Guy Raz, who hosts the podcast How I Built This on National Public Radio, always asks the founders he interviews the same last question: How much did luck have to do with your success? I haven’t heard a founder yet say “nothing” but their answers do vary. Good timing is a common answer. I know I’ve been too early: iShop, a location-based app for retail shopping was too far ahead of its time in 2002 and Endorfyn, a mobile app to help people find the latest works by their favorite artists was too late – fans were to used using Twitter or Facebook to fulfill that need by the time we launched.
I’m a firm believer that founders tend to make their own luck and The Wall Street Journal article To Be Successful, Make Your Own Luck by Janice Kaplan and Barnaby Marsh comes to the same conclusion.
Luck occurs at the intersection of random chance, talent and hard work. There may not be much you can do about the first part of that equation, but there’s a lot you can do about the other two. People who have a talent for making luck for themselves grab the unexpected opportunities that come along.
The authors have three simple rules to help generate luck:
- Pay attention: The most important talent anyone who seems lucky possesses is the ability to pay attention on many levels and to notice opportunities. I’d add to this “get out of your comfort zone.” Traveling to offbeat places, reading books you’d never choose for yourself, attending meetings you normally wouldn’t go to. There’s a lot of way to get out of your rut and out of the office that increase the chances luck will run into you.
- Change the odds: Caltech physicist Leonard Mlodinow says one of the best ways to improve your luck is to keep taking chances. You have to keep trying and accepting failure, because the more at-bats you have, the more likely you are to get a hit, no matter what your skill. I would add to that swing for the fences. Founders need to think big to break through all the noise. I’ve yet to meet a successful founder who thought small!
- Think yourself lucky. Psychologist Martin Seligman says if he were looking for a lucky person, “the number one ingredient that I’d select for would be optimism.” I‘ve found many founders to be optimistic, some blindly so. But tackling a startup requires you to be optimistic, as the odds are against you. You really need to bump up against the edge of arrogance to convince the naysayers you are not crazy!
Out of the three factors that contribute to luck – random chance, talent, and hard work you have no control over the first two. But you certainly can control the last – hard work. I’ve found that successful founders work incredibly hard, far harder than their colleagues or competitors, just as the most successful athletes like Tom Brady, the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) and Michael Jordan, the GOAT of basketball. They outworked the competition despite having a lot of talent to start with.
If these ideas resonate with you read the new book How Luck Happens: Using the Science of Luck to Transform Work, Love and Life by the authors of the Journal article, Kaplan and Marsh. Personally I’m quite interested to read what else that have to say about the science of luck, which sounds like an oxymoron, but isn’t. At the least do keep the sub-title of their book in mind: Stories about getting lucky are common in the business world, but attributing success to random chance is misleading.