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How to get lucky


A couple of weeks ago I wrote a bit about how uncertain the future is and how hard it is to plan for it. I argued, with the use of copious and impressive sounding references, that a smart innovator would have big visions for the future but work in small, incremental steps towards it. I set out what was essentially a tinkerer’s guide to conquering the future. But there is another method: get lucky.

The much maligned Niccolo Machiavelli (who has the unenviable distinction of being broadly unappreciated both in his time and ever since) said that for a man to be successful he must have both virtue and fortune. What he meant by this was that he would need to have skills but that skills were not enough; he’d need good fortune too. We often fail to think of this second part. It’s one of those unfortunate side effects of what we call meritocracy that we underestimate the degree to which luck plays a role in our success.

For instance, I have certain skills. I did pretty well at school. I’m fairly quick with language and able to talk myself out of (and into!) trouble if I need to. I might say that I have a creative mind, able to come up with lots of ideas pretty easily. I would call all these things my skills or, as Machiavelli would have said, virtues. But then, taking a moment to look back, how much of this is really just down to luck?

Leaving aside the issue of the genetic lottery (all my mental and physical attributes must have some basis in my genes which, of course, I came by through sheer luck), I benefitted from going to a good state school with really great teachers. I was lucky to discover certain books at the right time which steered me towards certain decisions. I’ve had the good fortune to meet some amazingly inspiring people and people who have taken chances on me, not all of them paying off, which have allowed me to learn and grow.

And what about the fact that I’ve been born in the wealthy fraction of the world and to a time filled with amazing technology that has enabled me to do things that people born a few years prior would have had no chance to do?

I’ve been, it would seem, bloody lucky.

But Machiavelli didn’t see luck the same way we often see it – an implacable element at the hands of which we are mere puppets. He said that a virtuous or skilful man would master his fortune rather than be at the mercy of it. He said that skilful people would be able to get lucky.

So, to the core question of this electronic ramble: how does one get lucky?

I would argue there are two elements to this. The first is behaving in a way which boosts your chances of serendipity and the second is building the skills needed to make the best of any situation. In summary – be open to and ready for good luck and make the most of it when you get it.

The first bit all depends on something called ‘optionality’. Simply put, optionality is just having more options. An option is something you can choose to take up or not depending on what’s best for you. In a world of uncertainty, the individual with the most options (and who is skilful at deploying them) is likely to succeed. So it’s useful to be wealthy. OK, most of us aren’t wealthy, but we can ensure we don’t reduce our options by doing two things: reducing our fixed obligations (don’t buy with debt and don’t owe people favours!) and increasing the size and strength of our personal and professional networks. In this day and age most opportunities come through personal connections. Perhaps it was ever thus. So, in this sense, it really is who you know that counts.

The next bit is to cultivate creativity. Once you’ve created an ‘optionality land of plenty’ you need to be ready to take advantage of opportunities as they fly towards you. But opportunities don’t come labelled and with instructions – in fact, some of them won’t even look like opportunities. This is where you need to be a bit MacGyver.

For those of you who didn’t watch a huge amount of telly in the late 80s and early 90s MacGyver was like a one man A-Team (admittedly another telly reference, but surely everyone knows the A-Team?). MacGyver was uncannily good at finding his way out of sticky situations using the tools and objects that happened to be scattered about the place. His advantage came simply from seeing opportunity where he captors didn’t (we’ll skip over his apparent lack of equal intuitiveness when it came to avoiding getting captured in the first place).

We can all learn from this – opportunity doesn’t knock, you have to find it in places where others can’t see it and recognise it when others don’t. Getting lucky is like proving criminal guilt, it’s all about the means, motive and opportunity. Opportunity and means are pretty easy.

Woody Allen, when asked for his secret of success, said simply this: “show up!”. Jerry Seinfeld’s advice to those interested in how to get good at writing: “do it every day.”

So for opportunity and means it’s simply be there and keep at it. Motivation? For that one, you’re on your own.

MacGyver gets lazy, by XKCD:


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