What makes successful people succeed?

A number of factors they come up with if you ask them may include:

  • Hard work
  • Grit and being willing to keep going through challenging times
  • Having the resources to develop what you are thinking of
  • Focusing on quality, delighting the customer, being the best
  • A supportive network around you
  • etc

But one aspect which is often forgotten is also one of the most important: luck

In many cases, one factor which determines which opportunities will present themselves to you is out of your control. It can be so random that it is out of everyone else’s control as well. It is just about whether or not in specific moments, something happens (like a random event or a close choice being made) which benefits you, but could just as equally have benefited someone else as well.

This is luck.

Ironically, when people look for information on what it takes to be successful, they will undoubtedly look to examples from successful people. However, this is an example of survivorship bias, where for every successful person, there will be a multitude of others who did almost the exactly same things but did not succeed, so you never hear about their efforts or failures.

Some people who are successful will acknowledge how luck played a role in their success. Some people were at the right place at the right time to take advantage of a situation. But many others dislike the idea of acknowledging that luck could have played a role at all. In their mind, they got to where they were due to hard work, having the right idea, focusing on quality etc. However, luck almost undoubtedly played a factor.

There are of course examples of individuals who have either immense talent, physical advantages or sheer willpower to train and practice harder and better than anyone else, that are a factor in success. For example, US swimmer and winner of 23 Olympic gold medals Michael Phelps, was born with a body almost perfectly genetically suited for swimming, with massively long arms and a torso that acts like a surfboard. In the 100m butterfly in 2008 in Beijing, Phelps beat Serbia’s Milorad Cavic by one one-hundredths of a second. However, in the 200m butterfly in London 2012, Phelps was beaten by South Africa’s Chad Le Clos by just five one-hundredths of a second. Lucky in one race, unlucky in another.

Sometimes, what affects success is down to random chance.

Several researchers have even found evidence from a number of fields (including science and movie, music and book industries) that there is a real element of randomness in the the relationship between timing, collaboration and what becomes a hit. Another study showed that this was particularly challenging for creatives who thought that what was important was the aesthetic quality of their output, when what might be more important for their success is the chance social opportunities they have.

When it comes to the creative fields and innovation, there are thousands of stories where someone appreciates how lucky they were. One of my favourites is of Ed Sheeran, who when he was still unknown, went to Los Angeles and heard that Jamie Foxx was doing live music shows. He apparently went to Foxx and gave him a tape of his songs. Foxx liked it so much that he allowed Sheeran to play once at his live show in front of 800 people. Sheeran got on stage with a Ukulele, and by the end of his set had a standing ovation. Jamie Foxx liked him so much that he allowed Sheeran to sleep on his carpet in his house for about 6 weeks while he helped him make contacts.

Would Ed Sheeran have made it without this chance encounter with Foxx? Looking at his success now, it would seem obvious. However, how many other singers are there, with better singing ability, or songwriters with more experience, who have never achieved 0.1% of the success of Sheeran because they didn’t have that lucky moment yet? Millions.

Sometimes, just because someone has done everything they need to in order to achieve something, often dedicating years of effort behind it, it does not mean that they will get it when a chance presents itself.

Students do not get one of a limited number of university places. Not because their grades are not good enough, but because there are not enough places and too many students who are all equally good enough to deserve to get in. So luck comes into the selection process.

Athletes who train for years to get to a championship, but fail to beat other players because a bird decides to steal their ball.

Singers who have an amazing voice, but do not get attention from record companies because their face or “look” is not pretty, popular or marketable enough.

Or people convicted for a crime who got a harsher sentence because the sports team in the city where the judge is from lost on the weekend before that judge passed their verdict, or the day on which the sentence was passed was hotter than average.

But even more than those factors, sometimes luck is something based on where and when we were born, or factors which you have no control over.

Think of the number of women who were prevented from studying art or the sciences throughout history, because that was not what was accepted for a woman’s role in society. Or people with creative and artistic potential being born as peasants during the medieval dark ages before the Renaissance, before there was widespread money and demand for skilled, creative artisans. Millions of creative minds which could have made a hugely creative contribution, but were prevented because they had the bad luck of being born at a time and place when factors prevented them doing their best work.

On the flip side, think about all of the minor accidental meetings and decisions that took you to where you are now in your life. Very few of us plan out all of the steps it will take to meet our future girlfriend / husband / best friend, or the interesting person we met at a friend’s party who introduced us to a new idea and eventually ignited a passion. Each of these was an organic series of lucky (or unlucky) encounters that culminated in where you are today.

Creating your own luck

However, this does not mean that you need to rely on pure randomness to build your own success.

There is an old adage, often attributed to golfer Gary Player but in fact much older, which says:

The more I practice, the luckier I get

In reality, this means that if you keep practicing deliberately to build up your skills in the area you are trying to make a success, that when an opportunity presents itself, you will be in a better position to be the one that gets lucky.

Another important aspect is to have grit. Being willing to keep going over the long haul, not just in order to keep developing, but also to keep putting yourself in situations that can help you make progress towards your goal. Many people who look like they are an overnight success have in fact been working at it for decades.

You can also put yourself in more situations where a random event or choice might happen and you might be lucky. If you only have one chance in your life to be lucky, it is quite unlikely to work out for you. But if you identify things you need to do to put yourself in another situation where you might get lucky, over and over again, over time the statistics mean you have an increasing likelihood of one of those situations working out.

Think of an actor going to dozens or hundreds of auditions, just to get one job.

Or a sales manager making hundreds of sales calls in order to get a few clients to say yes.

Or a writer submitting their draft manuscript to more than a dozen publishers, getting rejected each time, and finally after years one taking a chance on them (which happened to JK Rowling before someone agreed to publish Harry Potter).

Finally, you can do everything you can to make your own luck. The difference between the past and the present, is that nowadays you no longer need a gatekeeper to grant you permission to do your creative work. A few decades ago, musicians almost always needed to be signed to a record label in order to make a decent living (let alone become rich) from their music. Today, creatives can release their music, art, videos, books, puzzles, products or anything else on free platforms with an instant audience of millions. Yes, sometimes you still need some luck to get noticed. But you can find ways to promote it yourself.

And if you can even own your own platform, interacting directly with your minimum viable audience, then nowadays control your own luck.

So if you want to make yourself a success, good luck.

Nick Skillicorn: I help teams and companies just like yours unleash the creativity and innovation potential that already exists in your people.

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Creativity & Innovation expert: I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love. Chief Editor of Ideatovalue.com and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as one of the most influential innovation bloggers.