Success

Just Because You Were Born on Third Base, Don’t Think You Hit a Triple

four leaf cloverEven though I usually advocate thinking before speaking, I sometimes find words coming out of my mouth that I haven’t consciously formed—in times like that no one is more interested in what I have to say than I am. That happened to me last week when I was at lunch with a friend, and what came out of my mouth was the topic of this post (with a little more elaboration because I’ve had more time to think about it.)

He asked me what I thought was the main reason I’ve been able to be successful in seventeen years working for myself. The first—and only—word out of my mouth was “luck.”

I think he was little shocked at my answer, especially since he is a relentless devourer of motivational books, which are always pounding home the message that we make our own luck. Jefferson—among others—said, “I’m a greater believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.”

Emerson said, “Shallow men believe in luck or in circumstance. Strong men believe in cause and effect.”

I don’t disagree with either quote. I don’t see how anyone can succeed without having a strong sense that they can control events; that’s what gives you the courage to start difficult things and the faith to keep going when unlucky things happen. And I certainly never counseled my kids when they were growing up, to depend on good luck to make it in life.

But we’re all adults now, and I think there are some good reasons to give luck its due when we consider what it takes to be successful.

The first reason for acknowledging the role that luck plays in our success is that it’s true. I was lucky to be born to middle-class parents who believed in education and were able to provide me with a stable and nurturing home. Even though I wasn’t born in the US, I was lucky that my parents brought me here when I was 14 and I could grow up in a country that rewards merit. I was lucky that I was not killed by a drunk driver a month after graduating high school, as one of my classmates was. Meeting my wife was extremely lucky, (but we’ve only been married 31 years so maybe it’s a bit early to tell…) and so on.

It’s been the same way in my business success. In my own career, chance encounters with people have played a huge part. I stumbled across one of my biggest and longest-lasting clients by striking up a conversation with the guy sitting next to me on an airplane.

Of course I’ve worked hard, and of course talking to a guy on a plane won’t help if you don’t know how to take advantage of the opportunity, but there is no denying that luck has played a big part in my success—and I suspect in yours.

Where Emerson went wrong was in thinking that strong men can’t also be shallow in their evaluation of cause and effect. We notice surface patterns but don’t spend enough time digging deeper to understand root causes, particularly when the answers might threaten our self-image. We work hard and we see results, so we make the automatic assumption that one caused the other; but just a few moment’s thought will easily bring to mind people you know who work really hard and don’t seem to get anywhere, as well as people who others who seem to have things naturally and consistently fall in their laps.

But most of my readers are more practical minded than philosophical, so just being true is not reason enough to acknowledge luck as a principal factor. Here are some practical reasons:

  • It keeps you humble and grateful. Humility makes you more likeable and more likely to learn from others, and gratitude is one of the healthiest emotions you can have.
  • It keeps you from making the big mistakes. Nassim Taleb, author of Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets tells us tales of traders who outperform the market for several years in a row through sheer chance. But because they don’t know it, when luck turns against them they double down because they know their skill will pull them out, which is how they manage to wipe out years of profits in a single day.
  • It puts you in a better position to recognize opportunity when you see it, which is especially helpful for people who try to control and over-plan everything. Once you recognize the role that luck plays in your life, you can actually take steps to improve your luck, which is the topic of tomorrow’s post.
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