What is luck anyway? Timing? Good fortune? Opportunity, seasoned with hard work and preparation? A form a self-delusion that absolves us of responsibility? Ask a successful entrepreneur and you’re likely to hear any and all of the above.
This year, I’ve been following the NPR podcast, How I Built This where host Guy Raz interviews some of the most successful business people in the world. I noticed that in almost every episode he asks whether luck played a role in their success. The answers he gets are all over the map. And they got me wondering what my own fundamental belief was about the role of luck in success.
In my work with Gary Keller, luck has come up in three primary ways:
- In The Millionaire Real Estate Investor we wrote about making your own luck. You should be standing on the corner every morning waiting for a chance to pounce on an opportunity. Luck doesn’t just arrive and wait for you to recognize it. In Gary’s world, luck doesn’t find the idle.
- In SHIFT, we wrote about the fable of the “Farmers Luck” and how good and bad fortune sometimes blends together. The farmer’s son breaks his leg but later is passed over when the army comes to draft young men for war. The lesson here is that even misfortune can bear blessings of its own. Don’t give up.
- And although we’ve never written about it, I’ve often heard him tell the story of golf pro Jerry Barber sinking a bunker shot. A spectator remarked, “Gee, you sure are a lucky trap shot player.”“Yes, I know,” Jerry replied. “And the harder I practice, the luckier I get.”
You don’t need me to spell this one out.
For entrepreneurs, control (or the illusion of it) can be the only thing that keeps us hanging on. We want to believe that preparation, perseverance, toil and talent determine who the winners are. Still, sometimes we do feel lucky. The market rises at the right moment, inspiration strikes from a clear sky or a storm miraculously passes us by. How we view these moments matters.
When we give luck the credit it doesn’t deserve, we do ourselves a disservice. Yes, there are times when things happen beyond our control, but our preparation for those moments and how we respond them are the true measure of our success. If we aren’t accountable for the role we play in our results, we risk becoming victims of circumstance—something we can’t predict or rely on.
The best entrepreneurs don’t count on good luck showing up and taking them across the finish line. They set their goals and dedicate their time to doing the work that is needed to achieve them. And by doing so, they make luck unnecessary because they take it out of the game.
Science seems to concur. In their paper, “Luck and Entrepreneurial Success” researchers Diego Liechti, Claudio Loderer, and Urs Peyer describe the role of luck in success after surveying more than 60,000 businesspeople, over one third of which were entrepreneurs. In their analysis, luck (either good or bad fortune) contributed as little as 7 percent and as much as 17 percent to their outcomes. The researchers noted, “The evidence uncovered here suggests that entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates are indeed different people, and that their success seems to reflect much more dedication, skills, and personal characteristics than pure luck. Luck plays a surprisingly small role as a determinant of performance.”
What a relief. I’d much rather face the day believing our fate is within our control. Sure, as much as 17 percent may be left to chance, but that leaves a whopping 83 percent left in our hands. I’ll take those odds all day long.
Below are ten of our favorite quotes on luck from the files of How I Built This. The one that sparked the idea for this post came from the founders of Instagram, and is the first on the list. It’s probably my personal favorite, as well. Click over to our Facebook page and let us know which one you like best.
- “I have this thesis that the world runs on luck, the question is what you do with it. Everyone gets lucky for some amount in their life and the question is are you alert enough to know you’re being lucky or you’re becoming lucky? Are you talented enough to take that advantage and run with it and do you have enough grit, do you have enough resilience to stay with it when it gets hard?” – Kevin Systrom & Mike Krieger, Instagram
- “You know what being lucky means? It means having the skill to grab the luck when it’s presented to you.” – Haim Saban, Power Rangers
- “To be a billionaire you’ve gotta get lucky. I started my company at a time when the stock market was going nuts, and that was my luck. I was smart enough to do it, smart enough to run it, smart enough to execute on it, smart enough to hedge it. But, no question there was luck involved.” – Mark Cuban, Serial Entrepreneur
- “We like to say that there’s a lot of deliberate serendipity. For example, we were really lucky to be exposed to our marketing professor who helped us think through pricing. But we had created goodwill by being friendly and doing well in his class, that he was willing to dedicate time to us.” – Dave Gilboa & Neil Blumenthal, Warby Parker
- “I really don’t believe in luck. I believe that the reason we’re still here is the perseverance. To the extent there is luck, it’s the timing the way the consumers evolved but I’ve heard something when someone says, oh you know you were in the right place at the right time. I said, well you know, it took ten years to get to that right place. So this wasn’t something that just happened overnight.” – Seth Goldman, Honest Tea
- “There’s no luck. I don’t really believe in luck. This has been very hard. There were a lot of days I didn’t think that I would keep this business. I think part of it is drive and I saw where we needed to go, giving up was not an option.” – Kendra Scott, Kendra Scott Jewelry
- “I think luck only happens when you are actively moving and searching for what is next. Start moving. Look for the horizon.” – Jose Andres, Celebrity Chef
- “I do believe in luck. I’ve had many, many, many lucky breaks, including meeting Ramon at the diner that night, right? That was the beginning. Or the very good luck of having my parents as parents – not bad, right? Once you grow up, you make your own luck. Definitely you make your own luck. I think all the lucky breaks I had were more a result of me staying in the game and just believing something would break, just hanging around long enough. That’s more important than luck in my opinion, being aggressive at every opportunity and standing up for yourself – yes, more important than luck.” – Barbara Corcoran, The Corcoran Group
- “In all humility, a lot of it was luck. I look back and things could’ve gone wrong, the brew kettle could’ve exploded, or that first guy could’ve told me, “This is a really stupid idea, go back to your job.” A lot of things didn’t go wrong but could’ve.” – Jim Koch, Samuel Adams
- “They say it’s better to be lucky than to be talented, you know. I would have to say that there were times that I was really lucky, and there were times that I had to be talented, so I’m going to say 50/50.” – A. Reid, Music Mogul