How luck and skill intertwine to make you successful.
In this episode, you’ll learn:
- Why most successful people point to luck as the reason for their success.
- Henry David Thoreau’s view of luck.
- Why we need skill to take advantage of luck.
- Why we should pursue complex domains.
- Why we need to take big leaps.
- Why we should avoid boredom.
The quote on zig zagging by Jieyu was from The Zhuangzi
The Role of Luck in Success
I received an email last week from Peter, a Canadian friend who is an art teacher in Abu Dhabi.
He described relaxing after a long week of teaching at a magnificent swimming pool that overlooked the ocean as palm trees swayed in the warm November evening breeze.
He chatted with Mohammed a fellow expat from Montreal who works for a large investment company.
They discussed finances and business strategies that might allow them to get back to their homes in Canada.
My friend quoted to his compatriot three important things for a successful business that he had heard from Jonny Nastor on his podcast Hack The Entrepreneur.
“Knowledge, passion and financial viability.”
Peter wrote, “Mohammed tentatively agreed, nodded and slowly said, “Yes….” and then through squinting eyes and raising a finger to make his point, “…but… you can’t do it without luck.”
Creativity and Success
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the Hungarian psychologist known for his research on happiness and creativity, interviewed 91 individuals who had been creative and successful in their lives.
All the interviewees were over sixty, were still actively involved in their careers and had made a significant difference to a major domain of culture, such as “the sciences, art, business, government or human well-being in general.”
His book Creativity: Flow and Psychology of Discovery and Invention relates what he learned from the interviews.
One fascinating insight is the majority of people interviewed mentioned luck most frequently as the reason for their success.
They were in the right place at the right time, made the right contacts, were discovered by the right people, etc.
Is that what it takes to become successful? Luck?
Thoreau and Luck
Henry David Thoreau in Walden writes of fishing with John Field, the Irishman.
“He poor man, disturbed only a couple of fins while I was catching a fair string, and he said it was luck; but when we changed seats in the boat luck changed seats too.”
The Henry’s Fork
For the past three years, I have fly fished on the Henry’s Fork in Harriman State Park with my friend Dick.
People come from all around the world to fish this stretch of river.
One morning last June I stood in the frigid water. It was 45 degrees Fahrenheit and it was raining and hailing.
There was a hatch of pale morning dun mayflies floating downstream. But there were very few fish rising.
A dozen or so fishermen (fisherpeople?) were spread out along a half mile stretch of water.
In the three hours I stood in the river, I cast to two fish. I spooked them and they swam off.
I saw only two fish caught on that entire length of river.
Dick said as we walked back to car that “we paid our dues today”. In three years on that portion of the Henry’s Fork paying my dues is all I have done.
I’ve had two fish on my line but have yet to land one.
The man who caught the only two fish on the Henry’s Fork that day is in his eighties. Even from 100 yards away I could see his arm and rod shaking from Parkinson’s disease.
He is not unusual. The Henry’s Fork is filled with men and women who have fished the river for decades, holding themselves steady in the water with walking sticks. Last year, one of them died in the river while fishing.
Like Zen Buddhists, they fish with their whole body and mind. They are completely concentrated as they scan the river and listen for the distinctive “pluck” of a feeding trout.
There are rare days during the summer when fish on the Henrys Fork are rising everywhere. It is on those “lucky days” that those who have “paid their dues” in acquiring the skill to catch a fish take advantage of the opportunity.
Connecting The Dots
Steve Jobs in his 2005 commencement address at Stanford University said, “You cannot connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards.” He also said he was lucky.
When successful people look back and connect the dots they often focus on the “lucky breaks” that contributed to their success.
The presumption is if the “lucky” thing hadn’t happened they wouldn’t be where they are today.
But whose to say a different “lucky” thing might have happened if the first one hadn’t occurred. They might have still ended up being successful, but perhaps in a different way.
Call it luck, Providence, or random events, our lives are filled with them. But it takes experience, skill and “paying our dues” to recognize a lucky break for what it is and take advantage of it.
And if we miss it, another lucky fish will come along if we stay in the river and keep our eyes and ears open.