The role of luck in your success

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Luck? Not something anyone wants to admit when it comes to explaining our successes, right?

Here is a nice write-up in The Atlantic on how we are likely to disregard the role of luck in our success.

“Little wonder that when talented, hardworking people in developed countries strike it rich, they tend to ascribe their success to talent and hard work above all else. Most of them are vividly aware of how hard they’ve worked and how talented they are. They’ve been working hard and solving difficult problems every day for many years! In some abstract sense, they probably do know that they might not have performed as well in some other environment. Yet their day-to-day experience provides few reminders of how fortunate they were not to have been born in, say, war-torn Zimbabwe.”

Bill Gross (of IdeaLab) has done some work trying to quantify the role of luck. There is a TED Talk on this titled the single biggest reason why start-ups succeed. His conclusion:

“So what I would say, in summary, is execution definitely matters a lot. The idea matters a lot. But timing might matter even more. And the best way to really assess timing is to really look at whether consumers are really ready for what you have to offer them. And to be really, really honest about it, not be in denial about any results that you see, because if you have something you love, you want to push it forward, but you have to be very, very honest about that factor on timing.”

(And here is the TED playlist of videos of an event with a whole series of talks on the topic.)

When we think about it honestly, we all know and point to examples where a successful concept was a rinse-and-repeat of another, earlier idea. In fact, I think it will be an interesting study to find all those failures that preceded the successes that just happened to be timed right.

With two other entrepreneurs I was involved in a start-up called ‘Compuspace’ in 1998 in South Africa. It was a version of (for commercial property) before existed. It was that long ago that I had to write a ‘manual’ to teach people about the internet including a glossary of terms explaining what a modem is, to educate them on using it. We signed up all the major landlords with relative ease, but the system floundered and eventually morphed and died because the bandwidth, the technology and the skills was simply not there to be able to uploaded and download plans and images. Imagine trying to teach someone who has only just heard about a modem how to FTP a file?

Bill Gross quantifies the importance of timing (which is usually a manifestation) of luck at 42%.

The research on it is very qualitative, so I am not sure the percentage is right, or that it matters for it to be specific. The more salient point is that it is factor; a very big factor.

Maybe we don’t talk about it enough because we don’t want to diminish those other factors that reflect better on us than admitting that it was ‘mere luck’.

But ‘good timing’ is something that we should be able to identify and talk about with foresight, not only hindsight.

Sometimes we are so enamoured with the idea and so blinded by passion and lured into the excitement of execution that we don’t want to think about timing. I suspect sometimes it is fear that someone else will do it before us if we wait. And in both instances we get fooled into pulling the trigger too soon.

And then there are cases where we think the time is right but it just isn’t. But it is for the next guy who comes along with the same idea. The one who just got lucky – even if he or she doesn’t want to even admit it.