Understanding luck

By August 15, 2007Entrepreneurs

I have been thinking a lot recently about luck and the role of chance in our lives. An output of that was this post on the difficulty of distinguishing between lucky success and deserved success. My main point then was that if you are to be consistently successful it is critical that you understand where you have been lucky and where you got your result without relying on luck. You can’t rely on luck forever, and maybe you shouldn’t rely on it at all.

So I was interested to read Marc Andreessen’s post which examines luck from the other side – thinking about the extent to which you can make your own luck.

I wasn’t disappointed.

(But then this is Marc we are talking about – he has built two billion dollar companies and his third looks like it might go all the way too. In the words of Dick Costello “you start one monster company, maybe you were lucky, maybe you were in the right place at the right time. You found two billion dollar companies? You officially know what the hell you are doing. Nobody is that lucky.”.)

Citing the work of Dr James Austin in Chance, Chance, and Creativity Marc talks about four types of luck.

The first is blind luck – bought a winning lottery ticket type luck. That has to be the first type – it exists, no doubt about it. But as a concept it doesn’t get us much further. It is easy to identify when it happens and you can’t do anything to increase its incidence.

The second is luck that comes out of undirected action. For sure if you are busy doing stuff you increase your chances of being lucky – you don’t stumble on things if you are sitting down. This is where things start to get a bit confusing when you try and understand the role of chance in success. To my mind if you are busy in an unfocused fashion then you have made your own luck to an extent, but probably not in a way that is repeatable. Few would argue with that statement, I guess, but the challenge comes in determining the extent to which the activity was unfocused.

Which brings me to the third type of luck – good fortune that comes out of focused busyness. Once again you increase your chances of being lucky if you are doing lots of the right sort of things. Now we are into the realm of making your own luck in a repeatable fashion. You could think of this as repeatedly putting yourself in the right place at the right time.
The fourth type of luck as per Dr Austin I would almost say isn’t luck at all, but good intuition. Austin describes it thus:

Chance IV is the kind of luck that develops during a probing action which has a distinctive personal flavor.

Chance IV comes to you, unsought, because of who you are and how you behave.

You could think of this as putting yourself in the right place at the right time with an idea about what might happen. If someone was successful as a result of Chance IV I wouldn’t hesitate to back them to be lucky again.
To me this is a powerful framework for analysing the role of chance in the success of myself and others.

It also has implications for recruitment more generally – it helps explain why energy is such an important quality in an entrepreneur. The busyness that comes from having lots of energy is important for all types of luck, bar blind luck – and we all need luck.

As Marc says, it also places a premium on curiosity and the ability to synthesise experiences from lots of different areas. These are the capabilities which enable people to move to Chance III and Chance IV – i.e. give them the instinct to focus their activity on the right areas and as to what might happen if they do that. This can often mean the difference between activity and progress.

  • Nic
    Thanks for this. I am a big beliver in luck and have for many years followed the wisdom of Woody Allen:

    “90% of life is showing up”

  • Nic
    Thanks for this. I am a big beliver in luck and have for many years followed the wisdom of Woody Allen:

    “90% of life is showing up”

  • Good post! I’d liked Marc’s one as well.
    I will use 2 quotes to express my feeling about this matter.
    “I’m a great believer in luck and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it” – Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President of the US. That is in line with third and fourth kinds of luck.
    But all these things (except for n.1 luck) could be seen only afterwards and the entrepreneur ego could easily change the way he perceive his luck.
    John Beckett, former president of Transamerica, said:
    “Remember, we’re in a hall of mirrors. To succeed, you must avoid the trap of being overly dazzled by your own image”.

    People will always prefer to say that they have been good rather than lucky. I believe it’s part of human nature.
    As far as I’m concerned I consider myself a lucky person because I have all the commodities that roughly half of the people in this planet consider privileges! If my startup will succeed I will consider myself even more lucky and I would also embrace one of my favorite quotes… “Fortune favors the braves!”

    Fabio

  • Good post! I’d liked Marc’s one as well.
    I will use 2 quotes to express my feeling about this matter.
    “I’m a great believer in luck and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it” – Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President of the US. That is in line with third and fourth kinds of luck.
    But all these things (except for n.1 luck) could be seen only afterwards and the entrepreneur ego could easily change the way he perceive his luck.
    John Beckett, former president of Transamerica, said:
    “Remember, we’re in a hall of mirrors. To succeed, you must avoid the trap of being overly dazzled by your own image”.

    People will always prefer to say that they have been good rather than lucky. I believe it’s part of human nature.
    As far as I’m concerned I consider myself a lucky person because I have all the commodities that roughly half of the people in this planet consider privileges! If my startup will succeed I will consider myself even more lucky and I would also embrace one of my favorite quotes… “Fortune favors the braves!”

    Fabio

  • Richard Wiseman has done quite a bit of work on luck…makes interesting reading

  • Richard Wiseman has done quite a bit of work on luck…makes interesting reading

  • nic

    Thanks guys. Now just to put some of this stuff into practice a bit more consciously!!

  • nic

    Thanks guys. Now just to put some of this stuff into practice a bit more consciously!!

  • Nic – We could throw in a little fate and destiny into the mix!

    “Destiny may be seen as a fixed sequence of events that is inevitable and unchangeable, or that individuals choose their own destiny by choosing different paths throughout their life, the result being fate”

  • Nic – We could throw in a little fate and destiny into the mix!

    “Destiny may be seen as a fixed sequence of events that is inevitable and unchangeable, or that individuals choose their own destiny by choosing different paths throughout their life, the result being fate”

  • Hi Nic

    Great article. I’ve read a lot about entrepreneurship over the years, and there are so many different pov’s about what makes a success. But I’ve believed for some time that if there is one absolute requirement, that is focused energy. There are rare exceptions where people who don’t have huge reserves of energy are very successful, but I think you’ll find most self-made billionaires ooze energy.

    So I couldn’t agree with you more!

    The focus bit is important. I know a few people well who have tremendous energy, but they’re unfocused, to the point of almost being hyper, and success appears elusive.

  • Hi Nic

    Great article. I’ve read a lot about entrepreneurship over the years, and there are so many different pov’s about what makes a success. But I’ve believed for some time that if there is one absolute requirement, that is focused energy. There are rare exceptions where people who don’t have huge reserves of energy are very successful, but I think you’ll find most self-made billionaires ooze energy.

    So I couldn’t agree with you more!

    The focus bit is important. I know a few people well who have tremendous energy, but they’re unfocused, to the point of almost being hyper, and success appears elusive.

  • Besides of the lucky charms I believe that luck can come if you have positive thoughts about life or on the things you do, for this kind of mentality can give you enough strength to achieve your dream.