Motivational Monday: The Harder I Work The Luckier I Get (What Luck Is and What It Isn’t)

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“The harder I work, the luckier I get.” It’s something many people have heard or read before, and it’s attributed to many different sources but the truth is there’s no real proof of who said it. But it’s a cheeky look at an otherwise astute observation.

Very often I hear people tell someone else, “wow, you’re so lucky.” This is usually in response to an opportunity or an accomplishment that one person had and the other didn’t. “You’re so lucky you make that much money. You’re so lucky you got to get coaching from that expert. You’re so lucky you keep getting promoted. You’re so lucky you got a book deal.” I either hear people say it, or hear the people on the receiving end complain how frustrating it can be to hear, because yes, some things are luck, and in many accomplishments there is of course an element of luck and random chance, but there’s also a reason that “lucky moment” came to fruition for that person. That’s why we’re going to highlight what luck is, and what luck isn’t. This is a seriously important subject because when you label someone else lucky, you might not be aware of how you are letting your limiting beliefs stop you from achieving the same. This is seriously important because when you are purely lucky, you have to be humble enough to recognize that you might have done nothing or very little to earn something, and the people around you might not have had the same privilege or situation available to them.

So let’s talk about what luck is. Luck exists on a spectrum. True luck is something where an individual fundamentally didn’t do anything — or did very little — to have an opportunity. Obvious examples are at one far end of this spectrum. If you are listening to my voice or reading these words right now, you are most likely luckier than at least a billion other people in the world. You were either born into a situation or able to move into a situation where you have access to electricity and technology. Indeed, you may have worked to be in that position, but there are absolutely populations of people around the globe who simply will not have this opportunity. There are oppressed people like the pygmys in the Congo, or those who are landlocked, on an island, or hit by natural disaster like some communities in Haiti. For these people, escaping to a situation where they have consistent access to clean water, electricity, and a smartphone or laptop, is impossible by their own volition, or frankly very close to it.

There are also those who were born to two successful, stable, intelligent parents, born into a safe home, born in a safe country or one that provides them a lot of opportunity, those who have endless available resources to do and pursue whatever they desire. This is also a lucky situation. I’ll give a few personal examples throughout this episode but one in this situation is that I was born to two parents who have stayed together, who moved us to the United States since my dad was a natural born citizen. My dad worked hard to provide for the family and because of that hard work, I did not want for much. I had access to his old car at 17 and I didn’t have to directly work to pay for that access. I had access to a largely covered college education because from the moment my brother and I were born, they saved and made decisions with their finances to ensure we could pick and attend any public school without being hindered by lack of access to funds, and that the only limitation would be our own effort around getting into and staying in a university. To me, that is basically pure luck. As a fetus I did absolutely nothing to earn that right or privilege. I was simply born, and the fact that I was born healthy and in a developed country and never went hungry and had access to education, none of that has anything to do with my own effort or hardship. Similarly, if you’re walking along the road and find a $100 bill and pick it up, that’s almost as lucky, but it’s actually a little bit off of the farthest end of the luck spectrum, because in order to seize that opportunity, you had to be paying attention and then make the effort to bend over and pick it up. It’s nearly all luck, but the fact remains that someone could easily have missed out on the opportunity because they weren’t paying close enough attention. In a way, your reward for paying attention is the increased chance to seize that lucky opportunity. If you’re listening to or reading this, think about the ways you are lucky on the far end of this spectrum, because it is easiest to identify actual luck here.

On the other hand, much of luck — and I would argue most luck — is made. It’s effortfully manufactured and produced by those who seem to have a lot of it. This is where the opener and title of this episode comes in, and it shouldn’t really be a surprise since you have eyes and ears and you’re here right now. The harder you work, the luckier you get. This seems counterintuitive because “luck” carries with it a connotation of randomness. If you win the lottery, are you lucky? Absolutely. But is it just luck? If you look at someone who won the lottery and you pout and say “man, they’re so lucky, why can’t I be so lucky?” the question I have for you is, did you buy a lottery ticket for that drawing? Did you give yourself any ghost of a chance to be that lucky person? Because somebody’s gotta win it! And again it’s a spectrum. If you win the lottery but you’ve been buying one ticket every Friday for 20 years, that’s still lucky, but it’s less luck and more just your persistence, or maybe stupidity you could argue. If you bought a ticket on a whim for the first time ever, or you found it on the sidewalk and it was a lottery jackpot winner, that’s pretty damn lucky, but you still put your name in the hat. That’s the message I want to deliver here today. If you are the type of person who is constantly going around writing off what others have as luck, you need to think harder. Way harder. How much luck is involved? And why is that person lucky in that context where you were not? Is there anything you can do to increase your chances of being as lucky as that person? I would bet you a winning lottery ticket that there is.

Here’s another personal example, and I promise I’m not doing this just to talk about myself; those who follow the podcast or blog know that most of the time I try to detach myself at least a little bit from the things I’m sharing with you. But in this case, the only reason I want to talk about myself for a minute is that I am myself. I have more examples of this in my own life than in others. I can give you plenty of singular examples of my friends and family where they got to seize a great opportunity and it was 51% or more a factor of their effort, time, and thought rather than pure luck. That said, let’s break some of my own stories down and if anyone disagrees, if you think something I identify here as luck or not luck, I urge you to leave a polite comment on the website or on social media on Instagram or Facebook and let me know. That said, here are some examples.

I graduated from college with no debt except that which I arranged with my dad. Luck that my parents could afford it for me so making my next tuition payment was never a stressor. That’s pure luck. But the fact that I got into a 4 year university? Some luck, for sure, but mostly the factor of a ton of hours I spent studying in high school to make it there. I had nights nearly panicking and on the verge of full-blown tears trying to wrap my head around AP Chemistry material. And I’m not at all a crier, I just found it so frustrating sometimes. I had nights short on sleep because I was studying for a Calculus exam. In high school I barely ever attended a party, and many were skipped on a Friday or Saturday because I had to do well on my finals. So it’s lucky that the only payments I have to make for my education now are to my own dad. He charges me no interest, I pay him about a grand or two every few months to reimburse the education. No interest. That’s luck, but getting into a 4 year university was luck that I worked hard to earn. I had a few grey hairs at 17 years old, but I earned those too.

After college I landed a job making probably about twice minimum wage. The lucky parts of that: I didn’t graduate into a recession. I graduated close enough to the San Francisco Bay Area to get a piece of the strong economy in the country amidst a surging tech industry that was, and as of today very much still is, desperate for promising sales and engineering talent among other things. I know people a few years older than me who graduated into the 2009 crash. They had law degrees and for a few years worked in cold cuts at a grocery store. That’s no joke. Me being born the year I was, into an economy I did basically absolutely nothing to effect, is complete and pure luck. I didn’t earn it, it just happened, I showed up and walked up to the bat to take a swing for sure, but that much was already teed up. But what part of me getting that job wasn’t really luck, or at the very least low on the luck spectrum? I applied to several dozen companies across the Bay Area and began applying 8 months before I graduated. I knew that most companies couldn’t hold an entry level slot that long, or they didn’t know what they’d need 6 months or a year from then, but I also knew that if I started early, I could enjoy my senior year without as much stress about my future, and I could potentially get in before everyone else graduating my year did. I applied to about 5 companies a night for several weeks in a row. Most of them had no follow-up, several told me there would be no role or to try again in May closer to graduation. In the end I had a handful of interviews and two job offers. Were either of those my absolute dream job? No. I was thrilled though to have the chance to commit to making an income doing something difficult that other people didn’t want to do — tech sales — that didn’t require me to dig ditches on a night shift in the middle of nowhere. That’s what I got, with some luck and a lot of putting myself out there and hearing “No.”

In that job, I got promoted after 11 weeks. This was close to half luck — the team I was on had hired someone in the role above me who didn’t work out and was let go after only 9 weeks. I was the top performer on the entry level team and the team’s director basically asked if I wanted to move up and backfill her role. So what’s luck and what isn’t? It’s basically pure luck that I chose a company that would even have this type of opportunity. I knew quite little about picking and evaluating job opportunities then, and there’s no way I could have predicted or controlled for them hiring someone who didn’t work out, and would be let go a week or two before my first quarter as a professional ended. Those elements are pure luck. The component that isn’t was the fact that I was objectively the top performer on that entry level team, and the reason came back to this luck equation we keep talking about. I worked really hard. This was a job that consisted of cold calling and cold emailing digital marketing decisionmakers who usually didn’t want anything to do with a new technology and who hear low level sales pitches for similar products on a very regular basis. There was nothing particularly glamorous or skill-oriented about it. But the only difference in what I did was that I developed a formula to create more luck. If you listened to the podcast episode with Nolan Simons you’ve heard this story before. I drafted emails on Sunday nights. I woke up at 5:55 am on Tuesdays to manually send 50-100 emails. And throughout the week I placed over 100 attempted calls a day while periodically sending emails. So in a given week I might send more than twice as many emails and place more than twice as many calls as the lowest performer on the same team — and I’m not referencing anyone specific, since every week in that job was a bit different. But guess that that 200% effort did? I was able to get more responses and more connected calls and set more meetings, which was the main metric on which we were compensated. So who cares about this story, right? Well the thing to recognize here, all I’m saying is, that by working harder, I created more opportunities to get “lucky” — in quotes — with scoring a meeting. Guess what I also did twice as much as the hypothetical lowest performer? Heard “no.” I heard “no” and was told to kick rocks, sometimes rudely, twice as often. I failed twice as often or more. There was no secret, I had no discernible talent advantage over anyone else on the team, which for the record the team was all people around my age who came from 4 year universities, I was fortunate to have been pushed by the fact that I sat in the same room and the same office with a group of people who were basically all smart and motivated to do well. I had no natural edge, I just failed twice as often so that I could succeed twice as often, and it made me the top performer who, by complete and utter luck, had a chance to be promoted. That event accelerated my entire career in terms of title and pay by probably close to 200%. I got really lucky, and I got kind of lucky, but for at least half of what I got back out of it, what nobody else saw were the Sunday nights drafting dozens of emails or the early Tuesdays at my desk situated in the dining room of a 1 bedroom apartment or the hundreds of times a week a call reached voicemail or someone told me never to contact them again. There’s luck in all of that; the random kind and the manufactured kind.

I could go on but I won’t because I’ve probably already bored anyone patient enough to make it this far. All I’m saying is that it is very dangerous to fail to identify the ways in which you absolutely are lucky by complete random unearned chance, and it is even more dangerous to write off the successes, accomplishments, and opportunities of others as luck without thinking critically about how much luck there is. You want another example this time not about me? Go listen to episode 11 of the podcast with Victoria Hendrickson. She might read this so I don’t know if she’ll be embarrassed. We recorded that in February and it’s October now as I write this, November if you’re one of our amazing podcast subscribers who downloads episodes as they come out. You know what’s happened to Victoria in the 8 months since we talked to her? She got promoted to partner and vice president of her consulting firm. She ran the Berlin marathon. She has a speaking engagement this month for a session breakout during the West coast’s biggest tech industry conference, where by the way Alicia Keys and Lenny Kravitz are performing and keynote speakers this year include Michelle Obama, Ashton Kutcher, the CEO of Salesforce, the CEO of YouTube, the CEO of the Girl Scouts, the CEO of Adidas, the CEO of IBM, the CEO of Kaiser, the list goes on. And as if that all wasn’t enough she just got a book deal with a legitimate, recognized publishing house and her first working manuscript is due I believe in January. If you look at her and think, wow, that’s a heck of a year, Victoria is one lucky gal… you’re absolutely right. But you might be ignoring the process, and you might let yourself believe that luck was all it had to do with it, and that is the inherent danger of the word “luck.” You only see that list of accomplishments I just rattled off, maybe you see it on her LinkedIn profile. What you don’t see are the early mornings where she had run double digit miles before you and I woke up. You don’t see the calls she had with clients in Israel at odd hours of night and day, during the week and on weekends. You didn’t see the research she did for her PhD dissertation. You didn’t see how many miles she traveled to present to this client or speak at that conference. You are absolutely right about the luck, but you are seriously hurting your chances of achieving huge things and having incredible opportunities if you trick yourself into believing that’s just luck. She worked for that luck.

So if you’re the person who thinks you’re just hard-working and nothing you achieve is due to luck, reconsider. And if you’re the person who looks at others’ accomplishments and wishes you were so lucky, think way, way harder, and see what you can learn about the process that got them there. Nine times out of ten there is a formula, a deliberate method to the madness that is hiding behind what you see. If you want it, copy it. Develop the process for yourself. Go make some luck.