Richard Branson on luck – you can make your own

I’ve just read Richard Branson’s Top ten quotes on risk. He opens by saying:

The luckiest people and businesses are those that are prepared to take the greatest risks. We can all create our own luck by taking the necessary risks to open the door to change, progression and success.

And then goes on to list ten quotes from others. My favourite of the bunch is from Mark Zuckerberg:

The biggest risk is not taking any risk… In a world that’s changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.

The other quotes are in the same vein, advising people to ‘go for it’ – e.g. “Why not go out on a limb? Isn’t that where the fruit is?” from Frank Scully.

I think this is great advice, but a little caution is appropriate. If we turn to Branson’s Letter to his 25-year old self he advises taking “calculated” risks, and that, for me, is the key. The first thing to think about carefully is the chance of success. The odds don’t have to be high, but if they’re very low you might be better aiming for a higher probability intermediate step first. Failing to think through the chances of success is to be cavalier, and gives you too much chance of being unlucky, and nobody wants to be unlucky. Secondly, as Reid Hoffman noted in his book The startup of you, having an acceptable Plan B is good practice. Simply knowing how you will survive if your gamble doesn’t come off helps retain objectivity and is good for sanity and motivation.

In the second half of the quote I opened with Branson says ‘we can all create our own luck’. He’s mostly talking about having the courage to take risks, but working hard to get exposed to lots of chances to take risks is equally important. This networking activity gives you lots of opportunities to evaluate and increases the chances of finding the one that’s a perfect fit. I wrote more about this in a 2008 post: Ronald Cohen on luck.

  • I’ve always felt quite strongly about Branson’s quotes, mainly because I don’t agree with a lot of them. There is no correlation whatsoever between taking more risk and having more luck, it’s nonsense. The correlation is that if you find yourself in a position where high risk and great luck combine then the upside is enormous, thus catapulting you to the status of popular media entrepreneur.
    For every Branson there’s a multitide of wannabe-Bransons who didn’t take the ‘calculated risks’ that you very rightly identify. Telling people to take great risk is great for brave quotes but I’ve always felt that massive caution is needed when used as a tactic to encourage entrepreneurship. I do agree with him that you can create your own luck to an extent (but that’s more through optionality than outright risk taking).