You Can’t Control Your Luck — But You Can Control How You Respond to It
Article by Greg McBeth
From the moment you are born, you possess a certain amount of luck, depending on your parents, your family’s social and financial situation, your native homeland, and your health. Yes, your good or bad fortune throughout life is guided in part by conditions over which you have no control. Understanding the role of luck in your life, and how to take advantage of whatever luck you have, is a critical component of maximizing your success.
If you find it a little New Age-y or counterproductive to devote brainpower to the notion of luck, rest assured you aren’t alone. But you should also know the even scientifically minded researchers have thought long and hard about luck.
For instance, biochemist Ohid Yaqub was offered $1.7 million to study serendipity as it pertains to scientific discoveries. Yaqub found that while serendipity is, of course, a matter of chance, it can be subtly encouraged through actions like “controlled sloppiness” — that is, “allowing unexpected events to occur while tracking their origins.”
Still, from a career perspective, that means you could end up with a negative outcome even after doing everything right. For example, another study concluded that luck plays a huge part in helping untalented performers get ahead of more talented ones. In fact, the economists behind the study concluded that “the most talented individuals were rarely the most successful. In general, mediocre-but-lucky people were much more successful than more-talented-but-unlucky individuals.”
But before you decide to put all your faith in fate, remember that your day-to-day decisions still affect your 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 an early startup 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 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 reaction to this situation is your only chance to turn that bad luck into an opportunity. Luck can change on a dime, but chutzpah and a lot of hard work are your best ways to minimize the impact of misfortune on your life.
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 landed speaking gigs and launched 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 allowing a short-term derailment to ruin your momentum.
Sure, bad luck can ruin or even end a person’s life. For most of us, however, it’s a bump in the road that can be managed with the right attitude and response.
Strategies for Turning Your Luck Around
You can’t make your own luck, but you can make the most of whatever luck you have. Try these four strategies:
1. Work Hard and Work Smart
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 choices for the right reasons.
In my first sales job, I was assigned a territory with a single global account. The year prior to my joining the company, this account had undergone a huge merger, and as a result, it hit nearly 350 percent of quota. The team made a killing.
Unfortunately, the quota was increased to that inflated mark when I joined the team — but without another merger, the odds of reaching that quota (and the subsequent commission) were 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 colleagues and build the relationships required to move into a new, better territory the following year.
Regardless of what your luck is, always ask yourself, “What course of action makes sense right now?” Work with your team members — including those more senior than you — 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 identify the difference between bad luck and a bad decision. The distinction can be hazy, but you can often distinguish between the two by asking 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 likely that you made a bad decision.
When I was a 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 bad luck and come out on top in the long run.
3. Capitalize on the Gift of Good Luck
It matters how you deal with bad luck, but understanding how to capitalize on good luck is just as important. Winning can feel great, but it can easily become problematic if it is driven more by luck than good decision-making.
When a major life event goes your way, it’s important to enjoy that success without resting on your laurels. Take advantage of what good fortune brings you, knowing that it can be an effective buffer against the bad luck that will eventually come your way.
As a business leader at a tech startup, I face a lot of challenges. Markets shift, competitors rise and fall unexpectedly, and product bugs occasionally rear their heads. When my team wins a major deal, we don’t just celebrate — we double down. Success begets success. When we win, we 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 the down times.
4. Stay the Course When Bad Luck Occurs
When bad luck hits, it’s important to acknowledge its presence without taking your focus off of the things within your control. It’s important to evaluate whether the outcome was a result of bad luck or 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 okay. Your happiness, relationships, and professional success do not rely solely on luck. When controlling for luck, your decisions are what matter.
Sure, luck can help in some unexpected ways, but with the right approach, you can manage luck like any tool in your toolbox to get closer to where you ultimately want to be.
A version of this article originally appeared on SUCCESS.com.
Greg McBeth is the head of revenue at Node.io, the first AI-infused discovery engine that identifies relevant, personalized opportunities for people and companies. Prior to his work with Node, Greg led sales and business strategy at several startups. He graduated from Stanford University in 2004 with a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering. When he isn’t working, Greg can be found playing poker, attending Giants games, enjoying wine and plant-based eating, and advocating for social and political causes he cares about.