How to reduce randomness and the bad luck factor in your formula for success
More than a hundred years ago, an opportunistic Italian handyman stole a painting from the Louvre by simply hiding it under his clothes as he walked out of the French museum. The media frenzy that ensued catapulted the painting to unfathomable fame and was the catalyst for its endless replication. If the Mona Lisa wasn’t stolen that day, it wouldn’t currently be the most visited artwork in the world, valued at $850 million.
Luck plays a massive role in everything around us. Our successes, our failures, meeting the person we fall in love with, scientific discoveries, what country we’re born in — none of these things occur without luck. Luck seems to be this mysterious and ethereal currency of success that flows throughout the universe, but what if there were ways to limit the randomness with which you get luck? This article shows you five ways to maximize luck in your life and increase the odds of success.
1. Grow Your Personal Network
Albert-László Barabási makes a clear distinction between performance and success: the former is how well you do something, and the latter is how well the community responds to you. You may make an exceptional film, write a groundbreaking book, or develop a new method for DNA sequencing, but being successful in any of these innovations depends on how well the community recognizes your work. You can thus have top-tier performance without success and sometimes success without performance. So what turns performance into success?
Barabási, a physicist specializing in network theory, proposes that the answer to this conundrum lies partly in networks. Networks surround us, from the neurons in our brains to the fungi in the ground to telecommunication systems and business connections. These networks interact with one another and influence success to a large degree. Sometimes these networks are the main driving force for success in cases where performance is difficult to measure objectively. Developing those connections throughout your career is just as important as being good at what you do. Success isn’t grown in a vacuum, and you can’t get ahead without other people’s approval.
This is congruent with the saying, “Success breeds success.” If the community has already recognized you or your performance, you are more likely to attain success. This may lead to work being recognized due more to its status than its quality. This also relates to another concept that Barabási explains: success is dependent on previous success and fitness. ‘Fitness’ here is synonymous with performance, or simply how good you are at what you do. Therefore, my next point is to focus on getting better at what you do.
2. Focus on What You’re Good at
So, if performance alone does not determine success, is that an excuse to focus less on developing your own talent and hard work? Not quite. You still need to be really good at what you do to be successful. Even if you were to catch the break of a lifetime, and you felt like the luckiest human in the world, success is unlikely to grace you with its presence if you don’t have the actual skill to prove yourself. Even benefitting from luck in the first place depends on previous performance; you’re more likely to be successful due to earlier success. And, as explained in my last point, fitness of performance is necessary for future success.
This doesn’t come from a poor product, weak performance, or below-average talent. Instead, you need to consistently work at what you do to ensure that you’re doing it better than everyone else. This is why creating the conditions for your own luck is so important; you increase your odds of success by making sure that you can provide something that benefits someone. For example, if your company offers a product or service, it must undeniably benefit its buyers, consumers, or investors. You won’t get noticed if you aren’t good at what you do. And, as you’ll see in the next chapter, being good at multiple things will often get you noticed.
3. Cast a Wide Net
Working hard and being an ultra-specialist aren’t the same thing. Unfortunately, many people think that streamlining your interests and skills into one specific area is the best way to succeed. So they accumulate as many hours as possible working at one thing to exclude other activities and opportunities. But this may actually work against them. People who experiment with many different interests and endeavors tend to have the edge over specialists. So, while you’re focusing on what you’re good at, remember that there is still time to learn new things or split your focus between multiple projects.
Generalists tend to have more of an entrepreneurial proclivity as they have had to establish or develop many new ventures instead of getting comfortable in one. They can also be more creative and innovative due to the demands of their varying interests. When it comes to what you can offer an employer, generalists can be better systems thinkers because they have a wider collection of knowledge from different fields. Additionally, they can be particularly good at interacting with different kinds of people.
4. Downplay the Importance of Luck
Downplaying luck may seem counterintuitive as the methods explained above relate to how you can optimize luck. However, it’s important only to acknowledge the role luck has played in your success after the fact. Before you’ve had your chance, you need to see luck as a non-entity. This is because if you rely on luck, you are less likely to work hard and focus your time and energy on what you’re doing. You shouldn’t be waiting for luck to happen to you; instead, see your efforts as the only thing that can get you to where you need to go. When you’ve finally arrived there, you can acknowledge how luck helped you directly and indirectly.
Think about how luck affects something, such as getting a promotion. Your main interviewer might have been in an unusually good mood because it was unexpectedly sunny that day, and you were wearing their favorite color tie. If you focused on the fact that your performance may not be the only determining factor in the decision, you might not have worked as hard. And if you hadn’t put in all the work, you may not have even been considered for the promotion. You now know that luck is playing out all around you in ways you don’t see and can’t always comprehend. That’s why framing your successes as a pure result of your hard work and talent can help motivate you to keep going.
Albert-László Barabási stresses that with consistent work and performance, you can achieve success at any time and at any age. Sometimes we think that success must happen early in our careers, and if we’ve missed early success, we’ve missed our chance. But success may happen after we’ve built up our networks, gotten good at what we do, and developed multiple talents and interests. The help of a stranger may also change everything for us, which is what I’m going to discuss next.
5. Help without Expecting Anything in Return
Amidst the time you spend getting better at what you do and experimenting with new tasks and opportunities, it may be easy to become singularly focused on yourself. It’s not always a bad thing to focus on yourself and your goals; in fact, it’s necessary at times. But a good way to strike a balance is by going out of your way to help other people. Don’t do the bare minimum; really try to help other people in whatever way you can. Every opportunity to help someone is an opportunity to give someone else the chance that you are also waiting for. Your help could be the break they’ve been waiting for.
You may be able to leverage your success, talent, and network to help someone develop theirs. Helping people can be seen as a cyclical process whereby the help that you put out will likely come back to you at some point. Someone could significantly alter your success and network because you did theirs. However, it’s important not to do it with the expectation that you might get something in return. Do it simply because you are a good person who enjoys helping others.
What Can You Take from all This
Luck will flow in and out of your life many times and can have a significant impact on when and how you find success. But it’s not completely random, and you can use the tips in this article to create the conditions for your success. Understanding the value of networks is vital to this process, as they determine how society recognizes your work. Your work, however, needs to be top-quality regardless of how lucky you are. This should include a wide array of interests and skills that make you more of a generalist than a specialist. It’s important not to rely on luck, and thinking that hard work and talent are the only factors that determine success is more likely to force you to put that extra effort in. Finally, help those around you without expecting anything in return.
If you enjoyed my tips and tricks on how to increase your odds of success, you should check out my other article that has other tips and tricks on how to use Benford’s law:
Barabási, A.L. (2018). The Formula: the Universal Law of Success. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.
Barabási, A.L. (2016). Network Science. Cambridge University Press.
Cumming, L. (2011). The man who stole the Mona Lisa. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/aug/05/mona-lisa-theft-louvre-leonardo
Genberg, P. (2021). Council Post: The Value Of Being A Generalist. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesbusinesscouncil/2021/06/03/the-value-of-being-a-generalist/?sh=f5fbba2fc892