On the NPR podcast, “How I Built This,” host Guy Raz interviews successful entrepreneurs about how they built their business. One question he asks everyone is how much of their achievement can be attributed to luck versus knowledge, skills, or perseverance. The answers vary, but one response in particular stuck with me. Kevin Systrom, the co-founder of Instagram, said,
“I have this thesis that the world runs on luck. Everyone gets lucky for some amount in their life. And the question is, are you alert enough to know you’re being lucky or you’re becoming lucky? Are you talented enough to take that advantage and run with it and do you have enough grit, do you have enough resilience to stay with it when it gets hard?”
He goes on to explain that everyone gets lucky in minimal ways all the time. You may find a dollar on the ground or catch a break at work and be placed on an important project. What sets successful people apart, he argues, is they have the optimism to acknowledge their luck and capitalize on it.
There is no doubt that the founders of Instagram are highly skilled, hard-working, and resilient entrepreneurs. But their success, as they admit, is due in large part to the chance that they were in the right place at the right time to start their company right at the moment of a technological shift outside of their control. It was the first time in history that people were carrying powerful devices for capturing the world in their pockets at all times. Plus, the quality of cameras on phones was catching up with that of point and shoot cameras. Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger were lucky enough to meet each other in college and lucky enough to get along well enough to collaborate after school at the same time as this technological shift. Not to mention the luck involved of being born into families and favorable environments that supported their education and enabled them to attend Stanford.
Kevin and Mike say that luck accounted for about 50% of their success. This may not be an inaccurate estimate, given a recent study reported on in Scientific American suggesting that luck and opportunity may play a far greater role in success than we might realize. The report cites the work of risk analyst Nassim Taleb, investment strategist Michael Mauboussin, and economist Robert Frank in suggesting that – when looking at fields such as financial trading, business, sports, art, music, and literature – we miss out on an important piece of what makes people successful if we focus only on personal characteristics.
In an attempt to quantify the role of luck in success, a group of Italian researchers conducted a study that simulated the evolution of careers of hypothetical individuals with differing degrees of talent. In the study, talented individuals were given traits such as intelligence, skill, motivation, determination, creative thinking, emotional intelligence, etc. What they found is that “mediocre-but-lucky people were much more successful than more-talented-but-unlucky individuals.” The most successful individuals were only slightly above average in talent, but significantly above average luck.
The economist Robert Frank argues that these findings may have troubling consequences. In an article in The Atlantic, Frank contends that the luckiest individuals are the least likely to appreciate their good fortune. He supports this by citing surveys showing that wealthy people “overwhelmingly attribute their own success to hard work rather than factors like luck or being in the right place at the right time.” Frank goes on to offer more evidence showing that those who discount the role of luck in their success end up being less generous and public-spirited, while those who appreciate the role of luck in their lives are much more willing to contribute to the common good.
However, the simple act of gratitude – of recognizing, focusing on, and appreciating our own luck – may increase our generosity and sense of wellbeing. Frank cites studies showing that “newly grateful” individuals – those who were prompted to undergo gratitude exercises – were 25% more generous to strangers than the control group. Additionally, recognizing our luck and practicing gratitude for our fortune leads to significantly positive physical and psychological changes within us that may increase our luck even more.
The philosophy of Kevin and Mike together with these academic findings present a reassuring scenario. Personally, I enjoy the affirmation that I have agency in my life. Knowing that my hard work and perseverance contribute to my success certainly helps get me out of bed in the morning (that and a hungry and crying six-month old baby). This understanding gives me the drive and perseverance to cultivate creative thinking, develop emotional intelligence, and improve my skillset so that I am prepared to take advantage of any fortuitous opportunities. I’m also reminded that I’m an extremely lucky individual. I’m reminded to be grateful for the good fortune of being born where and when I was, for the education afforded to me, and for the countless chance encounters and fortuitous opportunities I’ve been lucky enough to experience. I’m reminded, even, to be grateful for the bad luck in my life, without which I wouldn’t have learned valuable, behavior-changing lessons. Finally, the presence, self-awareness, and optimism that is required to know that you’re becoming lucky and understand how to capitalize on that luck, is a worthy characteristic to strive for.
With that, I wish you all good luck!