How much of an entrepreneur’s success is a result of pure luck?
We don’t talk about luck very often, but it’s always there, working in the background. Some people seem to have been born under a lucky star, and others can’t catch a break.
As marketers and entrepreneurs, we do our best, and can only hope that luck will pick up the slack and carry the ball the rest of the way.
All to say that luck is important… isn’t it?
I’ve been wondering about luck lately.
It started when my wife forwarded me a NY Times article called What’s Luck Got To Do With It?
It seems that Jim Collins has got a new book out (who doesn’t?), called Great By Choice, and he’s on the article-writing trail promoting it.
The article was about luck, and Collins’ attempts at quantifying the impact that luck has on business success.
And it got me thinking – about where I am in life, what has gone well, and what hasn’t.
Have I been lucky? Or unlucky? Or both? Or neither?
Maybe My Luck Has Been Good…
You could definitely make the case that I’ve been lucky;
- I was born into a loving and happy home, and had a great childhood
- I’ve always had good friends who shared my interests and challenged me to think bigger
- When I wanted to quit school, my parents were supportive, and let me do it
- I got to learn and try things as an adolescent that most people don’t experience until their thirties
- I’ve spent most of my life doing work that I’m good at, and that I love
- I married a better woman than I ever thought I would find
And the list could go on, and on, and on.
Or Maybe It Hasn’t Been So Good…
But then again, maybe my luck hasn’t been so good…
- Quitting school as a teenager got me labeled as a high-school dropout; this had a huge impact on my mandatory military service, and created identity issues that took me almost a decade to outgrow
- I’ve always learned on the job, and that can be a painful and expensive proposition – like, for example, when my literacy education start-up disintegrated, and left me with a quarter of a million dollars of debt
- I’ve created more than my fair share of products, and started more than my fair share of businesses, most of which never got any traction at all
- Before marrying the woman of my dreams, I spent way too much time in several disastrously unhealthy and dysfunctional relationships
This list could go on and on, too.
So I guess the question is really what makes one lucky, anyway?
Being in the Right Place at the Right Time?
The article explains Collins’ take on it, starting by dissecting the luck of Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates (actually, I first saw this done by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers).
And yes, you can definitely make the case that Mr. Gates was a lucky guy;
- He was born into an upper-middle-class American family, and went to private school
- His school had a Teletype connection that he used to learn to program, which was unusual for the time
- He was born at the right time, and came of age around the time that PCs were just bound to happen
- His friend Paul Allen told him about the Altair in 1975, which instigated their first big idea
- He studied at Harvard, which had the technology that he needed to develop his ideas
So Gates was lucky in the sense of being in the right place at the right time. But is that all that luck really is?
Collins doesn’t think so.
The article concludes that yes, Gates was lucky – but so were a lot of other people who were born around the same time and had a lot of the same advantages.
What made Bill Gates into Bill Gates, Collins argues, is that he was inspired, obsessive, and hard working. He was ready to put everything else aside (including sleeping, eating, and Harvard) to pursue his ideas.
A Fundamental Attribution Error
But in this case, I think he got it… not exactly wrong, but not exactly right, either.
Because here’s the thing; success requires that you be in the right place at the right time (the Teletype connection at school, exposure to the Altair, etc.), and also that you have the inspiration to work hard when hard work is called for (not sleeping or eating, and dropping out of Harvard).
But to call one “luck” and the other “pluck” (or grit, or perseverance, or whatever) smacks of a psychological phenomenon called the fundamental attribution error.
A fundamental attribution error is what happens when we attribute the same behavior to situational factors for some people, and dispositional factors for others. Here are a couple of examples:
- I was speeding through traffic because I was in a hurry (situation), but he was speeding through traffic because he’s a selfish jerk (dispositional).
- He failed the exam because the exam was hard (situation), but I failed the exam because I’m not good at this subject (dispositional).
- Other succeeded because they were in the right place at the right time (situation), but Bill Gates succeeded because he worked hard (dispositional).
See what I mean?
There’s a problem with that, though, that Collins doesn’t answer (not in the article, at least): what allowed Bill Gates to work so obsessively hard?
We all have our limits; I, for one, don’t function very well without getting enough sleep, and I get very cranky and unproductive when I’m hungry. I have a very short attention span, and I’m a lot less disciplined about doing things I don’t like than most people seem to think.
So… how do we push through it all?
True Luck: Playing to your Strengths and Doing What You Love
The answer is that all bets are off when you’re doing something that you love, and playing to your strengths.
In think that’s what real luck is: doing what you love, and what you’re good at.
In that situation, all bets are off; you can work longer and harder, and not even notice overcome the setbacks, because you’re so involved in, and passionate about, whatever it is that you’re doing.
As Samuel Goldwyn put it, “the harder I work, the luckier I get.” Well, the more you love what you do, the harder you’re just naturally going to work!
So… how can you maneuver yourself into a position where you can consistently be doing thing that you love, and are good at?
In other words, how do you go about making yourself lucky?
Funny that you should ask… 😉
The Deceptively Simple 3-Step Guide to Getting Lucky
We like to make things practical here at Mirasee. Not necessarily easy, but practical.
In that spirit, here are the three steps that you need to take in order to get consistently lucky (and not notice the times when you aren’t).
They aren’t all easy, but they’re definitely worth the work:
- Find what you’re good at. Think about the situations in which you really shone; these are the stories that you tell on a first date, or that your parents tell about you whenever they get a chance. Take an assessment like Strengthsfinder, and keep track of all the things that you do in which you experience flow.
- Find what you love. What do you do for fun? What do you like to read about, when you aren’t reading for a specific purpose? What would you spend your days doing if you won the lottery, and didn’t have to work anymore?
- Find the intersection. This is the hardest step, but it’s worth the trouble. Find the intersection where your strengths and your passion converge, and you’ll have a winner – this is your “lucky zone”, where anything you do is bound to be favored by lady luck.
It’s really that simple. Not easy, but simple.
Not Easy, But Simple
This isn’t a formula for luck in the sense of rolling nothing but sevens at the craps table.
And it certainly isn’t a formula for luck in the sense of a “magic formula” that will create instant, wonderful results.
Finding your passions, your strengths, and the environments in which you thrive – this can (and maybe even should) be a lifelong pursuit. And that’s fine – you don’t need to find it all today, as long as you start working towards it.
It sort of ties back to the old quip that pessimists are usually right, and optimists are usually successful. Well, be optimistic, and focus on finding your passion and strengths.
It may not be easy, but it is the only formula that I know for Sam Goldwyn’s kind of luck; it will motivate you to work that much harder, and push through the obstacles.
And for an entrepreneur, that’s what really makes you lucky.
Now it’s time for you to weigh in. Do you agree that we create our own luck? What does being lucky mean to you?
Danny Iny (@DannyIny) is an author, strategist, serial entrepreneur, expert marketer, and the Freddy Krueger of Blogging. Together with Guy Kawasaki, Brian Clark and Mitch Joel, he wrote the book on how to build an engaged audience from scratch.