I’ve never really allowed myself to think about luck in my working life. I shied away from the subject because it felt belittling to my efforts to admit that some — a lot? most? — of my professional successes might have been determined by circumstances beyond my control. But a line in Nobel Prize-winning Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow got me thinking:“Luck plays a large role in every story of success; it is almost always easy to identify a small change in
the story that would have turned a remarkable achievement into a mediocre outcome.”
All this time, had I been wrong?
Loosely defined, luck is something that occurs accidentally or randomly and benefits one professionally or personally. The longer the odds of the particular turn or twist happening, the greater the significance we’ll assign to our sense of how “lucky” we’ve been.
Behavioral and Applied Management experts have developed mathematical formulae that attempt to quantify these slippery variables. But I think there are more intuitive ways for us to think about luck in our professional lives. Here’s my take:
Learn to Recognize Luck When the Universe Knocks: Early in my working life, an instance of luck significantly altered my career
After graduating college as an art history major, I found work as a lowest-level-possible assistant at a big New York bank. The clerical work wasn’t remotely gratifying but — and here’s where luck enters — on the vast, 100-employee banking floor I happened to be assigned a desk directly in front of a woman who soon after went on to work for Children’s Television Workshop.
When I called my former colleague to see if she’d be willing to talk to me about her new job, she mentioned she needed a secretary — as they were still called in the late 70s — and hired me on the spot. (Professional Lucky Moment, No. 1.)
I certainly had no influence over where the bank seated me. And I was not such a go-getter that the phone call to my former colleague was inevitable. But the two combined just happened to connect me to children’s media, which turned out to be one of the consuming passions of my life.
Be Prepared to Be Lucky:
How we choose to think about luck in our lives is tied to whether we tend to see the world as the glass half-empty or half-full. In Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman offers his own formula for how professional success happens:
Success = luck + talent
Great success = a little more talent + a lot of luck
But for those of us who weren’t born with any single innate talent, here’s my personal twist on how professional success happens:
Reasonable success = luck + preparedness
(I’m not the first to have this thought. Benjamin Franklin aphorized that “diligence is the mother of good luck,” and a century later Louis Pasteur famously wrote that “chance favors only the prepared mind.“)
But learning how to put that notion into practice takes, well, practice.
I worked incredibly hard as a secretary (see Professional Lucky Moment No. 1), so when Professional Lucky Moment No. 2 happened, I was prepared. Not too long after hiring me my boss was fired, and I was able to step into important parts of her job.
What were the odds of sitting in front of a young woman at a bank in the late 1970s (there were three in the division at the time) who would leave to work in television? Not good. And the odds that person would be fired as soon as I’d learned the ropes, allowing me to move quickly up the ranks? Approaching zero.
But in both instances I had the sense to recognize lucky moments, and, more importantly, take advantage of them.
In Great by Choice, Jim Collins explores the relationship between hard work and luck. He posits it’s discipline that increases the odds of having a return on our luck. And I couldn’t agree more.
(By the way, I’m not unique in believing a random seating assignment was one of the luckiest breaks in my career. See what Liar’s Poker author Michael Lewis said about it in a commencement speech he gave at Princeton.)
Remember, What Looks Like Bad Luck Isn’t Necessarily:
But we can’t be lucky all the time. In 1996 my husband was fired from his job as editor-in-chief of New York magazine – a stroke of spectacularly public mega-bad luck.
As my husband wandered New York, trying to envision what he might do next, his cellphone rang. The call was from a literary agent he’d met a decade earlier, demanding that 1) she represent him and 2) he write “a big book.”
And so at age 42 he became a novelist – and when that first novel was published a couple of years later, he was waiting to be interviewed on a New York public radio show, when he happened to see a job posting on a bulletin board and that job – which he landed – was creating the weekly national arts-and-culture program Studio 360 which, almost 13 years later, he is still hosting.
So, was my husband, lucky? Yes. But ask him on the day he lost his New York magazine job and he wouldn’t have said so.
And me? Yes, I count myself lucky as well. Or maybe I just know to open the door when luck comes knocking.
This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal.