- Luck is more important to career success than most people think.
- But talent and effort matter, too.
- The harder and smarter you work, the luckier you get.
A smart reader asked me to talk about an important element of career success — luck.
He also sent me a fascinating academic paper on the topic.
The paper’s conclusion — one I agree with — is that luck plays a much bigger role in success than most people think.
I’ve often been startled by the extent to which some successful people appear to believe their success is solely (or at least mostly) the result of their own talent and effort. This seems particularly true for people for whom success means money.
I get why they want to think that. I would like to think that. But it doesn’t take much reflection or observation to see that this is a fantasy.
That’s not to say that talent and effort (and “working smart”) don’t matter at all. Of course they do. The paper concludes that, too.
The role of luck in success
Step back a bit and you begin to realize that we all are unfathomably lucky:
We’re alive. It sounds silly, but when you consider the billions of years of evolution it took to get here, the bravery and effort of our parents to have and raise us, the astoundingly remote chance that we were conceived, and that we’ve lived long enough to make it to today, the odds against this are astronomical.
If we’re reading this, we likely live in rich and relatively free countries with lots of opportunity.
We’re (likely) educated, motivated, and capable.
We’re conscious and have free will — which means that we can choose how to think about and respond to our circumstances.
Even before we get to our individual situations, therefore, we are phenomenally lucky.
And some of us are much luckier than others. For example:
Some of us had parents who had enough means and luck to raise us in ways (and places) that set up us up for success. (According an Atlantic article summarizing a series of studies, one of the most important success factors is the community where you grow up).
Some of us have, or have access to, networks of successful people who can act as helpers and mentors.
Some of us have credentials from prestigious institutions that can help our careers — and some of us were able to go to those institutions in part because our parents could afford them, and, perhaps, went there themselves.
Some of us are lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time when a big opportunity comes along.
I’ve benefited from all of the luck above and more. And a big part of my success has been the result of that luck.
There’s an expression used to describe people as lucky as me:
“Born on third base.”
Like some other fantastically lucky people, I, recklessly and ungratefully, used my “rebellious” post-college years to make things more difficult for myself. But with the help of still more luck — and effort and, I think, some talent — I did manage, eventually, to build a life I wanted.
So luck has played a huge role in my success. As it has, I believe, in the career success of almost everyone who is successful — which to me, does not mean “being rich” or “accomplishing X by X date” but building a job and career that support a life you want.
But we will all be doing ourselves — and our future careers — a big disservice if we imagine that success is all luck.
We have a lot of influence over our futures (and presents).
The choices we make — and the effort we put in — matter.
The part of success that is not luck
There is another phrase that is relevant here:
“The harder you work, the luckier you get.”
In my experience, that is generally true. And I would add two words to it:
The harder and smarter you work, the luckier you get.
Hard work alone is not enough. Some of the hardest and most exhausting jobs in the world provide the fewest opportunities for advancement and success — at least financial success.
So, in addition to working hard, you need to try to work your way into jobs and careers that take advantage of your strengths and create lots of opportunities for you to use them — thus increasing your chances of achieving the kind of success you want. That’s working “smart.” That’s “being the CEO of your career.”
Working hard and smart will do two things that will vastly increase your odds of success:
It will help create opportunities for you.
It will help you take advantage of opportunities when they appear.
To again use my own experience as an example, if I had not gotten a trainee job on Wall Street, learned that I liked financial analysis, and then switched from corporate finance to research so I could take advantage of my strengths (analysis, writing, speaking), I would not have been able to become an Internet analyst in the 1990s. And, once I was an analyst, if I had not worked hard, I would not have been able to become the top-ranked one.
Similarly, if I had not learned a lot about journalism, business, and startups in the first 20 years of my career, I would not have been able to start Business Insider in 2007 — and, then, with the help of our amazing team, lead it to success.
So my choices and effort helped me create those opportunities and then helped me take advantage of them.
The goal: ‘agency and gratitude’
The psychologist Paul Conti says that a key to mental health is having a sense of “agency and gratitude.” This means appreciating both how lucky you are (gratitude) and how you can change your circumstances for the better (agency).
It’s a prosaic version of the serenity prayer: “…the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
The future is unknowable and beyond our direct control, so we cannot increase our chances of success to 100%.
But, by working harder and smarter, we can improve our circumstances and odds tremendously.
So our “job,” so to speak, is to try to create opportunities for ourselves and build the skills, knowledge, and dedication to take advantage of them when they arise.
See more from Henry Blodget, the cofounder and executive chair of Business Insider, on how to succeed at work.