Do you have to be lucky to succeed?

Is it the luck we get or how we react to it that matters?

Lucky Or Good

photo by Joshua Earle via Unsplash

“I’d rather to be lucky than good,” said storied Yankees legend, Vernon “Lefty” Gomez.

But is that true?

For years my son and I fell on opposite sides of the Lucky vs. Good Debate.

My view was that people who achieved great things did so, not only through talent, but through the clenched teeth and wrinkled brow of unrelenting effort and perseverance—literally willing themselves to succeed, even against the odds. I acknowledged luck as a factor but I weighed factors like hard work, ability, and dogged determination much more heavily.

My son discounted my view as overly dramatic and even romantic, preferring to explain the exploits of “great” people as having been greatly influenced by plain ‘ol luck.

It’s a fascinating question and how you choose to answer it may form the foundation for what you think is possible in your life, and how hard you think you should work for it.

I thought about some books and authors I’ve read that could shed some light on the issue.

For example, right now I’m listening to Jean Edward’s Smith, Eisenhower: In War and Peace and he makes it abundantly clear that good fortune smiled down on Eisenhower’s military career at crucial moments. Almost court-marshalled early in his career, and nearly marginalized and rendered irrelevant on numerous occasions, Smith cites Machiavelli’s notion of Fortuna (or luck) as having bailed out Eisenhower many times. Fortuna conspired to shape Eisenhower’s career and prepare him darn near perfectly for the trials and tribulations of his leadership of the stunningly complex Battle of Normandy in World War II; the key to prying continental Europe from the clutches of Nazi control.

This heavy-handed role of luck can also be appreciated when you read the magnificent 3-volume biography of Winston Spencer Churchill titled, The Last Lion. Bolstered by good fortune at times and suppressed during others, it seems Churchill was in the end put at the exact right place, at the exact right time to do what needed to be done. No other person on the planet could have managed it. Churchill was the man for the season and he got to that season (he was about 70 by then) by powerful strokes of good luck. Fortuna seemed always willing to conspire to keep the often reckless Churchill unscathed, going even as far as to  deflect the trajectory of bullets and yanking Churchill out of hopeless situations more than once. Churchill seemed impervious to physical harm and, remarkably, he knew it.

Some people, however, take a rationalist view of luck and suggest there’s no such thing, just the human brain (with its genius for storytelling) reaching fallacious conclusions when observing random events. “Luck is probability taken personally,” says Penn Jillete, of Penn & Teller fame.

Perhaps.

But my favorite take on all of this is by Jim Collins in his book Great by Choice. In it, he studies the impact of luck on great companies (those who had 10X better results than anyone else in their industry for a string of at least 15 years) and their comparison cases. Collins and his team found three interesting things: (1) There was an equitable distribution of bad luck and good luck events at 10X companies and their comparison cases (2) 10X companies were able to capitalize on their good luck events much more than their comparison companies and (3) 10X companies were able to learn from bad luck events, and in so doing, eventually improved their situation; the the comparison companies withered under similar circumstances.

Because of this, Collins warns us not to confuse luck with Return on Luck. We will all experience good luck and bad luck events, he would argue, but that’s not the critical question for you. The crux of the matter is how well prepared you are to create a High Return On Luck.

I also like Collins’ focus on dynastic eras of success for his analysis. His study looks at companies who create remarkable success for decades, not just a few years. This wide angle lens of time is critical, especially in the context of evaluating the impact of luck in our lives, which is only clearly visible in hindsight or from a great distance.

The concept of return on luck largely explains the successes of people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, but also the examples I cited of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

President Eisenhower, for example, had to endure the horrible loss of his beloved first born child. Doud Dwight Eisenhower, “Icky” as he was lovingly nicknamed, died quarantined in a hospital at the age of 3. Though a devastating blow that left a permanent scar (and threatened his marriage) Eisenhower was able to endure and persevere, and continue working.

Churchill for his part suffered setbacks too. In WWI he was publicly humiliated (though largely unfairly) for his insistence on a strike though the Dardanelle’s which he believe would result in the decisive blow that would end the war. The 1916 campaign flopped and he resigned his post as Lord of the Admiralty as a result. Later, in the 1930’s, Churchill, the consummate civil servant, was by then persona non grata; out of government; out of power and dwelling in the political wilderness. Yet Churchill never stopped doing his homework. He persevered and studied the moves of both Hitler and the Nazis as well as his own government. Though he was out of formal power, he used his influence to stay in the know and admonish the British government for it’s unpreparedness for the coming Nazi storm. When the storm finally did arrive, Churchill was largely considered to be the only man for the job.

That’s what I would call Return on Luck—finding ways to capitalize on the good and the bad that comes our way.

Perhaps we should revise Lefty Gomez’ words and say that, “I’d rather be Lucky AND Good.”

As Jim Collins suggests in chapter two of Great by Choice, we should probably heed Roald Amundsen’s words:

Victory awaits him who has everything in order—luck people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.

So yes, maybe luck is an important factor. And depending on your faith, perhaps this is due to God’s will, cosmic design and/or destiny. Whatever it is, one thing is not under dispute, we have considerable ability to respond to the cards we’re dealt, whether good or bad.

It behooves us to respond as wisely as possible. Our behavior, after all is said and done, is the only thing we can fully control.