Luck and Success


What exactly is the role of luck when it comes to success?  It’s a rather wide spectrum.  It ranges from a great deal of luck to no luck at all, or, in fact, some very bad luck.  

What’s important is that your belief about luck can really shape your chances for success. 

If you take a passive view on luck, success may happen to fall your way.  if you take a positive view on luck, you can increase your ability to deal with negative situations, as well as take advantage of opportunities as they occur.  As my friend’s Dad puts it, "Luck is when skill and opportunity come together."

In Tactics: The Art and Science of Success , Edward de Bono writes about various perspectives on luck based on studying the patterns and practices of 50 successful people.

Key Take Aways

Here are my key take aways:

  • Luck is a spectrum.  Luck can range from a great deal of luck to no luck at all.
  • Very good luck.  Some people just happen to make the right moves at the right time or happen to know the right people or end up in the right set of circumstances. 
  • Very bad luck.  Some people make all the right moves, but it’s not the right time.  Or they do the right things, but the conditions weren’t set for success.  Some people really do fall into a string of bad luck.
  • Luck may give you the first opportunity.  Luck might give you the first opportunity, but you have to be ready to act on it.
  • Meeting the right people can make a big difference.    Many successful people had great mentors, or influencers, or financial supporters.  This is especially true for many successful entrepreneurs.
  • The passive attitude on luck.  In this case, you assume that success is outside of your control, and there’s no point in trying to hard.
  • The positive attitude on luck.  In this case, you believe that you can influence your success through the the right actions and the right mindsets.

Personally, I’m a fan of the positive attitude on luck.  I’ve seen self-awareness and skills make an enormous difference in the probability of success.  It’s less about what happens to you, and more about what you make of each opportunity.  A sense of humor can help you get back up when you get knocked down.  Drive and focus can help you work through tough situations.  Building a great network gives you more support to help you thrive in more situations.  Modeling the success of others can help you avoid wrong paths and painful mistakes.  Skills like anticipation and being able to read a situation can help you avoid bad scenarios or leverage them more effectively.  Most importantly, problem solving can help you grow while dealing with the tough stuff in your life.

A Lucky Fall of the Cards

de Bono writes that luck can simply be the fall of the cards:

“The main point is that if you look only at the two out of a hundred that succeeded, you might attribute success to their personality, style, or course of action.  It may actually be not more than a lucky fall of the cards.”

Very Good Luck

de Bono writes that some people luck into success:

“I have no doubt that some people have been very successful through sheer good luck.  There will be times when readers of this book will spot instances of such luck.  This often happens when one person meets another who provides him with an opportunity.  If you play tennis with a girl and then marry her and then join her father in a booming television business, then that probably counts as some sort of luck.  In other cases, luck is meeting just the right partner at an early stage.  It is remarkable how many successful people have come across as backup partner who provides the solidity and financial soundness to complement their entrepreneurial flair.”

Very Bad Luck

de Bono writes that some people can run into some very bad luck:

“It can of course, happen the other way around.  Sometimes a very gifted person has a run of very bad luck.  For example, they designs a fuel-saving car just when the price of oil drops.  Or, an important write-up on them (which might have changed their career) is not published because the newspaper happens to be on strike that week.”

Luck May Give the First Opportunity

de Bono writes that luck might cut you the first break:

“Others argue that luck may give the first opportunity, but then such characteristics as perception, determination, dealing with people, etc. turn that first opportunity into success.  They also argue that if that opportunity had not come along, then another one would have.  A successful person would be successful whatever the initial opportunity.  The noted psychologist Professor Hans Eysenck says that he only went into psychology because he could not afford the year’s waiting that would be required for entry into another science area.”

A Spectrum of Luck

de Bono writes that he does not take a strong stance on luck because he’s seen he’s seen luck play such a varied role in success:

“For myself, I do not feel that it is necessary to take a fierce position on this matter of luck.  Some people have been extremely lucky, some people have been extremely unlucky.  Some people have a certain amount of luck and have built on it.  Some people have virtually no luck and have still been successful.  There is a spectrum ranging from a great deal of luck to no luck at all.”

The Passive Attitude Toward Luck

de Bono writes that some people take a passive view on luck:

“For some people, it is a comfortable thought that success may be due to luck.  It means that they do not have to do anything different but just to carry on and hope that luck – like winning a lottery ticket – might make them successful.  They may also feel there is no point in striving because without luck nothing will happen.  It is always comfortable to feel that you are just as talented and just as worthwhile as the successful person but not quite as lucky.”

The Positive Attitude Toward Luck

de Bono writes that a positive attitude helps you make the most of luck:

“The positive attitude toward luck is very different.  The positive attitude is that you put yourself in a position to take the maximum advantage of any luck that comes your way.  The positive attitude means that you are able to carry to success whatever turns up by luck.  The positive attitude means that you are very ready to spot opportunities, and it also means that you may generate such opportunities deliberately.  This attitude acknowledges luck as a possible ingredient in some cases of success and then places the operational emphasis on the other ingredients, such as determination, strategy, and style.”

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  1. Great post, JD!
    However, I would just like to sum-up, “It all boils down to ourselves, our attitude. We are the cause and effect in action.”

  2. Great post J.D., I suppose if you think about luck then you have to compare a situation as it is with one that could have been if you had/or didn’t have luck?

    In that case I think I’m always lucky, because even when things go South I just figure it’s the scenic route or there’s a lesson to be learnt from that experience that I obviously needed to learn first.

  3. @ Wenny

    Thanks and nice way to sum!

    The one thing I like to keep in mind is that while we control our attitudes and actions, we don’t control all situations. This is the tough part, because people work hard and expect to get results. This is often the case, but not always the case. The situation is a big factor. The best thing to do is learn to adapt, adjust or avoid some situations.

    Seth Godin’s the Dip is a great frame for evaluating situations in terms of whether they are worth leaning into or getting out fast.

    @ Louisa

    Right on.

    That’s where your attitude helps a lot. When things don’t go well, I always ask, “did I make my best play?”, “what’s the lesson” and from an attitude perspective, I remind myself to “roll with the punches.”

  4. Hi JD,
    I happen to be a believer of the positive attitude toward luck. I definitely also believe that luck can play a role in our lives – yet we also have the ability to act upon the circumstances of our lives – and that’s the real key, I think, in achieving whatever our desires are. Good or bad – we all have some luck in our lives. And some, more than others. In either case, or in the case of none at all – how we look at and act upon the situation at hand will do a lot toward our eventual success or not…

  5. @ Lance

    I agree – how we act on events is the real key.

    The other thing I’ve noticed is that what some people view as “luck,” really was predictable when you know how things work. Just like how a lot of things seem like “magic” before you know how it’s done. Ah, the power of knowledge!

  6. I think Malcolm Gladwell covers this a bit in his new book “Outliers”.

    I think that every one needs a bit of good luck in their endeavors, and everyone will get both good and bad luck on their way.

    The only thing that separates the really successful from everyone else is that they have their eyes open and can see when a bit of good luck occurs so they can act and capitalize on it. The same applies to bad luck, and knowing when it’s happening, as fast as possible, and acting accordingly.


  7. @ Patrick

    I like the connection.

    I think it’s a challenge and a skill to really know how to read your situation. Just like practicing an attitude of gratitude, it seems like the key is to periodically ask yourself what’s the opportunity or what’s the threats.

  8. Hi JD

    I believe that if we think we are lucky, then we are open to receive luck and in turn we will have more luck 🙂

    Thank you for a wonder post.
    Giovanna Garcia

  9. @ Giovanna

    Thanks for stopping by. Very true. We get more of what we focus on and, if we don’t know what we’re looking for, we aren’t going to see it.

  10. Hey I never came across on the post related to luck. Well, initially I believed that its in our hand what we want to achieve and how we can reach there. Now I have started believing that there is luck.. It really matters. Its not only the hard work that can make us reach on top but also the luck…

  11. @ Leadership Workshop in India

    I think it’s more empowering to think of luck as when skill and opportunity come together.

    I also think that luck tends to be more of a general description of events or circumstances that in many cases, if you know how to analyze the situation, you can do a very good job of knowing what’s likely, unlikely, and probable. The thing to keep in mind is, nothing is set in stone, no matter how probable.

    What that means is the more you understand a context and how a system or situation works, along with what the various events, triggers, and likely reactions are, the less it is luck, and the more it’s your powers of anticipation, experience or critical thinking.

  12. I look at luck in the context of birth luck. It’s obvious that any success achieved in life is the direct result of who your parents are and where you grew up. You odds of succeeding dramatically improve for every additional dollar your parents earn. This may sound cyncial, but it’s pretty clear that having rich parents improves your odds.

    You will probably be naturally more intelligent and better looking than everyone else, and you will benefit from better early childhood development opportunities. Your life has been decided by the time you take the SAT’s when you are 15. Most people I know don’t make any decisions for themselves until they are 18-22. By that time, you are already a straight and narrow track in life. Sounds bleak, but it’s true.

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