. Successful researchers take turn to describe their training and research and share wisdom. As I glance through the reference list of each article, I cannot help noticing that all the masters had their first few publications in top biomedical journals.

There are numerous possible explanations. Above all, their early success may reflect their brilliance and how good their training centers are. Survivorship bias is also at play. Young researchers who fail repeatedly may lose heart and decide to do something else, or they may just not be given another chance.

How about me? My first project during my internship was so lousy that it remains unpublished today (to be exact – not even submitted). I wonder if my first few publications were ever read at all.

Nevertheless, my mentor kept telling me that I could do it and urged me to keep trying. This, I believe, is the true beginner’s luck.

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