Failed actors rarely give career advice. “The advice business is a monopoly run by survivors,” writes David McRaney of You Are Not So Smart. The chefs who failed don’t have a line out the door of their restaurant. The entrepreneurs who launched, failed, and didn’t try again don’t end up on the cover of Fast Company.
To McRaney, the problem with the stories of the super productive, super creative, and super successful is that they miss half the equation:
You must remind yourself that when you start to pick apart winners and losers, successes and failures, the living and dead, that by paying attention to one side of that equation you are always neglecting the other. If you are thinking about opening a restaurant because there are so many successful restaurants in your hometown, you are ignoring the fact the only successful restaurants survive to become examples. Maybe on average 90 percent of restaurants in your city fail in the first year. You can’t see all those failures because when they fail they also disappear from view. As Nassim Taleb writes in his book The Black Swan, “The cemetery of failed restaurants is very silent.”
While the survivors are very, very loud, as they supply neat narratives of How They Did It, the satisfying movement of cause and effect. If you (get up early/stay up late/network hard) you will be a great (entrepreneur/artist/writer). If you think that one input creates one output, you’re employing linear thinking, in a form of what Taleb calls the narrative fallacy, where we reduce the messiness of life into cleanly, consumable stories of how to live.
But success is nonlinear: we can’t know how something will turn out at its outset. Not even Google can predict how employees will perform at the point of hire. As David Lee observes, the savviest entrepreneurs cooperate with the unpredictability: when Jeff Bezos is talking about going down “blind alleys” that turn into “broad avenues,” he’s really talking about exploring unproven trajectories can yield high-flying business–like Amazon Web Services, the cloud arm that’s now eclipsing bookselling in sales.
You could say that Bezos is lucky, but it might be more accurate to say that he’s cooperating with chance.
Psychologist Richard Wiseman studies luck. Over a decade, he followed the lives of 400 subjects across professions who described themselves as lucky or unlucky. McRaney, again, provides a synopsis:
In one study, he asked subjects to look through a newspaper and count the number of photographs inside. The people who labeled themselves as generally unlucky took about two minutes to complete the task. The people who considered themselves as generally lucky took an average of a few seconds. Wiseman had placed a block of text printed in giant, bold letters on the second page of the newspaper that read, “Stop counting. There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.” Deeper inside, he placed a second block of text just as big that read, “Stop counting, tell the experimenter you have seen this and win $250.” The people who believed they were unlucky usually missed both.
So luck–in business and in life–isn’t something that happens to you, it’s something that you look out for, and in looking out for it, participate in the creation of.
How so? It’s your patterns of behavior–the actions and reactions you have with the events and people you interact with in life. Luck isn’t “magical,” Wiseman tells Skeptical Inquirer magazine, it’s “rational”: you can, with reason, better work with the weird, opaque, endlessly multifaceted probabilities that life presents us.
Wiseman, thankfully, has supplied us a cheatsheet for having a more productive relationship with chance. According to his research:
Lucky people maximize chance opportunities: They create, notice, and act on opportunities–like by meeting lots of people and being open to new experiences.
They listen to their hunches: And practices like meditation allow them to clear their mind of thoughts and act more quickly.
They expect good fortune: Anxiety precludes you from seeing possibilities, a calm optimism allows you to spot them.
And allow us to add a fourth: They’re resilient. The more funding you have, the more “runway” the startup has to “pivot” from. The more you’re determined that’s “it’s going to work,” the longer you’ll stick around until it does work. Grit predicts success. That success is born of courting serendipity.
Hat tip: Vianney Lecroart