What's luck got to do with it?

Do other people seem to get all the breaks? Well, you should be so lucky. But you'll have to put yourself in the way of opportunity: get out of your routine, talk to people, share your ideas - and persevere. Fortune smiles on the brave, says sporting Dave Waller.

Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

In business, the pragmatist trumps the spiritualist. Sales graphs beat astrological charts, and listening to your customers will serve your bottom line better than an earful of Buddhist chants or whale-song. Yet there is one wholly irrational underlying force that even the most successful leaders are all too happy to credit - at least, when it comes to discussing their own achievements. It's luck.

Speaking to Britain's top business people about their careers, it's amazing how often the word crops up. From Sir Michael Bishop to Sir Ronald Cohen, Luke Johnson to Digby Jones, countless leaders have appeared on the pages of MT giving due credit to this unseen power. Even Bill Gates puts luck up there with his tech brain and canny sense of timing. Yet you'll hardly find luck on the average MBA syllabus.

A major problem with luck is that it's a tricky thing to pin down. For one, it is often apparent only in hindsight. You earn your first million, and only then do you backtrack and work out what happened to enable it to come off in the first place. In retrospect, with so many variables at play in personal lives, careers, businesses, trends and markets, the fact that you ever reached the right place at the right time to achieve what you did can start to seem dizzyingly improbable. Especially when there are countless other people out there vying for the same thing: what physicists and philosophers call the 'self-sampling assumption'. Hence the easy answer: it was down to luck.

Others may use the term to disguise their own achievements, being more comfortable crediting their success to some external force than to their own blood, sweat and tears. And yet some people seem to have lucky breaks so consistently. Are they somehow tapping into a natural force that's available for all of us to bend to our will? The answer, it turns out, is that they are. But it's more nuts and bolts than fire and brimstone.

First let's define exactly what we mean by luck. There is the stuff of superstition - the good fortune of four-leaf clovers, and footballers getting amorous with their goalposts in the belief that this will ensure a good result. But there seems little practical point in examining such hokey ritual. Tony Blair's lucky brogues, apparently a fixture at every one of his Prime Minister's Questions, have little to teach the rest of us.

There is another phenomenon that dwells in this same dark territory. Bill Gates counts being born to his parents and becoming childhood friends with future Microsoft partner Paul Allen as examples of his luck; yet most experts would categorise such events as chance, differentiated from luck in that they are totally beyond the individual's control. Richard Wiseman, author of The Luck Factor (Century, 2003), concedes that such one-off chance events may be formative in people's lives and careers, but prefers to limit his definition of luck to consistent cases of good fortune. And he says that such a recurrence indicates that the individual is influencing things. Luck is - by this definition, at least - something we create ourselves.

Predictably, the business community has its share of luck-sceptics. Antony Buck, co-founder of Ren Skincare, believes that what people call luck is often simply the result of offering a definite commitment to something that others aren't prepared to make. 'You're likely to appear luckier simply because you're putting yourself in situations and responding to them in ways that most people aren't.'

People may see you as lucky for attending an event and meeting a person who's the perfect fit for a new project. 'But it's effort, really,' he says.

Buck's view of luck may sound more pragmatic, but it is largely a semantic issue. Whether you call this phenomenon luck or not, what matters is that destiny, in work and life, clearly lies with the individual. Successful people will often ascribe their good fortune to being 'in the right place at the right time'. So it follows that the more often you put yourself in new situations, the more likely it is you'll be in a place that turns out to be right, at a time that is similarly fruitful. In other words, luck is largely down to getting out there in the first place, so you can create, spot and exploit opportunities. You have to be in it to win it, after all.

Charles Dunstone, founder of Carphone Warehouse, once described himself as 'the luckiest person since Ringo Starr'. It was meant to be self-effacing, referring to the idea that the Beatles' drummer rode into rock history on the backs of his more talented bandmates. Dunstone may be attempting modesty, but look deeper: Starr battled serious childhood illness and left school at 13, before becoming a pioneering drummer and performing with some of the best-known bands in Liverpool. He toured with the Beatles and sat in with them several times before they booted out Pete Best and created the vacancy. Starr had made his own luck. And that's not so different from Dunstone, the 'lucky' mobile entrepreneur.

The Mind Gym's Danielle Heffernan defines luck as springing from a combination of chance and perception. 'Without a doubt, chance exists,' she says. 'But how you view these chance events will determine your luck.'

She is reaffirming that luck is entirely down to us - it's just a matter of how we approach and react to the situations that we find ourselves in.

This may sound like a rehash of the old 'power of positive thinking' argument, but it does make sense. Go in clasping a glass that's half-full, expecting good things, and you may well be amazed at how things turn out. If they don't go your way, then so be it - there's nothing to be lost by reacting well to misfortune. 'Optimists expose themselves to more situations,' says Heffernan. 'They feel better, perform better and they are luckier as a result.'

Srikumar Rao, a visiting professor at the London Business School, is a firm believer in the idea that optimism brings good fortune, a subject he explores in his teachings on creativity and purpose. 'I believe you can live your life in a way where you can actually predict that fortunate things will keep cropping up.' He argues that it's human nature to label events either good or bad, and that the tendency is to choose the latter. His argument is that, despite our initial reaction, we never know whether something that seems bad will actually turn out that way, so labelling an event as bad is simply a waste of energy.

Rao illustrates his point with a story from one of his course alumni - a young woman who had signed up for a consultancy job in Lisbon because all her friends had told her it was a great opportunity. Unfortunately, the visa process was long and documents were lost, jeopardising a planned trip to Asia in the interim. Her natural reaction was to view the unfolding disaster with horror, until she remembered the course mantra, 'Good? Bad? Who knows?'. Taking a more positive approach, she went to work on a plan B, applying for fallback jobs. She soon had an offer for her dream job at a smaller company. The next day her Portuguese visa came through. Naturally, she didn't need it any more.

Of course, keeping your glass half-full is easier said than done. Some things in life just demand that 'bad' label. Take the unfortunate case of Roy Sullivan, the American park ranger who holds the world record for surviving the most lightning strikes. He was struck seven times between 1942 and 1977. Not good. Most of us would despair at such misfortune; under Rao's thinking, Sullivan should have felt fortunate to have survived with all but the odd eyebrow or toenail intact. It's an admirable idea, but one that would test even the most resolute constitution. Indeed, Sullivan's experiences eventually drained his glass completely - he began fearing that clouds were chasing him, and shot himself in 1983.

At work, too, it's easy to believe that the clouds are gathering around us. This thought could be sparked by anything, from being overlooked for a promotion or launching a product that sinks disastrously, to the general feeling that you've hit the ceiling in your career and you can't go any further. Everyone has at one time felt that the universe is conspiring against them. It's just that lucky people don't let that get in their way.

When Simon Woodroffe, founder of Yo! Sushi, was preparing to open his first conveyor-belt sushi restaurant, a rival beat him to the idea, opening an outlet at London's Liverpool Street station. Rather than cursing his misfortune, Woodroffe spent hours at his rival's sushi bar as a 'customer', examining its weaknesses, going in with tape measures, looking under tables, and even taking his bank manager along to secure funding. When the Yo! idea hit big, Woodroffe, a first-time restaurateur, looked like the luckiest man in the world.

Woodroffe is a fine example of what Heffernan calls 'retaining an internal locus of control'. If you take responsibility for events and your reaction to them, you'll generate far better luck than you would by relying on excuses or presenting yourself as the victim. Overlooked for a promotion? You can sit around bemoaning your lot, or start reassessing your career: is there more you can learn where you are, or is it a sign you should be looking elsewhere? A year later, you'll probably find yourself thanking your lucky stars that the promotion never came off.

This process of picking yourself up and dusting yourself down leads us to another truth about luck: it doesn't come to people who give up quickly. Take golfer Gary Player, and the legend in which a rich Texan offered him $50 to sink a bunker shot. Player nailed three in a row. The Texan handed over the money, exclaiming that he'd never seen anyone that lucky in his life, to which Player famously replied: 'The harder I practise, the luckier I get.' Indeed, who knows how many thousands of such shots Player had previously missed?

Sir Ronald Cohen has reaped the good fortune that comes with sticking to his guns. When he founded venture capital group Apax in the early 1970s, it was the first of its kind in Europe. The partners had to build the industry to fuel the firm. And when the concept was struggling to get off the ground, they had a crisis meeting to determine Apax's future. Cohen's cohorts prepared thorough reports full of figures explaining why the idea was doomed to fail. He turned up with a written examination of the relationship between luck and perseverance. The others quit, he turned out to be right, and Apax now manages a fund of $20bn. As Cohen put it in his recent autobiography: 'The first rule of luck in business is that you should persevere in doing the right thing. Opportunities will come your way if you do.'

Luck, it appears, works very much like magic. We may react to a conjurer's trick with amazement, but once the workings behind it are explained, it becomes just a series of logical steps. Fortunately, though, luck is still impressive even when you know how it's done.

Buck offers a pertinent tale from the early days of Ren. 'When we were first setting up, Stuart Rose appeared in the FT talking about what to do after Argos,' he says. 'We pestered the paper for a while and they agreed to give him our number. One day he rang us up, and we told him we'd just started out and were wondering if he wanted to get involved. We ended up going to see him, and that turned into a year or so of mentoring sessions. It seems lucky - suddenly we're getting advice from Stuart Rose. The fact is, we committed to it and pestered the paper. Even so, we were still pinching ourselves.'

Most people would have read the same article and thought nothing of it. In fact, it's doubtful that Rose received any calls of this kind other than Buck's. This is another sure-fire way of generating good luck - having the ability to spot an opportunity and act on it. In The Luck Factor, Wiseman conducted an experiment in which he gave a newspaper to a group of people and asked them to count the number of pictures inside. Halfway through, he'd secretly placed a large advertisement saying: 'Tell the experimenter you have seen this and win £250'. The people who'd previously been defined as unlucky tended to miss the ad, while the lucky ones spotted it. And yet it had been staring them all in the face. The message: concentrate too hard on what you think you're looking for and you may be missing something more fruitful.

Luck, then, is all about opportunities: spotting them when they arise, creating them when they don't, and most of all putting yourself in a position and state of mind to seize them. Says Heffernan: 'Some people will walk through a door saying, "How fantastic, there's this great world on the other side." Others won't want to take that chance. But they'll look at the first person walking around in the land of the fairies and say: "They're so lucky. Why can't I be like that?"' Why not, indeed? DO YOU FEEL LUCKY, PUNK?

Ten ways to make it happen for you

Know your goals. You invite the opportunities that will help you realise your ambitions only if you are clear on your aims in the first place.

Be flexible. Adopt a relaxed and open-minded approach in your thoughts and actions. Break habits by changing your route to work, going to lunch with different people, and watching different kinds of film. Experimentation opens up new horizons and mental pathways.

Assume responsibility. Fortune doesn't favour a victim. Take ownership of what happens to you and how you respond to it.

Take risks. Remember the saying 'A ship in harbour is safe, but that's not what ships were built for'. Think of yourself when you're older - won't you regret the risks you didn't take?

Expect good fortune. Luck operates like a self-fulfilling prophecy. If your glass is half-full in the first place, it's more likely that things will come along to top it up.

Turn bad luck to good. Luck is all about how you view the chance events in your life. If something bad happens, suspend your reaction. Try viewing it as a good thing and see where it leads.

Trust your intuition. Your inner voice often knows best. When Sir Ronald Cohen's Apax partners faced early trouble, he trusted his own hunch over the figures he was given. And he was duly rewarded for his good judgment.

Network. That person on the far side of the room may be a surprisingly good fit to assist in your next project. But you have to speak to them first to find out. Network like you mean it, too. People will pick up on your genuine interest, and opportunities will come more freely.

Keep your eyes open. You may not have found the thing you were looking for, but is there something even more important happening right in front of your eyes?

Say 'yes' more often. You never know where it may lead.

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