Is It Luck or Is It Work?

Posted: April 5, 2009 in Powerful Ideas
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I’ve been doing a lot of reading and thinking lately about the role that luck and randomness play in our lives. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan, says that the simple fact that any of us exist is a Black Swan in and of itself. In other words, we each owe our individual existence to an outstanding series of lucky breaks and random occurrences.

I think he has a point, but that doesn’t answer the question, “To what can we attribute our success”? I think a balanced view is in order. Yes, there is considerable luck and randomness in anyone’s life. But there is also a lot of deliberate action and decision-making.
To illustrate, consider the following example, which happened to an acquaintance of mine who is a consultant down in the U.S. He posts to his blog regularly. One day, an editor for the online edition of a prestigious and popular business publication finds his blog and likes what he sees. He asks the consultant if he would like to have his own blog on the publication’s website. The consultant readily agrees, as this will provide him with outstanding exposure for his consulting business.
The consultant posts diligently to his new blog and gets an interesting number of hits and comments, but nothing extraordinary. Meanwhile, he keeps plugging away, getting progressively better at writing pithy and provocative articles on his blog. One day, one of his posts scores big in terms of hits. We’re talking in the tens of thousands. It’s a very well written article, and also very interesting. Other than that, there is no readily apparent reason why the post should be that popular. Maybe it hit a chord with an influential and well connected reader, who then forwarded it to his massive contact list. Or maybe it just had a viral specialness about it. Who knows.
In any case, the consultant is contacted by an executive at a major business publisher who read the blog post. He really likes it, and asks the consultant if he would consider writing a book about the same topic. A few days later, a literary agent contacts him after reading the post and offers to represent him if he’s willing to write a book proposal. The consultant accepts both offers, and now has a book deal.
Now, I could look at everything that happened to this consultant, because of his blog post, and claim that he was merely lucky. Well, he was. However, that would be missing a more subtle point. The consultant wasn’t just lucky, but actually acted in such a way as to increase his luck. In Taleb’s terms, he acted so as to increase his exposure to Black Swans of the positive kind. Moreover, at critical points in this story, the consultant saw opportunity and jumped at it.
  • The luck of living at a time when blogs exist to get out one’s message (standing on the shoulders of giants, as it were).
  • The decision to start a blog and the discipline to post to it on a regular basis.
  • A lucky break – an online editor sees the blog and offers the consultant to blog on the website of a very popular business publication.
  • The wisdom to see an opportunity and the decision to exploit it.
  • The discipline to blog regularly and to improve every time.
  • Lucky break – one of his posts goes triple platinum (or whatever you call it when you get a large number of hits).
  • Another lucky break – a publishing executive and a literary agent read this post, like what they see, and ask him to write a book about the same topic.
  • The wisdom to see an opportunity and to jump on it.
  • The discipline to follow through on the opportunity and to actually respond to the offers, write the book proposal, and then seek the deal.
So, here we see what I consider the real process of success in business (and in life): a combination of luck and work, serendipity and discipline. Louis Pasteur reportedly said that “Fortune favours the prepared mind.” This consultant’s experience shows that this is indeed the case.
Key decisions and the discipline to follow through on them lead to “lucky breaks,” which in turn lead to more key decisions and more discipline, which lead to more “lucky breaks.”
And so it goes. I think I’ll call this “organized serendipity.”
© 2009 Richard Martin

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