Philip Guo (Phil Guo, Philip J. Guo, Philip Jia Guo, pgbovine)

Deconstructing Luck

[I originally wanted to write something much more detailed and nuanced, but instead I'll just hammer out something quick in 20 minutes while waiting for my next meeting ...]

I'm fascinated by what makes people successful, by any reasonable definition of success, whether it's in their professional or personal lives. Over the years, I've had a lot of conversations with people whom I consider highly successful mortals. These aren't billionaire tycoons or presidents of countries; they're ordinary mortals who just happen to be really successful at what they do. So what I describe in this article will probably apply most to people you're likely to know, not to celebrity outliers whom you only read about on the news.

When I ask people to tell me their life story, one thing that successful people always mention is how lucky they were to have gotten certain serendipitous opportunities that led to their success. I rarely hear a story like “I planned to do X and Y from Day 1, just did it, and then moved onto Z, did that, and here I am, all successful!” If anything, the opposite is true: Those who took a predictable course, always meeting each goal they set along the way without hassle, are usually the ones who are leading mundane lives. Fine but boring.

There's a fascinating academic literature on people's perceptions of luck, which I won't try to rehash here. For a starting point, read the work of (the aptly named) Professor Richard Wiseman. Here are some possible explanations for my observations:

  • Maybe it's survival bias. Out of all the people who tried something, only the few lucky ones became successful and told their stories. So of course they would mention how they're lucky! There's definitely truth to this, especially regarding extreme outliers. Nobody can predictably become a billionaire, no matter how hard they try; those events are rare. But I don't think survival bias applies nearly as much for ordinary mortals like my peers.

  • Certain people are more open to serendipitous opportunities, try more new things, listen to feedback better, and don't get as discouraged from setbacks. These traits combine to give them a much better chance of hitting upon a lucky opportunity than their peers who are closed off, afraid to try new things, don't listen to others, and get easily discouraged. I always ask the successful people I know about the things they try that didn't work, and those stories are equally fascinating, not just because they were failures, but more so because of how they learned from those failures and adapted. Only a fool would try to do the exact same thing again expecting better results – how to properly course-correct while not getting discouraged seems to be crucial for getting a lucky break.

  • Finally, my hunch is that successful people become successful in part because they perceive themselves as lucky, so they are grateful for any opportunities that they get, and also try to seek out the positives in any life outcome. It's easy to harp on the negatives of any event, but doing so will often lead to discouragement, which will make one less likely to try again.

So in sum, everybody needs luck to succeed; there's no doubt about that. But one's personality and outlook can drastically impact one's luck.

[OK, my 20 minutes are up ... time for my next meeting!]

Created: 2015-03-09
Last modified: 2015-03-09
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