Make Your Own Luck

The question of whether or not one can make his or her own luck is an interesting one. It seems particularly worthy of our consideration in a time when, in Peter Thiel’s terms, the world is populated mostly by indeterminate optimists and indeterminate pessimists. That is to say, there is some disagreement about whether the future will be better or worse than the present, but most agree that we lack much of any control in determining what that future will be. Instead of planning, we estimate probabilities of outcomes. Instead of investing in what we believe in, we diversify our investments as much as possible because we don’t believe in anything and we buy insurance at every opportunity because, generally speaking, “you never know”. Given the sentiment, it may surprise some to realize that, when given no choice but to try to execute an extremely ambitious plan, humans have actually proven quite capable. One does not need to look beyond the latest headlines to find a great example – in the face of the ongoing pandemic, we are set to go from first documenting Covid-19 to mass distributing an effective vaccine against it in almost exactly a year. It is worth noting that the previous fastest vaccine, the one for mumps, required 4 years to develop in the 1960’s, the same decade it took us 8 years to land the first man on the moon following the inception of NASA’s determinately optimistic and world-inspiring Apollo Program. What else could we achieve if we rejected the common consensus that the future is up to chance?

Nonetheless, the purpose of this piece is not to contemplate the potential of humanity, though I do often imagine what that might be. The focus of this essay is on the individual and how he or she can make his or her own luck. I will not waste words addressing the question of whether one can make his or her own luck in the first place because while it may seem interesting it also seems indeterminable in its own right. In a way, I will play with the issue of determinateness vs. indeterminateness right from the root of the question by assuming determinately that we can make our own luck if for no other reason than because the indeterminate answer gives us nothing to do and gives me nothing to write about. The alternative essay with an indeterminate perspective could be summed to say simply, “good luck”, which has little value outside of its use as a cordial comment.

If we entertain the idea, or with even more determinate conviction, allow ourselves to have faith that we can indeed make our own luck, the question of “how?” of course becomes all important. In aiming to answer this question, I will draw on previous descriptions of four different kinds of luck which originated from a book called Chase, Chance, and Creativity by Dr. James Austin, were later organized and opined upon in a blog post by Marc Andreessen and were most recently synthesized by Naval Ravikant. These four different kinds of luck, as Naval most succinctly defines them, are (1.) Blind Luck, (2.) Luck from Hustling, (3.) Luck from Preparation, and (4.) Luck from your Unique Character. I have no issues with these denominations which are consistent with the descriptions of each kind of luck as they were laid out by Andreessen and originally presented in the book. Still, I would like to approach these kinds of luck through a slightly different, and perhaps an even simpler framework. Fundamentally, I believe there are two primary means by which one can get more lucky more often, to “make your own luck”, as they say. I also believe both means can be worked at and improved, which makes them worth thinking about. Simply stated, I believe the two ways to a luckier life are (1.) to find more luck and (2.) to help more luck find you.

Naturally, one might wonder what this means exactly, to find luck and to help luck find you. To be more specific, let us come back to the four kinds of luck as they were previously defined. My contention is that #1 (Blind Luck) and #3 (Luck from Preparation) fall into the category of “finding luck” while #2 (Luck from Hustling) and #4 (Luck from your Unique Character) fall into the category of “helping luck find you”. If you can agree with this categorization, or at least give me the benefit of the doubt so as to hear me out, the question becomes how you can find luck and help luck find you.

Let us begin with the first part, finding luck. In introducing the third kind of luck which Naval calls “luck from preparation”, Dr. Austin says, “we see blind luck, but it tiptoes in softly, dressed in camouflage.” One could easily substitute the word “find” instead of “see” in front of “blind” and argue that Dr. Austin might agree with my contention that this third kind of luck is all about getting better at finding the first kind, which is blind. The question of how to find luck is really about how we can go from being blind to seeing, or from aimlessly searching to inevitably finding. We need to improve our vision, figuratively speaking, or more aptly, our awareness. We need to become better finders, identifiers, and recognizers of luck. As the countless events of life fly past us all day every day, we must be able to see clearly the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity disguised as just another ordinary occurrence. I might even go so far as to argue that these kinds of incredible opportunities and extremely “lucky” breaks are in fact far more frequent than once in a lifetime, but that the average person depending purely on blind luck might only expect to stumble upon one per lifetime, if they are lucky (blindly, that is). It is important to recognize that we can increase our luck by improving our ability to find it. Naval’s naming of the third kind of luck implies that this can be done through preparation. Louis Pasteur seemed to agree when he said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” The Roman stoic Seneca similarly said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Humbly, I assert that we should augment this focus on preparation with a complementary focus on awareness – for what use is there in being prepared if one fails to see the opportunity as it presents itself?

The prepared and aware person is well equipped to identify a lucky break when it presents itself so that he or she may capitalize on the recognized opportunity. This may look like blind luck to others in retrospect, or even to the seizers of luck themselves, but the reality is that most people in the position of the “lucky” person would not have recognized the “lucky” opportunity when it presented itself. Controversially perhaps, I would argue that most everyone has at least some small number of relatively lucky breaks come their way, but the people who are prepared and aware are much better at finding and consequently seizing those opportunities as they come to pass. A lucky break can even be devilishly disguised as a disappointment. For example, let us consider a hypothetical story in which a young woman named Lucy applies to a Company X. After her interviews, Company X informs Lucy that, “unfortunately”, they have decided to hire somebody else for the position. As almost an afterthought, the recruiter offers to introduce Lucy to her cousin who is looking for someone with similar qualifications for his new company on the other side of town. The recruiter mentions this opportunity to Lucy because she came to like her from their limited interactions and so she also warns her transparently that her cousin’s company would not be able to pay her nearly as much because it is only just getting started and even her cousin is practically working for free. In this situation, a person with a close-minded lack of awareness who is focused squarely on getting a good salary may default to passing on the opportunity without more than a moment’s thought. The positive, open-minded, and aware person, on the other hand, knows that she will get lucky and that it is her job to recognize it when it happens. She appreciates that the most amazing opportunities can be hidden in the most unlikely of places. Fortunately, Lucy is exactly this kind of person. She asks a simple follow-up question, ”what do they do?”. “They are working on these things called personal computers,” the recruiter responds, “I don’t know much about them but they need some help with sales.” By total chance (but really not), Lucy is great at sales and remembers one of the smartest people at her old job left recently to join some company to work on these things called personal computers. Lucy reckons it could be an interesting opportunity worth exploring and after one thing leads to the next she gets an offer to become the 13th employee at Apple Computer. It is far from obvious that this company will be successful but her conversations with the team left her excited and she sees a lot of potential and relatively little downside for herself even if the company fails. Sally accepts the offer and goes on to become extremely wealthy as an early employee at Apple. When she tells her story many years later, she doesn’t get into too many of the details. She just says she got lucky.

The truth is that Lucy’s awareness combined with her preparedness, her open-mindedness to explore a seemingly fruitless opportunity presented in the context of “unfortunate” news, and her ability to recall and connect the brilliant employee who left her old company to pursue personal computers allowed her to find this opportunity, to find what one might see as “blind luck”, and to seize it. But there is another side of the luck equation, as I mentioned previously. If total luck is the product of x and y, and if x is the percentage of “lucky” opportunities that one is able to find, then y is the total number of “lucky” opportunities that come to pass, whether one identifies them as such or not. As illustrated in the story above, it is very important that one equips oneself so that they may find luck, but it may be even more important that one gets good at helping luck find them. The person who is excellent at finding luck but awful at helping luck find them may find 2 out of 3 “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunities in life, but the person who is excellent at helping luck find them may have one hundred “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunities, and even if they are much worse at finding luck and are only able to identify 10% of their chances, they’ll seize 5x as many “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunities as the person who is great at finding luck but not at helping luck find them.

To consider how one can help luck find them, let us refer back once more to the four previously defined kinds of luck. Helping luck find you is about what Naval calls “luck from hustling” (#2) and “luck from your unique character” (#4). The first way to help luck find you, luck from hustling, is a bit easier to describe than the second so I will begin there. What Naval calls “hustling”, many call “hard work”. I will call it “persistent action”, but whichever definition helps you think about it should work mostly the same. The reason I call it persistent action is because hard work often implies misery and hustling often implies struggling but I believe that the thing which needs to be done in this dimension to help luck find you can come from a more positive perspective. I use the term persistent action because I believe the opportunities come as a direct result of your actions, the things you do. That does not necessarily mean it has to be hard or that you have to struggle, although you may, but the degree of difficult or severity of struggle should not be confused as the determining factor for bringing luck, which is simply the sum of your actions themselves. The forward action is what brings the “lucky” opportunities. In the words of Charles Kettering, just “keep on going and the chances are you will stumble upon something, perhaps when you are least expecting it. I have never heard of anyone stumbling on something sitting down.” Still, many others do prefer to use the simple phrase of hard work to convey what I believe is mostly the same assertion. Samuel Goldwyn famously said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” Thomas Jefferson said similarly, “I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the luckier I get.” In each case, I would contend that the point remains just as true if the concept of hard work is substituted with that of persistent action. OG Mandino wrote, “I will persist until I succeed”. He did not write, “I will persist and hopefully get lucky.” Without worrying at all about fidning luck, or the next method of helping luck find you which I will introduce, it seems to me that persistent action alone, relentlessness in a sense, may be enough to guarantee some degree of success. The reason brings you to the Amazon homepage is because that was Jeff Bezos’ original name for the company. The list of examples of people who believed something like hard work, persistent action, hustle, or relentlessness could make them lucky and proved successful in the end is endless. If you remember nothing else from this essay, I would implore you to remember that.

Beyond hard work or persistent action or whatever else one might call it, there is a second means by which one can help luck find them. Naval calls it “luck from your unique character”. To be truly unique, one must by definition have no competition. Naval shares relevant wisdom here too when he says, “Escape competition through authenticity.” In other words, no one can compete with you at being you. Perhaps then we could rename this fourth kind of luck, “luck from authenticity.” Still, it seems intuitive that neither unique character nor authenticity alone is enough. There must be some additional component. What can it possibly matter if one is authentic if no one ever comes across their authenticity or the unique character that is reflected by it? I would argue that the world does not care if you are authentic or unique, but people do. Thus, one must expose their unique character to people in order to get lucky, and the more people they are exposed to, all else equal, the luckier they should get. If your unique character is the product, your exposure is your sales. The inherent value of the best and most unique product in the world is wasted if no one is ever to discover it. The key to helping luck find you, I believe, is to be authentic in public. The key is to demonstrate your unique character in a place for everyone to see so that anyone may discover you. This place, of course, does not exist in the physical world. The most public place of all is the internet. Could it be that being authentic on the internet, where anyone can find you, is the ultimate way to help luck find you in this way? Could it be that the internet innovated on luck itself by giving people a tool for helping more of it find them for the same amount of effort? Could it be because of luck, in a different way than some would suggest, that the main websites for finding products (Amazon), people (Facebook), and generally anything (Google) are three of the 5 most valuable companies in the world, and the companies that make the devices and systems we use to access those websites (Apple and Microsoft) are the other two? Perhaps the web of companies tying together the web (the internet) are the most companies valuable in the world not because they themselves got lucky, but because they are increasing the total amount of luck that comes to fruition in the world, or perhaps this is too farfetched.

Either way, I will conclude this contemplation on luck as I so often do by reflecting on my own personal experience. In the last year, I have learned a lot so I may be prepared, I have aimed to maintain open-mindedness and a positive perspective so I may be aware, and I have worked hard and acted persistently. I have also embraced a unique path and I have been authentic in public, writing blogs and sharing podcasts for anyone with internet access to discover. In short, I have combined awareness and preparedness with persistent action and I am being authentic in public. All of these efforts, I believe, will help me find luck and help luck find me. I suppose the validation of this piece will be determined by how lucky I get in the end, if “luck” is what you want to call it.