• Mark Bellamah

Feeling Lucky... or Just Run-of-the-Mill Talented?

Now that I'm getting old and, in turn, mistaken for being wise, young professionals sometimes seek my advice about the secret to success. Much to their chagrin, I usually end up talking about the primacy of luck.  Normally, they get miffed and don't want to hear that.  Instead, they want to hear that success is dependent on being special in some way or other.  Especially smart, especially clever, especially hard-working.  But if I am honest when looking back over my career, I see a prime example -- namely, someone with a modest education, nominal marketable skills, and relatively few God-given smarts, talent, or innovative insights who achieved a good deal of success.  For me, dumb luck has always been a principal driver in my personal and professional achievements.  Now, scientific research upholds that assertion in a statistical and quantifiable manner. 

Italian researchers Alessandro Pluchino and Alessio Emanuele Biondo have been investigating the benefits of luck and randomness in business and academia for more than a decade.  With backgrounds in theoretical physics and economic policy, their mathematical models and analyses put into question the value of viewing the world of business as a meritocracy.  Their latest study,  "Talent vs Luck: the role of randomness in success and failure"  published in the journal Advances in Complex Systems, is a surprisingly readable scientific paper, even for those of us challenged by complex concepts such as Gaussian distribution, Pareto law, and third-grade arithmetic.  While I encourage you to check out the original research by going to above-provided link, here I provide the key layman takeaways from their latest findings:

  1. When considering society's unequal distribution of wealth and success against talent and education, the luck factor explains why "moderately gifted individuals achieve (so often) far greater honors and success than much more talented ones";

  2. The empirical evidence shows how naive we are to assume that differences in talent, skill, competence, intelligence, hard work, and determination are solely responsible for our individual success; and

  3. Within this context, the best way to incentivize success is not a rewards system based on meritocracy or perceived meritocracy, but, rather, an egalitarian system that equitably spreads awards across a larger segment of the population or workforce.  Doing so has both micro and macro benefits:

  • For individuals, spreading the wealth breeds variety and provides unlucky yet talented people with increased opportunities to fulfill their potential, and

  • On the level of society, the equitable distribution of rewards feeds diversity, thereby increasing "serendipity at the aggregate level, thus contributing to the progress of research and of the whole society" (i.e., raising the tide to lift all boats... or, to think of it another way, combating a continuing megatrend in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer).  

While that is good guidance for managers, leaders, and policymakers, what about young professionals who need to know what these findings mean in terms of their personal careers and managing themselves?  For this, I turn to the late gambler and hustler Thomas Austin Preston, Jr. -- aka Amarillo Slim. A master of risk management, Amarillo Slim is famous for saying, "I like to bet on anything, as long as the odds are in my favor."  In turn, I tell my mentees not throw their hands in the air and hope to simply "get lucky."  Instead, I encourage them to look for opportunities to increase their odds of recognizing and leveraging luck when it comes their way. 

In order to do this, I work with them to cultivate several traits successful people share when it comes to preparing one's self and one's environment to exploiting luck and good fortune:

  1. Resilience.  Sometimes called "grit" or "fortitude," resilience is the quality of getting up after you have had your legs knocked out from under you.  The ability to bounce back is key to leveraging luck. You cannot get lucky if you have thrown in the towel, quit, and left the game.  That said, resilience should not be equated with persistence.  Persistence, especially in the context of plainly unwinnable efforts, often meets the definition of madness -- namely, doing the same things over and over, hoping for different results. 

  2. Letting Go.  To paraphrase the great country and western singer Kenny Rogers, aka "the Gambler," you gotta know when to fold 'em.  In this context, "letting go" translates into cutting losses, not throwing good money after bad, and avoiding a loss aversion mindset in which you fixate on recouping sunk costs.  Failing early and walking away with some lessons for the next go-round keeps you fresh and ready when luck turns in your favor. Win some, learn some. 

  3. Realism.  Realistically knowing the odds is foundational to letting go.  As one successful venture capitalist tells me, he maintains informed, balanced expectations when viewing his portfolio writ large.  He normally forecasts that 6-7 of every 10 startups in his portfolio will go belly up and that 2-3 others will break even.  That said, based on years of experience, he counts on the fact that, statistically, his selections will result in at least 1 in 10 of those startups becoming wildly successful, enough so to cover the other 9 bets and turn a substantial profit.  This also is a testament to the value of diversity.  A broader portfolio not only can mitigate losses, but also provides a larger playing field in which luck can take root.

  4. Optimism.  Buck up, Pookie, and keep looking to the stars.  As the Zen master says, "everything changes."  When luck comes your way, you want to be ready with a smile, some gratitude, and the vigor needed to pursue your good fortune. 

  5. Personal Care.  A strong body and mind are of utmost necessity when things break your way.  I often think of this trait in terms of personal or professional development in line with Stephen Covey's concept of "sharpening the saw."  Often, luck comes in waves, and as any good surfer knows, you need to be ready -- both physically and mentally -- to ride a wave for all it's worth.  Opportunities are often missed or diluted because someone was tired, stressed, or weak. 

If you're interested in further exploring the role luck plays in success and failure, here is some additional bedtime reading:

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