What role, if any, does luck play on the road to success?  How much of our own luck do we make?  Are the Horatio Alger stories of success still possible?  Or is something holding us back?

Definition of Luck

 Luck is being in the right place at the right time, being able to ride the wave, being born to a good situation, a random meeting of someone who sets you on a path of good fortune – any of these elements over which we have no control.  The counter to good luck is misfortune.  Three quotes:

 “When I returned I realized that for everything under the sun, the race is not to the swiftest, nor the battle to the strongest, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill.  But time and chance happen to them all.  For humans also do not know their time: as fishes that are taken by an unkind net, and as the birds that are struck from the sky.  So do both the cream and the dregs of humankind become snared in an evil time when it suddenly falls upon them.” – Ecclesiastes, IX, 11 &12.

 “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken in the flood, leads on to fortune.” – William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

 “Some men are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” – William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night.

Examples to Consider

 Below are examples of some common situations.

Caswell’s Boards of Directors: Over the years, I have been on dozens of boards for both profit and not-for-profit organizations.  I have been instrumental many times in picking new board members based on their record of success.  Even more critical to me, board members for my own companies were chosen based on their past financial and business successes; I desperately hoped that their knowledge would rub off onto my organization.

The common result is that past success of these individuals did not necessarily translate to continued success.  It’s even worse than that.  Most of the individuals that I chose because they had been successful did not measure up at all.  I had to ‘fire’ or remove some of them from the boards before they caused too much damage.  It is not appropriate to be specific, but let me summarize as much as I can.

Personal Description Past Success Results with Me
Computer high tech founder Rapid growth, high public visibility Fired by me, after trying to steer us down an inappropriate path.
Information  technology co-founder Rapid growth, high profitability Continued to suggest hair-brained new concepts that distracted us from our main focus.
Aerospace firm founder High profile, darling of the media, amazing growth Almost caused the collapse of my firm by insisting on a course that proved inappropriate later.  Sulked like a child when he did not get his way.
Hotel magnate One of most prestigious hotel chains in North America Could not get off his duff to get things done.  All talk and no action.
Management guru High profile, respected around the world Broke many, if not most, of his own published prescriptions for success.

I can go on, and on. It’s embarrassing!

So the questions are:  Was their success due to chance and circumstance?  If it was skill, why couldn’t they repeat?  Today I have a more balanced board with a strong leaning towards common sense and, yet, in some cases, include a sterling history of success.

Musical Composers: How many rock successes are one-hit wonders or have to wait their time?  In the classical music field, one-hit wonders also abound: Litolff with his piano concerto, Addinsell with his Warsaw Concerto.   Many great composers rest their fame on one or two ‘hits’.  If they were bright enough and talented enough to compose a hit or two, why couldn’t they repeat the feat?  Poor Bizet wrote the world’s most popular opera, Carmen, only to see its opening panned in Paris; he never lived long enough to profit from its enormous success.

Stock Market Wizards:  I have witnessed the experiences of three personal acquaintances who each made a bundle on the stock market.  People would gather around them to pick up the right vibes and the advice that they willingly issued.  When these stock market friends tried investing again, they failed miserably and never again rose to the financial heights first obtained (and the hangers-on suffered with them).

 Public Business Successes:  The best-selling business book in the world, In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters, identified 43 companies as successful examples to emulate. The author picked the methods of these companies, describing the common characteristics for the readers to follow.  Five years later, 14 of those ‘successful’ examples no longer existed – so much for great business acumen.

Each year Fortune Magazine publishes a list of the top 500 companies in the world as measured by business success.  Five years later, 143 of them were missing.  This 25% to 30% drop off rate is typical. What happened to the brilliance, hard work and business cleverness of these firms?

After all, business and commercial enterprises have a history of hundreds of years.  Surely something could be learned in that period that would stick.  And, if not, why not?

A Personal Luck Story

For thirty years, I would see people hit it big in business while I struggled with my own enterprise, to achieving anemic results by comparison.  Upon meeting some of these successful people, I would discover that they were no more intelligent than me, no more aggressive and certainly could not have worked much harder than my 14 hours per day.  I concluded they had some ‘hidden’ talent or there was some mysterious force at work.  This focus on being successful, without a doubt, contributed to my many personal life failings.  By the time I was 50, I concluded that I was unlucky in life, in love and in business.

With time and persistence, my ship came in.  But only now do I realize how lucky I have been.

  1. I was born in Canada, free of war, famine and poverty. How much control did I have over that?  None.
  2. I was born reasonably intelligent and full of drive, allowing me to achieve things I could never have done without those traits. How much control did I have over innate personal characteristics?  None.  The intelligence and drive allowed me my modest successes that included ‘toys’ well beyond the average person’s; it included trips around the world on a continuing basis, and my ability to pick up languages easily.  It provided me with a large number of friends and acquaintances that I truly enjoyed being with.
  3. Best of all, I was born extraordinarily healthy. How can I claim responsibility for my health?  I didn’t work out, didn’t eat special diets.  Most of my friends of the same age group take medication and have some delicate body parts, while I continue to dance and jump like a teenager and haul 20 foot beams up to rooftops.  When the final die is cast, it is health that most people desire above all else.  I’ve got it.

 What’s Going On?

 My feeling is that success in life is derived from three main components:

Hard work:                    60%

Skills/intelligence           30%

Luck                             10%

(Luck, at any moment,  could account for up to 90%.)

Reality is that life is composed of hard work, talent and luck.  Observe how games such as Monopoly, poker, Risk and Scrabble combine both skill and luck, emulating life’s example – contributing, no doubt, to their immense popularity.

In Conclusion, What’s the Point?

 The reason for writing this paper is to afford advice to industrious people who may question their own lives against the current, popular standards of success and who may not be too pleased with what they find – as many are wont to do when they are younger.  Therefore:

  1. Don’t be discouraged with your own lack of success. Of course, take direction from lessons learned. But realize there are huge forces at play throughout life over which we have very little or no control.
  2. Keep your nose to the grindstone. Your intelligence and hard work will take you a long, long way and raise you above the crowd. So don’t give up on the assets that you have and can control.  Persistence will win over the long haul.  Cream does rise to the top.
  3. Do take care of your health. Mainly, listen to your body when it tells you it is sore, tired, uncomfortable or sick; then react right away.
  4. Select people as your guides, not only based on their history, but on your own assessment of their value. Trust your own judgment more than that of well meaning, or famous, others.

Work hard and have a good life.