From the moment you are born, you possess a certain amount of luck, depending upon your parents, your family’s social and financial situation, your native homeland, and your health. Your good or bad fortune is guided by the direction set at that early stage.
Now you’re an adult, and you might be wondering how to make the most of your luck or contemplating why you’re on such an unlucky streak. If it feels a little New Age-y or counterproductive to devote brainpower to the notion of luck, rest assured that you aren’t alone. But understanding the role of luck in your life, and how to take advantage of what you have, is a critical component of maximizing your success.
Researchers have also wondered about the role of luck in life. For instance, biochemist Ohid Yaqub was offered $1.7 million to study serendipity as it pertains to scientific discoveries. Yaqub found that while serendipity can be somewhat planned, it includes an element of chance.
From a career perspective, that means you could do everything right and still have a negative outcome, especially if the range of potential outcomes is polarized. Another study concluded that luck plays a huge part in helping untalented performers get ahead of more talented ones. In fact, the economists who tackled the subject concluded that even superstars aren’t shoo-ins for career success without some good fortune on their side.
Of course, before you decide to put all your faith in fate, remember that your day-to-day decisions still affect life’s outcomes. Luck can make or break many situations, but following a steady and focused course gives you the best shot to manage whatever luck life tosses your way.
Leveraging the Power of Luck
Let’s say you jumped aboard a startup early that seemed to be doing incredibly well. It was a stroke of amazing luck, you felt, to be one of the founding team members. But months into the experience, you discovered that the CEO was embezzling money. The company collapsed, you were investigated (though found innocent), and you found yourself unemployed and largely unemployable. That would be bad luck of the worst kind.
Here’s the kicker, though: At this point, your reactions are the only option to potentially leverage the bad luck into opportunity. Luck can change on a dime, but chutzpah and a lot of hard work are the best skills in your arsenal to minimize the role and impact of misfortune.
Back to our hypothetical situation. Imagine that instead of getting depressed, you used the experience to help other people see the red flags you now know you overlooked when you joined the fledgling organization. As a result, you land speaking gigs and launch a consulting business. It might not be the unicorn outcome you hoped for as a startup founder, but you’ve certainly evened out the long-term game rather than allow a short-term derailment to ruin your momentum.
For some, bad luck can ruin or even end your life. For most, it’s a bump in the road that can be managed with the right attitude and response.
Strategies for Turning Your Luck Around
Interested in figuring out how to make the most of your luck to end up with a positive outcome? Try these four strategies:
1. Work hard to improve your luck.
Working hard and working smart are the best defenses against the impacts of bad luck. Even if bad luck gets in your way, you can often mitigate its effects by continuing to make the right small choices for the right reasons.
In my first sales job, I was assigned a territory with a single global account that had undergone a huge merger the year before and hit nearly 350% of quota. The team made a killing. Unfortunately, when I joined, the quota was increased to that inflated mark, and without another merger, the odds of reaching it (and subsequent commissions) was virtually zero. At that point, I had two choices: wallow in frustration or learn what I could from a talented team. While I admittedly felt frustrated by the situation, I was able to learn a lot from my great colleagues and build the relationships required to move into a new, better territory the following year.
Regardless of what your luck is, always ask, “What course of action makes sense right now?” Work with your team members—including those more senior—to implement this approach more systematically, too. The less time you spend wallowing in self-pity or making knee-jerk emotional moves after a stroke of bad fortune, the better off you will be.
2. Learn the difference between bad luck and a bad decision.
It’s important to understand and interpret the difference between bad luck and a bad decision. The distinction can be hazy, but to distinguish between the two, you can ask yourself, Is there anything I could have reasonably done to know the outcome in advance and avoid the situation? If the answer is yes, it’s more likely that you made a bad decision.
As a former full-time poker player, the luck of the cards was present daily. Some days, it felt like I couldn’t win no matter what; other times, it felt like I couldn’t lose. The most important consideration in both situations was whether I was making the right plays with the cards I had and the players I played with. Luck in poker is short term. But by focusing on the quality of my decisions, I was always able to weather short-term bad luck and come out on top in the long run.
3. Capitalize on the gift of good luck.
Bad luck usually gets most of the attention, but understanding how to capitalize on good luck is just as important. Winning can feel great, but it can easily be problematic, especially if it’s driven more by luck than good decision-making. When a major life event goes your way, it’s important to enjoy that success but critical to not rest on your laurels. Take advantage of what good fortune brings you, knowing that it’s an effective buffer to bad luck that will eventually come your way.
As a business leader at a tech startup, my team and I face a lot of challenges. Markets shift, competitors rise and fall unexpectedly, and product bugs occasionally rear their heads. But when my team wins a major deal, we don’t just celebrate—we double down. Success begets success. So when we win a big deal, we want to make sure everyone (internal and external) knows about it, and we do whatever we can to make those deals as successful as possible. While not a panacea to startup variance, this approach enables us to better weather downtimes.
4. Stay the course when bad luck occurs.
Our life experience is the sum of outside influences plus what we can control. When bad luck hits, it’s important to acknowledge its presence but not deviate from your focus on what’s in your control. It’s important to evaluate whether the outcome was a result of bad luck versus a bad decision; you shouldn’t make major course corrections based on luck.
You might never have the luck of your best friend, your sibling or your colleague. That’s OK. Your happiness, relationships and professional success do not rely solely on luck, and when controlling for luck, your decisions are what matter. Sure, luck can help in some unexpected ways, but at the end of the day, it is rarely going to make or break you. With the right approach, you can manage luck like any tool in your toolbox to get closer to where you ultimately want to be.
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