Luck is(n’t) Everything
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”
- F. Scott Fitzgerald
We all encounter luck, both the good and the bad. Despite the many positive and negative events we all live through—seemingly at random—most people rarely recognize the luck they have or know how to capitalize on it. To avoid confusion, I want to define “luck” before I get too ahead of myself. Harvard business professors Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen define luck in their book Great by Choice as events that are outside of your control, that are unpredictable, and that can impact you significantly (good or bad). Based on this definition, there isn’t a way to get more good luck, but we can learn how to recognize lucky breaks and prepare for the times when it feels like everything around us is falling apart. Whether it’s good luck or bad, these strategies will help.
Don’t let bad luck define your future, turn bad luck into a good luck opportunity
An unfortunate truth is that life isn’t equal. Due to culture or genetics, not all of us were born into lucky circumstances, but this doesn’t mean we have to be defined by our bad luck.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell shared an interesting static: most professional (NHL) Canadian-born hockey players have birthdays in the beginning of the year, with 40% being born between January and March. Why are hockey players with birthdays in the first half of the year more successful than those with birthdays in the second half? It’s something called the relative age effect. The Canadian junior hockey leagues have a cutoff date of January 1, so players born at the beginning of the year have a physical advantage over players born at the end of the year. Being 10 ¾ years old compared to 10 years old is a measurable difference in physical development, which compounds over the years as they get more attention from coaches and more playing time.
Meanwhile, truly great players who make it to the hockey Hall of Fame tell a different story. Collins and Hansen found that half of the Canadian players inducted into the Hall of Fame are born in the second half of the year. This means that a hockey player is more likely to play professionally if they are born in the first half of the year, but less likely to become a Hall of Famer. Truly great Canadian hockey players push through the bad luck they are given instead of identifying with it and its limitations.
In his book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, Gladwell asks the question, “You wouldn't wish dyslexia on your child. Or would you?” Throughout the chapter, he covers the hardships those with dyslexia endure to become productive members of our society. Despite statistics—such as the fact kids with dyslexia are more likely to end up in the juvenile system—those who do become successful are often gifted and more successful than their peers because they had to find ways to work around their disability, which prompts the question: can a disability become an advantage? According to Gladwell, the answer is yes. (See more here: https://www.dyslexicadvantage.org/)
No matter your circumstances, they don’t define who you will become. Carol S. Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford, encourages students to have a growth mindset, which means we shouldn’t think of our traits as fixed; we should believe that we can grow any skills or talent we have if we put in enough deliberate practice.
See also: post-traumatic growth
Hope for the best and prepare for the worst
A pessimist, according to the pessimistic school of philosophy, is someone who doesn’t expect the world to give them any favors; they hope for the best and plan for the worst. According to philosophers like Alain de Botton, it’s healthier to be a pessimist because an optimist lives in a constant state of disappointment. When an unlucky event occurs, a pessimist has already prepared for the worst and focuses all their attention on fixing whatever went wrong. An optimist takes the unlucky event personally and often gets caught up in their misfortune. Since the world never promised us anything, we shouldn’t expect good luck. We should, however, plan for bad luck.
Doing a pre-mortem meeting and having an emergency fund are just two ways to prepare for bad luck events, so when something does go wrong, you can fix it without draining your emotional reserves and/or bank account.
There are many paths to your goal, and luck may move you closer or farther away—be prepared with extra gear in case Plan A doesn’t work out (and Plan B and C and D).
Know when to change your plans
You win more when you choose your battles. Before you change your strategy, do research to find empirical data (not opinions) about the luck that has come your way. Sometimes, a big change that feels promising may only be hype. Data is the best way to inform yourself if this is a worthwhile change or merely something new and unsustainable. For more information, read my post on finding clarity in conflicting information.
Swim with big fish
Habits, moods, and mannerisms are contagious. The adage, “you are the sum of your five closest friends,” is true. Surround yourself with big fish: people you want to learn from, whose energy is contagious, and who push you to become your best self.
The more connections you have, the more randomness you will encounter, both good and bad. And if you know how to use the good and spin the bad, any luck can be a benefit.
Sharper your focus on things that matter
Don’t focus on your misfortune. When something breaks or is inconsistent with your anticipated reality, don’t fixate on the past. Instead, place all your energy on looking for solutions. When luck strikes, we often focus on the wrong things. If it’s good, we get caught up in the excitement. If it’s bad, we focus on what’s broken instead of ways to fix it.
When you are conscious of the luck in your life, you look for opportunities to use it to your advantage and never let bad luck become a psychological prison. Luck is random and indifferent but getting a high return on luck isn’t; it’s a strategy you can build into your life.
More than luck,
Andrew J. Wilt is the author of Age of Agility, a book that addresses the skill gap between school and work. He can be reached at Andrew.firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @andrewjwilt