It seems that some people catch every break. They have the best luck. Everything magically just seems to work out for them.
Yet it’s easy to overestimate the significance of luck in someone’s success and the underestimate the efforts they put forth each day in creating that luck. Because what often appears to be luck is merely the outcome of a series of steps and investments designed to create that luck in the first place. In which case, yes, some people actually do have more luck.
But only because they’ve made it themselves.
In today’s world, predictable career progression – climbing a corporate ladder one standard rung at a time – is a rarer and rarer circumstance. The route to success is less about following an established path and more about navigating our way through unknown territory. There are no directions, and we must use our ingenuity, perseverance, and principles to traverse the landscape and come through the other side.
Mainly, we need to make our own luck. Which, in my experience, often comes down to the following areas.
Master Your Technique
Beginner’s luck is overrated.
Yes, it’s possible to randomly challenge the existing convention and make an immediate impact. And there’s plenty of stories where a newcomer arrives on scene to disrupt the established industry. But the reason we sensationalize these stories is often because they’re so rare.
We’re much more likely to develop a breakthrough product or disrupt the existing status quo when we understand it better than anyone else. People who invest the time to master their technique are much more prepared to recognize and leverage good opportunities as they arrive. As Steven Pressfield wrote in The War of Art,
“The professional dedicates himself to mastering technique not because he believes technique is a substitute for inspiration but because he wants to be in possession of the full arsenal of skills when inspiration does come.”
Mastering your technique may not make you more lucky. But it will give you a better return on it when those opportunities arise.
Fire Bullets before Cannonballs
“I’ve found that luck is quite predictable. If you want more luck, take more chances. Be more active. Show up more often.” – Brian Tracy
Jim Collins encourages people to decide whether they should be firing bullets or firing cannonballs.
You’re trying to hit a target. You have a limited amount of gunpowder. And it takes a lot more gunpowder to fire a cannonball than a bullet.
If you start firing cannonballs, you’re likely to miss on the initial shots and use up all of your gunpowder. But if you only fire bullets, you’ll never make an impact on the target.
The trick is to fire bullets until you gain a calibrated line of sight. Then fire the cannonball. Scott Adams employed this strategy until hitting success with Dilbert. As he described his philosophy in How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big,
“I figured my competitive edge was creativity. I would try one thing after another until something creative struck a chord with the public. Then I would reproduce it like crazy. In the near term it would mean one failure after another. In the long term I was creating a situation that would allow luck to find me.”
Christoph Niemann said “In order to have creativity, you have to allow for dead ends to happen.” And in order to get that lucky break, you’re bound to have many missed shots along the way. Take them anyways. Fire bullets. And be ready to act with the cannonball when one strikes home.
“If we always helped one another, no one would need luck.” – Sophocles
Zig Ziglar developed his prolific career on one main idea – that “you can have everything in life you want, if you will just help enough other people get what they want.”
Successful people rarely operate on a zero-sum mentality. Keeping score in relationships only starts a game that’s destined to end with no winners. And no one ever likes the person who only looks out for their own self-interest.
Helping others creates an abundance mindset. It promotes the idea that we’re much stronger collectively than we are individually. And it keeps us all growing, looking to further strengthen that community.
Thousands of writers publish articles every day on Medium. They put all of their thoughts and knowledge into the world with the express interest of helping other people. Everything they know, online, for free.
In a zero-sum world, this ends up being a very poor strategy. But in developing a community that’s now stronger as a result, it’s a great investment. And is there any better way to show that they have knowledge to spare?
“Learn to recognize good luck when it’s waving at you, hoping to get your attention.” – Sally Koslow
There’s always something else to do. Always something else could be occupying your attention. And so we often end up in that distracted state of trying to do three things at once, never really focusing our best work on any of them.
I don’t remember my last drive home from work. I’d mentally checked out and I was on full autopilot. I could have passed ten new amazing opportunities and I would have driven on without a glance.
The problem comes when this autopilot mode takes over larger portions of our life. When our default mode is one of distraction and short-term productivity, we fail to notice what’s going on around us. And we miss those opportunities and that good luck that’s on the periphery.
Consider when you have most of your good ideas and insights. Remember the last time you had a breakthrough. I’m guessing it wasn’t while you were fighting constant distraction and jumping from task to task.
“The secret is that everything is always on the line. If we have any hope of attaining excellence, let alone showing what we’ve got under pressure, we have to be prepared by a lifestyle of reinforcement. Presence must be like breathing.”
When All Else Fails, Persevere
“I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.” – Thomas Jefferson
Tim Ferriss was rejected 25 times before he found someone to publish The Four-Hour Workweek. After he finally found that 26th publisher, he asked what they saw in the manuscript that others hadn’t. “Nothing,” they replied. “We can understand why publishers have rejected this work. But we aren’t betting on the book, we are betting on you. We believe you will do anything and everything you can to make the book successful.”
And they were right. Tim worked tirelessly to promote the book and develop support around the world. In his podcast, he recounts stories of attending festivals, initiating conversations with people, then later sending them a complimentary copy of the book, with annotated parts that he felt would appeal to their current interests and challenges.
Was Tim’s success due to luck? Maybe somewhat. But I know many people who would have stopped pushing well short of that 26th publisher. And more still who don’t show a fraction of his resilience on tackling new challenges and testing new areas.
As Ray Kroc put it, “Luck is a dividend of sweat. The more you sweat, the luckier you get.” After all, if was easy to do, it would be easy to emulate. And then I suppose it wouldn’t be worth much.
Change Your Mindset
“You never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from.” – Cormac McCarthy
It’s easy to identify some outcomes as successes and some as failure. Just as it’s easy to classify some turn of events as good luck and others as bad.
But the truth is that, outside of the extremes, we don’t know whether something is positive or negative until we’ve had some time to gain perspective on the results.
A sought-after promotion that puts you into a job where you’re miserable. An influx of money that brings out the worst behaviors in people. Or a recent investment success that convinces you to push even more money into the bubble. All seemingly good fortune that turns out to have a negative impact.
On the other side, there’s no shortage of setbacks and failures that help us re-evaluate our path and come back stronger because of it. Was that initial failure bad luck? Or did our response make it good?
Just as our questions inevitably shape our answers, our response determines whether something will have a positive or negative impact. As the Stoic philosopher Seneca said,
“No person has the power to have everything they want, but it is in their power not to want what they don’t have, and to cheerfully put to good use what they do have.
Choice or Chance? Start Making Your Own Luck Today
Each of our lives is shaped by a combination of chance and choice that I don’t believe is possible to fully separate. Most of us can reflect on our years and see how different choices and chance events have caused us to pivot into a new direction – starting or ending a relationship, taking up a new career, or pursuing a curiosity that turns into a passion. Even the trivial choices we make on a daily basis can create a butterfly effect that alters our paths with new options and new variations to explore.
Chance will always play a role. As Epictetus opened his Handbook, “Some things are up to us and some are not up to us.” But we all have more agency in life than we give ourselves credit for. We all have the opportunity to prepare and master our craft. We can all experiment and persevere in the face of adversity. We can help others and adopt a growth mindset regardless of the outcomes that chance offers.
We all have the opportunity to begin making our own luck. We just need to start with that choice. Regardless of the chance we’ve had to date.