Being lucky is at least as important as being great
Venture Capitalist and lucky man Bill Tai shared a great article from Scientific American today, “The Role of Luck In Life Success Is Far Greater Than We Realized”. As one of the research studies in the article concludes, it’s better to be moderately-talented-but-lucky than it is to be the-most-talented-but-unlucky.
I’ve been moderately talented (at best) but definitely lucky. I’ve greatly benefited from a series of lucky outcomes, where I’ve happened to be in the right place and time, knowing the right people, with either the right skills or the ability to persuade someone influential that I have enough of the skills and will quickly acquire the others.
I haven’t even always picked the right place and the right time voluntarily — on more than one occasion I would have been standing someplace else if I’d had any choice. And the single biggest win in my career came through a mistake I made in basic arithmetic. Yes, even dyscalculia can be lucky.
Are you skilled at acknowledging your talents?
Skill is just learning how to do something better. Talent is just being better-than-average at something before you develop a skill, and continuing to be better than something when everybody else has developed their skill. Talent gives you a persistent edge on everyone else who has developed their skill.
We won’t all get to find a way to benefit meaningfully from all of our talents, even if it’s possible that we’re the very best in the world at that thing. But exploiting the value of your talent begins with having enough self-awareness to be able to identify your own talent, or to be ready to accept the feedback of other people when they observe that you exhibit a talent.
If knowing you have a talent is the first step, the second step is deciding to explore the opportunities to benefit from your talent.
That takes creativity — most talents have less value when the rest of the world has already figured out how to benefit from that talent. You might have an extraordinary talent for making a stick connect to a ball mid-air, but so what? So have a gazillion other people who are going to be your more experienced, more skilled competitors in baseball, golf and tennis. Finding a new way to exploit your talents is the key, so that you can develop your skills in your own way and then have less competition when it’s time to deploy your talent.
That also takes courage. My friend Chanie has just been shortlisted for an all-expenses-paid international trip to compete in an extreme eating competition. She didn’t just realise she was good at eating huge quantities of hard-to-eat foods quickly, she was brave enough to step outside society’s cultural norms of female behaviour (ladies aren’t meant to be gluttons) and see if she could create a name for herself in the field of competitive extreme eating. Exploiting talent often requires that you step away from the well-trodden path everybody else is taking towards a conventional education, career and life path.
How to be more lucky
Exploiting your talents requires stepping away from the crowd, and fortunately, when you step away from the crowd, it makes you more lucky.
Imagine a big crowd of a hundred people standing on a football field. Now imagine that at random times, footballs with a million dollars in them are going to fall from the sky, and whoever manages to touch a football in the first three seconds gets an equal share of the money.
A lot of people will stand where everybody else is standing, and because most people’s poor understanding of probability will mean that group will cluster in the middle of the field.
Everyday life is when the ball lands in the middle of that big group. Luck is when the ball lands right in the hands of someone standing way out on their own.
In a big group, the stronger and faster group members have a better chance of touching a football, so the distribution of cash will be uneven, but a million dollars split among 20 people doesn’t make that much difference to anybody’s whole life unless they’re living in poverty*.
In the community you live in, footballs of money are actually landing all the time, in the form of people’s wages, investment returns, retirement fund payouts, tax refunds, lottery winnings, etc, but they ususally get spread out thinly too quickly to see, or they are drawn down on slowly.
But if one person standing out on the edge of the field catches a ball and they’re the only one to touch it for three seconds, it’s theirs to keep. A million dollars can change most people’s lives permanently (excluding the top 1% of the world’s population for whom a million dollars is going to make no difference).
If you’re standing in the middle of the crowd and you see Chanie way out there by herself, and then she catches a ball, what’s your explanation going to be? “She was lucky.”
Luck never falls in the middle of the crowd.
One day, like me, you might get pushed out of the crowd and off to a lonely corner, forced to survive on the creative application of your talents. Or like Chanie, you might develop the courage to walk out across the field to stand alone despite what the crowd thinks of you.
If you want to be lucky, you’ve got to stand away from the crowd, and get comfortable with people thinking you’re crazy standing out there alone.
*This is a metaphor and metaphors are never perfect. I know in many countries, a million dollars in a first-world currency would make a huge difference to 20 people. So assume the money in the football is local currency, assume the football is whatever kind of football is played in that country, assume it’s literally a level playing field, and the crowd of people are drawn at random from all races, classes and economic strata. I worry more about how I’m going to make a football filled with money magically appear in the air above the field without anybody hearing or seeing it coming!