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

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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

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