Outsize Success Takes More Than Luck

Someone made a point in a debate I listened to today that gave me pause. He said luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. The Roman philosopher Seneca said that first, and I agree with him. The debater took this one step further, though. He said you have to be willing to take risks to capitalize on luck. He gave the example of a backup quarterback who practices hard and is ready when the starting QB is hurt. The backup gets a lucky (for him) break to show what he can do on the field. But playing involves risks that he must accept to take advantage of his luck. He could fail by performing poorly (this trips a lot of people up) or being injured.

I spent more time thinking about this and I generally agree with what was said today, but think they missed something. In speaking with entrepreneurs (not just techies) and investors who’ve had outsize success, I’ve noticed a distinct pattern. They all have the ability to recognize when they’re in a lucky situation and take action—rapidly, if they’re among the best. (Most lucky situations aren’t as obvious as the backup QB’s was.) Sure, things can go wrong, but they mentally set that possibility to the side, focus on the upside, and accept the risk.

When I think about what it takes to succeed, I view it as a two-step process:

·     Preparation + Opportunity = Luck

·     Luck + Recognition + Action (i.e., accepting risk) = Success

Following this two-step process doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to be successful. But being aware of it will make success more likely.

If an athlete practices hard and finally gets the chance to play, that’s not enough. He has to jump at the opportunity, play his best, and risk failing or being injured. Otherwise, his luck isn’t going to lead to success.