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Are you successful – or just lucky?

Jan 17, 2021 Success, Sunday Nation

Pick a successful person you know.

Ask them this question: to what do you attribute your success? The first answer you get will reveal a great deal about the character of the person before you.

If your high achiever talks about hard work first, you should be a little circumspect about what you are hearing. This is because if working hard alone was what it takes to be successful, many more folks would be clocking up the achievements.

If the high-flyer starts telling you the success emanates from unique insights he or she came up with – spotting a gap in the market, say, or understanding the power of a particular qualification – you should certainly pay attention, but with a question mark hovering. 

Perhaps your whiz kid will move on to a series of personal traits or habits: waking up early, working out, eating sensibly, avoiding distractions, being determined etc.  Make notes, but only in pencil. Those may all be good things, but many have also succeeded by not doing any of them.

If the discourse ends with the top-performer never once touching on the role of exogenous forces, you will know you have been fed a crock of baloney.

The most important of these exogenous factors? Sheer, simple luck.

Let’s go back to the example of Danny Meyer, founder of the very successful Shake Shack chain, discussed here last week. When asked about what drove his personal success, he went quickly to good luck – in fact he attributed eighty per cent of his achievements to luck, and just twenty per cent to a work ethic.

Why would that be, though? As I pointed out last week, the man put in the hard work – he cooked food and served it when he founded his first restaurants. He walked the streets incessantly to understand the lay of the land before opening any outlet. He demonstrated important personal traits when expanding, such as patience and a willingness to grow slowly. He had a powerful insight – that success in the restaurant industry is as much about hospitality and experiences as it is about the quality of the food.

Doesn’t all of that matter? Of course it does – but only when coupled tightly with a strong dose of luck. 

How did this luck feature in Meyer’s life? Firstly, he won in the genetic lottery. He was born to relatively affluent white parents in a country that celebrated and supported entrepreneurship. He was able to raise his initial seed capital from his own relatives – enough to open a high-end restaurant in a high-end area. Such advantages do not flow to all.

Timing was also on his side. He made some of his key moves during buoyant times in the economy. And as he himself readily points out, serendipitous connections early in life led to favourable reviews of his first restaurants; and chance events led to huge crowds appearing at key points in the early trajectory of his fast-food venture.

Luck alone is not enough, do note: he was able to take advantage of the good fortune when it popped up. He made and served good food, after all – but so do many others. Luck provided the wind in the sails at key moments.

Danny Meyer also has the wisdom to know something else: success is never just about you, no matter how unique your qualities. Other people pay a huge role. The world likes to highlight individuals, but it is mostly teams that clock the real achievements. I have been paying attention to high achievers and great leaders for much of my life, and notice this every time: whether or not the world sees it, there’s always a good team driving exceptional performance.

I found Meyer very refreshing to listen to. Most entrepreneurs are often lost up their own backsides, imagining that their achievements flow from endogenous factors in their lives – forces of their own making. Actually, much success is explained by stochastic exogeneity – random things that are nothing to do with us.

The real lesson is to be found in the definition of luck attributed to Seneca: luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. The wise don’t downplay the role of random good fortune; they prepare to take advantage of it. They do all the good things they have to, knowing full well that fortuity is also needed.

We must inculcate good personal traits and practices; we must come up with novel approaches; but we must also understand that the dice will fall in unpredictable ways throughout our lives. Sometimes fortune will knock us back, and sometimes it will work in our favour. The trick is to be ready regardless.

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