The Harder You Work, The Luckier You Get
by Ken Goldstein
Eighth in a Series of Ten
The quote in the subtitle above, “The harder you work, the luckier you get” has been attributed to so many individuals it is probably best accepted as a cliché, but since I heard it first and most often from my father, I’m giving him the credit. I’ll apply another cliché, “minor poets borrow, great poets steal,” so credit here is probably less important than viral sharing, which is the value of any common sense idea broadly distributed.
Yet how common is the common sense in seeking luck by giving your all to what you do? Those seem like different things. Luck is elusive, ephemeral, it may not even exist except in hindsight, as a descriptor rather than a force. Work is what you do, effort that you control, with results that may or may not have the impact you desire based on any number of uncontrollable market forces. You cannot will good fortune anymore than you can guarantee an outcome where you cannot predict and guide any number of moving parts well beyond your scope of influence.
Or can you? Think about this for a moment, the people in business who you would call lucky — do they tend to be lucky once or lucky many times over? You would probably answer both. So let’s toss out the one timers and call them lottery winners, nothing we can learn there except sometimes good stuff happens to both good and bad people, and that’s just it, it happens. Now let’s think about the consistently lucky individuals we see winning over and over, in good times and bad. Are there any consistencies in their actions? My guess is that they may just be working a little harder than their competition, pushing themselves intellectually beyond the obvious tasks that others do to get by, challenging themselves to Think Different and really work a complex set of issues to unexpected outcomes. I am not sure they make luck happen, but they do allow themselves to be in positions where they can be more often than others open to unusual and often positive circumstances. They might be just a little more dedicated than others, just a little more optimistic about creativity as a tool, just a little more self-energized to seize upon an unexpected win scenario when it appears out of nowhere.
Last month in a Wall Street Journal column entitled “How to Get a Real Education,” not less than Scott Adams, the visionary mind behind Dilbert, offered this among his tidbits of advice to college students whom he was trying to give a shortcut to success given his own treks through the school of hard knocks. Wrote Adams under the header Attract Luck:
You can’t manage luck directly, but you can manage your career in a way that makes it easier for luck to find you. To succeed, first you must do something. And if that doesn’t work, which can be 90% of the time, do something else. Luck finds the doers. Readers of the Journal will find this point obvious. It’s not obvious to a teenager.
Fans of popular quotes may hear the echo of Pasteur’s “Fortune favors the prepared mind” in the words of Dilbert’s creator, which simply reinforces the same theme. Harnessing luck might be akin to catching lightning in a bottle, but how are you going to capture the lightning if you don’t have a bottle ready, and if you aren’t willing to get wet in a storm without real expectation of what’s awaiting you under the clouds? What’s out there that can change your life for the better or improve your success ratios is seldom obvious or clearly labeled, but if you aren’t on an active quest, your chances of bumping into it will be awfully low.
Hockey great Wayne Gretzky bottles this in yet another flavor: “You will miss 100% of shots you don’t take.” How often in all sport do we hear the announcer say on a big point or play, “Now that was lucky!” Sometimes it is, and we may need a bit of luck to break the stalemate when the other team is our equal in every way. Yet is it really luck, or is it captured opportunity because we were trying just a little bit harder at that moment. Who can say, probably a little of both. I’ll take it.
There is another argument that reminds us to maintain humility in a lucky outcome. We can only take so much credit for what we do, and if we are humble about recognizing what we did accomplish and that from which we simply benefitted, my sense is we have a lot more chance of it happening again — or at least of our peers not taking us for fools or blowhards when we don’t acknowledge the fate factor in our success tracts. That which we can control is our effort, our ethics, and attitude, I would say people who strive to take those items very seriously in a team approach are going to be beneficiaries of luck now and again, maybe not when we most want, but often when we least expect it.
Perhaps it is just the word itself, luck, which causes us the problem, because we can’t prove it exists and we can’t reach in our quiver and pull out the luck arrow when we face a nasty monster. So how about another word that could be a better factor in our control: openness. Then we might have: “The more you remain open to opportunity by pursuing it in different venues, the more chance opportunity may have of finding you.” Nah, too many words, I liked the original quote better — but I’ll keep an open mind about a better phrasing that might emerge.