And what is the role of luck in great success – simply being in the right place at the right time?
Jim Collins, the author of such business bibles as Good to Great and How the Mighty Fall recently completed a nine year study on the role of luck in exponential success. He and his team studied entrepreneurs who built small enterprises into companies that achieved 10X the success of others in their field during turbulent times. The question at hand was “is Bill Gates a genius or was he born lucky?” – lucky enough to be born to parents able to send him to a private school that happened to have computer access so he could learn to program and so on and so on until we get to the ubiquitous Microsoft.
The careful study shows that lucky people have about the same amount and good and bad as the rest of us. What distinguishes them is not so much that they were in the right place at the right time, but that they knew it. The success factor isn’t luck, but the ability to create a return on luck. But why are some able to pull that off?
We live in a culture that tends to think luck is god given, and if you’re lucky you don’t have to work at it, or work hard, or work at all – luck is winning a lottery. But the example of Bill Gates shows that his lucky moments were invitations to work hard – there’s an anecdote that suggests he took to eating cereal and nothing else because it could be eaten with one hand while coding, (the desire to keep at it without stopping to eat is also how we came to have sandwiches, the Earl of same wanting to stay at the poker table. No word on how lucky he was there, but maybe he would have had a better “return on luck” had he thought to patent his invention.)
Luck seems to be something that comes clear in hindsight. What the lucky have is the ability to see what others do not, and to be able to chase that vision with almost maniacal focus and fervor. They force their vision into living, breathing reality.
But that ability to see a different paradigm is not only the essence of big business success. It is the essence of creativity too – to be able to stop and say wait a minute, should we spend this money on another minute of advertising during the Super Bowl, or should we do something completely new? To disrupt the normal goings on to see if something else is better, questioning the status quo and having the courage to go a different route is the only way to break out of the pack and achieve something visionary – be that a huge 10X company or an iconic idea that transforms not only a brand, but culture.
The thing is, there’s nothing safe in it. There is no proven return on investment or the comfort of history when you’re trying something completely new. And, there’s no time to indulge in analysis to make yourself feel safer – the moment is the moment, and once it has passed it’s over.
Bill Gates could easily have said ‘ Yes this personal computer idea is great but I’m at Harvard now, let me finish up here and then I’ll get to work on that opportunity.” But he didn’t. As Collins puts it, the 10X success gang “zoom out to recognize when a luck event has happened and to consider whether they should let it disrupt their plans.” And when they consider in the affirmative, nothing, not sleep, food or sex gets in the way.
There is the creative spark, or the “luck event”. Know it when you see it. Then there is the courage to leap on it and then damn hard work. Allow it to disrupt your life plan. The result is something that can change the world.