What role does luck play in determining one’s success?

fortune cookie - fortunate about luck

I saw this image on social media early this week and immediately knew I wanted to write about this topic. Merriam-Webster Online defines luck (noun) as “a force that brings good fortune or adversity; the events or circumstances that operate for or against an individual” and “favoring chance”. There are certainly some clear-cut examples of how luck can be transformative by any measure – winning a massive lottery payout comes to mind. On the other hand, some among us suggest that barring exceptions like this, you are solely responsible for your success in life via hard work and persistence. But is it really that simple and there is no role at all for luck to play? Like most things, the truth is a bit more complex, and that is the subject of today’s post.

If you are reading this, you are among the lucky!

At a foundational level, there are a host of factors outside of our individual control that provide each of us with a starting point in life. This includes where and when you are born, your genetic composition, who is responsible for your upbringing, your access to clean water and good nutrition, and the nature of your early education. However, this short list is made up of truly vital elements that play an essential role in defining who we are, and what advantages we have starting out in this world. Just the fact that I am writing this article on my laptop and that you are reading it, means we had a number of things in our favor that the majority of human beings living now did not. So right here it seems there is a very real role for luck or good fortune to play.

It’s easy to underestimate or wholly set aside this fact, and it can also be a bit uncomfortable to think about it. While I didn’t come from a wealthy family, I had so much going for me right from the beginning: I was born in the United States in the 20th century, had two parents who cared for me, I had easy access to good medical care, healthy food and water, and was able to take advantage of public education from 5-18 years old. These things surely set me on a path with a higher likelihood of success in life, and I consider that to be a very fortunate circumstance indeed. Can you make it in this world without these things? Yes, and it always makes a good story to highlight those amazing and inspiring people who do. But surely those individuals are outliers, right? I absolutely consider myself to be a lucky person to have had these early advantages in life. I try to be mindful of this fact but it is so easy to take these things for granted.

The role for luck in the workplace

Let’s accept that the above circumstances are out of our control, and move on to the topic of our work lives. I’ve written a series of posts on what I view as the keys to success in the workplace. While the bulk of those articles concern behavioral choices we make, a number of times I made reference to the idea of luck and timing. It is my assertion that there absolutely is a role for good fortune to play in one’s career success. You can do all the right things, follow great practices and work hard, and yet your eventual achievements may well be quite different from someone else who follows similar (or even worse) practices, or who works not nearly as hard as you. I’m certain you will agree with this sentiment!

In my own career, I can think of a number of times where luck clearly had a role to play in my success. One that comes to mind is simply being in the right place at the right time, so that I had the opportunity to take part in a conversation, in which I suggested an idea that turned into a career-changing job. Another time, I emailed a former coworker out of the blue to meet for lunch after not seeing him for nearly two years. A week later I had a job interview at his company. As a result of that, I got the role, met my future wife, and found myself on a new fork in my career path. Numerous great and several very unlikely outcomes manifested from that one email! And of course there is the stock market. Like many, I’ve benefitted from market conditions, where the value of company equity I held proved to be very high (or in other times, not very much at all) due to factors having nothing to do with my own work or my company’s performance. We just rode along with the performance of the sector or the market overall.

Luck and the value of taking more shots on goal

Ice hockey phenom Wayne Gretzky is credited with the quote “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”. I recently learned that his full statement continues on to “even though there is only a 1-5% probably of scoring”. That’s pretty impactful, no? Applied to the workplace, I believe you can absolutely create opportunities for good things to happen by your efforts – or as the picture for this post suggests, via hard work.* While you cannot “make” unlikely events happen, my assertion is that you can increase the chance that you will benefit from them when they do.

In my own experience, some of the ways I have most deliberately done so is via embracing change and developing practices where I can not only work hard, but smartly as well. This is a form of trying to “make my own luck” or more accurately, providing opportunities for lightning to strike – more shots on goal. I don’t mean to trivialize something so important, but I do think this is an apt analogy. By creating more opportunities for things to happen, my experience shows you will have a higher likelihood of being able to take advantage of the situations when they arise.

Real examples of putting it in practice

One of the simplest things I’ve found of benefit is just making sure people keep you in mind for opportunities. Most roles don’t go to “the best” candidate out there. Practically speaking, more often they go to “the best candidate that presents themself”. In my work life, I tried to leverage this in several ways. First, I ensured people at my company knew who I was and what my capabilities were. Part of that is indeed working hard and leveraging your strengths, but the rest is just networking. In addition, I’ve always actively maintained my network of contacts. LinkedIn makes that even easier, but even prior to its existence I always kept up with people. Merely by ensuring that I stayed abreast of what former colleagues were doing, I created new job opportunities on a number of occasions. Couple that with a willingness to embark upon new ventures, and you will create more opportunities for luck to impart its magic!

Another essential pursuit in my mind is to never stop learning. Constant skill-building and personal growth is vital towards creating chances for good fortune to strike. Not everything I’ve done individually was necessarily successful or yielded great outcomes. However, in combination, those experiences have certainly led to good things. While I was trained as a scientist and worked in that capacity for the first half of my career, I didn’t stop there. I moved into product management to build my commercial skills and broaden my experience. This had the benefit of enabling me to become a viable candidate for new roles, while also expanding my network. That led to a series of new job opportunities for me, several of which proved to be both lucrative, and also positive in terms of experience and job satisfaction. That’s not to say I wouldn’t have found success had I continued in R&D. But I definitely accelerated my career advancement and was able to take some additional shots on goal via these new paths.

One further thought: I had long planned to retire early from a traditional career, and took a variety of deliberate steps to enable this goal. I achieved financial independence in 2019, and left the workplace about a year later (8 months ago). While the path I followed would have taken me to that aim as planned, in reality I achieved my goal several years earlier than I had originally projected. Some of this is certainly due to good luck – very favorable stock market performance in recent years was one major factor. But other reasons included precisely what I’ve described here. I created opportunities for good things to happen by the choices I made. Those lucky events still needed to occur, of course. But I ensured that I had a better chance of being able to benefit from them when they did.

In conclusion

Does luck have a role to play in one’s career success? I absolutely believe that it does, and a good deal of this is out of your control. However, the ways in which you work can also increase the likelihood of your individual ability to benefit from unlikely things! We may not wholly “make our own luck”, but we can certainly stack the deck in our favor along the way. I would assert there is tremendous value in doing so and have been fortunate to experience the positive outcomes that can result. I hope that you have too and will continue to do so in the future!

* With apologies to my British readers – here the image refers to the US expression “busting your butt” i.e. working hard

On the origin of ideas – reflecting on what I’ve learned

a man's head with a maze inside it with a lightbulb at the center

In my regular milestones posts and in other pieces on this blog, I’ve written about the various lessons I have learned and observations made since leaving the workplace. The latest of these is the realization that recently, a number of new ideas have been emerging from the recesses of my brain. I’ve found this to be particularly so in the course of exploring new hobbies and experiences. What is the genesis of these ideas and how does that apply to my search for “what to do next”? Read on to learn more! I believe you will learn that you can apply similar strategies in your own life.

You can’t rush the creative process

If you’ve read my recent posts about the Two Sides of FI project or the ChooseFI livestream event, you already know something about my good friend, Eric. I’ve know the guy for 35 years at this point, so we talk really candidly. In one of our recent conversations, we spoke about the origin of ideas for new endeavors or business opportunities. The context of this was my frustration with figuring out “what to do next”. I took a lot from that chat, including the idea that you often need to explore a variety of things before the “great idea” emerges. In other words, only by taking the time needed to try out a number of interests, hobbies, and concepts, you create the opportunity for that truly great idea to emerge. He relayed this concept using his own experiences with starting up his architecture practice and his very successful YouTube channel.

I understood what he meant as it reminded me of my own experiences working in the lab as a scientist. Sometimes you had to try (and fail) with a number of different avenues before inspiration came to go in a (sometimes totally) different direction to resolve the question at hand. So it made sense on the surface but I hadn’t yet had a similar experience when it came to what to do next in this new phase of my life. While I had been thoroughly enjoying spending my time how I saw fit, I hadn’t yet found my great idea. Eric reminded me that this was totally OK! His own experience had taught him well that you can’t rush the creative process. Sometimes you need to try a variety of things, digesting what you’ve learned, and only then will the idea emerge.

What he said was of course totally reasonable! Admittedly, I’m a rather impatient person. Talking with him, I realized how much pressure I’d been putting on myself to figure out “what to do next”. When you think about it, that’s both silly and counterproductive! Unlike in my deadline-driven work life, where priorities were set by others, I am in blue skies territory here. There is no pressure to produce something or to achieve a specific goal, and certainly no deadline. My wife, Lorri has also been great about pointing this out to me regularly. Maybe it’s just my natural inclination, or simply a reaction to all the questions I get from friends and former colleagues? No matter the origin, the good news is that I’m learning. I realize that ideas cannot be forced and there is no pressure to do so. Ideas come on their own schedule and that’s just fine! So what are some ways I’ve found that help yield new ideas?

Generating new ideas requires a variety of mechanisms

One of the realizations I’ve had is that at least for me, ideas originate from a variety of sources – and often from a combination of the same. I’ve determined that there are three primary sources of late that are facilitating idea generation. Described simply, these are thinking, doing, and sharing. That all sounds pretty obvious of course, so what do I mean?

“Thinking” is the most obvious, I suppose. Simply taking the time to ruminate is certainly a wise approach to generate and explore ideas. I’ve always been someone that spends a lot of time in thought. But a very big difference that I’ve noticed in recent months is when and how I think. Without my former work schedule, my daily calendar has ample opportunity for concerted thought – not just handfuls of stolen minutes here and there. I’ve found that rather than getting right out of bed and starting my day each morning, I now tend to lie there 20-30 minutes just quietly thinking about an assortment of things. In addition, I’ve noticed that I’m taking more concerted effort to think without distraction. Particularly for creative and more abstract endeavors – I’ve definitely found this with app development, uninterrupted thought is vital. I’ve now realized how insufficient the time I gave to this task was while I was still working. I suspect I could have been much more productive had I been better about blocking time for thought, vs. checking off more tasks on that day’s to-do list.

“Doing” is something I’ve addressed often on this blog. Since leaving my career, I’m spending at least several hours each day pursuing my passions – in recent months this largely means iOS app development. I’ve realized a few things in the course of this pursuit that have made my “doing” much more productive. First, in treating this more seriously than merely a hobby ( as I’d done in the past), I’ve advanced in my abilities more quickly – not too surprising. I have also been good about pushing myself to work through problems, rather than set them aside because I had other things to do. Admittedly at times this has meant I’ve gotten behind on tasks around the house. It’s been well worth it though! Taking another piece of advice from Eric, I’ve realized I need to really prioritize my “making” vs. “managing” time. Most importantly, being more intentional in my doing has been a tremendous source of new ideas. I’m finding a greater ability to think creatively than I had been earlier on in learning these new skills. Several times I’ve even woken up with a new idea on how to solve a problem that I’d struggled with the day prior – or for a new app!

Lastly, I’ve learned a lot from “sharing”. Historically I’ve not been one to air my ideas on potential new pursuits with others without really thinking through them first – if at all. At least some of that was surely due to a fear of vulnerability. But what I now find is that I’m much more willing to discuss these ideas with Lorri, good friends like Eric, or even on social media with people I don’t know well, if at all. Unlike with my “old job”, there is no pressure relating to perception, or expectations based on my job level, etc. This openness has proven really productive for me. Sometimes it has helped me refine an existing idea. Other times, this dialogue has yielded a totally new idea. In fact, just this morning I woke up with a new business concept as a result of a conversation I had last night at Zoom Happy Hour with my college friends! Perhaps you’ll get to hear more about that before too long? ?

Wrapping things up

Idea generation is a vital part of many things, including the search for one’s next opportunity. While I know there is no pressure to do so on a given schedule – if at all, I am excited by the concept of coming up with something fun, interesting, and fulfilling. This might originate directly from one of the areas I’m already exploring, or be something totally different. In any case, I feel like I’m now arming myself with far better tools to generate those ideas.

If there’s one truth about retiring from the only career you’ve known, it’s that it produces an opportunity like no other to learn about yourself. It’s been a fascinating eight month journey so far, and I remain thankful to have this experience. No matter what comes next for me, I am sure it will teach me even more valuable lessons. Onward we go!

P.S. -For those who picked up on the title’s nod to Charles Darwin’s master work, bravo! If you haven’t read On The Origin of Species, I’d highly recommend it! There’s even a picture book version, apparently. How cool is that?

image credit: “Find the idea” by khalid Albaih is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Keep pushing towards that goal! Perseverance revisited

screenshot from EZ Calc app

The value of perseverance is a topic I’ve covered before, and one that is a favorite of mine. They say that the times that truly challenge you are also the ones from which you grow the most. From both my work experience and my personal life, I’m a firm believer in that! The last time we addressed this topic, I shared a story of a key point in my college journey and by extension, my career and my personal life. This time, I’m happy to provide a follow up to my last post, one that concerned my first iPhone app wholly developed by me, EZ RetireCalc.

REJECTED! Well, twice, actually…

If you read that post from last week, you’ll recall that I developed a very simple app to provide an answer to that all-important question, “how much savings do I need to retire”? Apparently that first version was too simple as Apple rejected it (twice!), essentially for that reason. Needless to say, I was pretty deflated by the whole experience. I knew it was a simple app but that was the point, right? Apple, like other vendors, has specific guidelines about the content that is distributed on their App Store. Despite my hard work, my app didn’t cut the mustard.

After the second rejection, I decided to post the article (which I had already written) on the blog with a link to a beta version of the app. I did this knowing full well that fewer people would download the app given the extra steps required to use an app still in testing. In actuality, only three people downloaded it over the course of a week, despite the fact that there were quite a few (110 as of today) page views for that article. What to do next? My gut reaction was just to move on. I enjoyed making the app and it was an important part of my app development educational journey. There was no need to beat a dead horse, right?

More learning needed – and an idea

I decided I was just too novice a developer and needed to put more work into skills building, and set out on a new learning path. I’d been happy with the several Udemy courses on iOS app development I’d taken to date, but thought I needed a kick in the rear. I found Hacking With Swift, another popular option that was more challenging and that I though had a steeper learning curve (note: it is available for free, though I elected the paid version to get the additional exercises, PDFs. etc). This one really seemed to fit my personality. You didn’t need to watch videos if you didn’t want to given the well-written articles and sample code provided. The course also focused even more on problem solving and included far more independent development opportunities – perfect!

Over the past week I completed about a third of the curriculum, which took a lot of hours – but I have really enjoyed it! Again, this is one of my favorite things about no longer being constrained by my work schedule: I set my own hours and that means I have the freedom to spend my time how I wish! As my wife, Lorri will confirm, I’ve been spending a large amount of my waking hours at my desk coding – and I’ve really enjoyed it. It wasn’t all rosy though – I’ve really had to push through some challenging work at times. To that point, at least once I’ve had to set things down and come back the next day with a fresh head due to being frustrated.

Like most things that have kept me busy in life, they have a way of creeping into my dreams or at least into my waking thoughts…

Eureka!

Just this morning I woke up with a pretty clear idea on how I could add some functionality to the app – and importantly, without diverging from my vision of simplicity. Based on some work that I’d done for a few different projects in my latest course, I had two related ideas for EZ RetireCalc: 1) I could enable the user to save their results (unless you code it as such, apps don’t retain the work you do while using them), and 2) add a screen that lets the user view a summary of their saved results, share them with others, and delete them when finished.

Ideas are one thing, but did I really know how to implement those two things? Even if I could, would Apple view them as sufficient to approve the app? It took me a good five hours to address the former question. In addition to the new capabilities, I also elected to apply some of the other lessons I’d learned in my coursework to clean up the app. There were a few times were I was surprised to find myself feeling remarkably confident in my work – balanced by several other points where I felt I had no idea what I was doing. Learning is like that, right? You’ve gotta keep pushing ahead though! And with amazing online resources like StackOverflow (boy, could I have used that during my college CS courses), there’s always a way to get to the answer! I got the app submitted for review by midday and then the waiting started…

A sigh of relief and an occasion to celebrate

It often takes up to 24 hours for Apple’s app review cycle to complete. So I was both surprised and excited when just about an hour later I received notice they were reviewing my app. Before long I received an email that included the text you see in the picture above. My app was approved! VICTORY!!! Now don’t be mistaken: this is a very simple app and one that an experienced developer could put together very quickly. But it’s only the second app I’ve ever had approved and the first that I wrote all by myself. So needless to say I was excited by this wee success!

I’ve now revised my last post with a link to the approved app, and also made a few updates to the article reflecting the new functionality. If you haven’t read it yet, I hope you’ll consider checking it out. And if you did read it but skipped downloading EZ RetireCalc due to the beta testing hurdles, and you own an iPhone – I’d be honored if you gave it a look. I welcome any and all feedback! As a fellow marketing colleague used to remind me often, “feedback is a gift”. I’d be glad to implement ideas that are aligned with my idea of a simple starting point and that improve the user experience.

Have you had any wins lately from pushing through a difficult obstacle? I’d love to hear from you!