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Don’t ignore the role of sheer luck in your success

Dec 10, 2012 Business Daily, Success

“Ask for the keys to career success and you’ll get logical explanations, recommendations, pathways and approaches. Then ask someone how he or she became successful and suddenly it becomes a story of serendipitous encounters, unexpected changes in plans, and random consequences. It does not make sense to ignore this basic fact about success any longer.
We like to think that success comes from predicting trends, analyzing data, gaming out strategies — from using some sort of logical approach. But if it was that simple we should have solved the mystery of success long time ago — and we haven’t. Instead serendipity is what sets us apart — since that is the only way we can discover an approach that is not obvious or logical.”

FRANS JOHANSSON, HBR Blog Network (19 October, 2012)

I have long harboured a suspicion about success. Listen to successful people discuss the reasons behind their triumphs, and you will get a long list of laudable attributes: Hard work, determination, judgement, resilience – and many more.

But there’s one force almost never discussed. And that is luck, pure and simple.

This is understandable. No one wants to say: “I made it because I happened to be in the right place at the right time doing the right thing.” We all want to point to things we did to cause success. It is almost an admission of failure, or at least a dilution of success to concede: “I was just bloody lucky.”

Here’s the thing, though: hard work, perseverance, insight and the rest are all good, important things. But so is luck, and it’s time we owned up to it.

That’s why I was delighted to see Frans Johansson, author of a bestselling book and leader of a top consulting firm, coming clean on the HBR blogs page recently. He admitted that a couple of serendipitous conversations that happened at exactly the right time were what launched him into the limelight. Without them, he might still have been struggling to be noticed.

This rings true in my own life. What I do these days – running a leadership programme, writing two weekly columns, lecturing, public speaking – was never part of the ‘plan.’ I know very well that some chance conversations came out of the blue, got me thinking, and led to me opening certain doors that revealed the presence of other doors. Had those unexpected chats not happened when they did, I could have been leading a quite different life.

(I also recognize that I have had some fresh chats of late that may cause yet another dramatic change…)

Johansson points out that serendipity, far from being an anomaly, may actually play a central role in determining success. But here’s the thing: you have to be able to recognize good fortune when it appears; and you have to be ready to act on it. It isn’t just about dumb luck; it’s more about your preparedness for making the most of the luck when it arrives in your life.

And this applies just as strongly to bad luck: success comes from your ability to repeatedly weather the storms of misfortune and wait for the sun to shine on you again. Did you know that the makers of the phenomenally successful ‘Angry Birds’ video game made 51 unsuccessful games before latching onto the one that made them famous?

Pretending that luck doesn’t matter doesn’t help us. Recognizing that it does, and being prepared for its unexpected arrival, makes us alert and watchful. Here’s the thing about ‘lucky’ people: they are usually more likely to notice important developments; more likely to have the nerve to act on them; more likely to have oiled the wheels of knowledge that help them move quickly when the time arrives.

Your life can change in a moment. Will you know when that moment is here?

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