March 2015 (perspective of an assistant professor)
[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:
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!]