Some people have all the luck. They hop from one successful job to the next, they know all the right people, their bets always pay off, and even when they fail, it’s only ever in an upward direction. Luck is their superpower, and then there’s everyone else.
But according to Barnaby Marsh, a founding partner at Saint Partners and former visiting scholar at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, luck isn’t a superpower and has little to do with, well, luck. People aren’t lucky because random chance always breaks their way — or they don’t stay lucky that way for long. Persistent luck only builds when people situate themselves strategically to life’s uncertainties.
“Some people are a lot luckier than others because they understand, either implicitly or explicitly, how luck happens and how luck works,” Marsh said. He adds that such people are more often prepared, well-positioned, and better engaged to take advantage of good luck when it strikes.
To lean on the obvious metaphor, it’s not how lucky people blow on the dice. It’s that they understand the game’s rules and use that information to bet accordingly before the dice are even in their hands.
So, how do you ensure you aren’t betting the hard way? Marsh offers four methods you can use to make your own luck.
Get out there to be noticed
Opportunity generates luck, but lucky people don’t wait for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to come their way. They seek out many opportunities and then utilize the ones that best fit their skills and present situation. They get out there, build networks, and share their talents with other people.
“To the casual observer, it will look like luck is just falling out of the sky,” Marsh said. “But in fact, it’s an intentional process of getting out and becoming known for what you’re good at so that others can notice and engage.”
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Consider successful politicians. They maintain extensive networks that connect them to charities, businesses, associations, and public services. These connections give them opportunities in the form of support, resources, information, and potential projects. True, in politics such networks may be prefabricated by a successful parent or doting mentor. (The Bush and Kennedy families are proof that sometimes in life, it’s not what you know but who your father knows.)
But whether these networks were hardwon or inherited, they demonstrate a strong link between getting out there and finding opportunities.
Focus on outcomes, not events
When contemplating the life stories of the lucky, there’s a danger of taking the wrong lesson: that being that a lucky break in the person’s life made all the difference. But luck isn’t catalyzed by a single event. It stems from how people harness that opportunity.
“Different outcomes in our lives can have consequences that affect us detrimentally or positively,” Marsh said. “So many areas of life where we think we might be lucky might lead to consequences that aren’t lucky. And sometimes, things that happen to us where we think we’re not lucky actually lead to an abundance of luck.”
For example, winning the lottery. Focus on the event itself, and the lottery winner seems quite lucky. They beat huge odds and, for a measly six numbers, won a jackpot north of nine figures.
But some lottery winners didn’t position themselves to take advantage of that luck. They squandered their opportunity, and their stories ended in tragedy. They blew their millions, lost their relationships, and in some cases, ended up in worse debt than before. (Though, for the record, one study found that most lottery winners report greater life satisfaction.)
“It depends on the outcome. It depends on how well luck is used to create other luck going forward,” Marsh pointed out.
Luck isn’t a zero-sum game.Barnaby Marsh
Minimize your risk
Wayne Gretzky once said, “You will miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” Fair enough, but it’s worth putting the Great One’s aphorism in context. Gretzky didn’t become a hockey legend because he took wild shots from center ice. His success was built on making strategic plays that maximized his team’s chance of scoring.
That’s true of luck-makers, too. They don’t take all-or-nothing risks and hope for the best. Rather than let come what may, they control what they can, minimize their exposure to downside risk, and make sure there’s a plan B (and a plan C if necessary).
“Successful risk-takers make sure that if a risk doesn’t work out, there’s not a catastrophic effect,” Marsh said. “They’re able to diversify the effects of taking that risk.”
Marsh analogizes the tactic to a slot machine. The extraordinarily lucky don’t just pull the lever and hope for three cherries. They line up as many cherries as they can in advance and only pull the lever for those cherries outside of their control. And in life, unlike in a casino, this strategy isn’t cheating but the most effective way to play the game.
Be generous with your luck
As mentioned, lucky people look for many opportunities and then utilize the ones that best suit their needs. But they don’t let those unused opportunities lie fallow. They spread their luck around by sharing them with others.
“The more luck you can make for yourself, the more luck you can make for others,” Marsh noted.
This creates a feedback mechanism. In the hands of the right people, those opportunities grow and mature. This creates more opportunities that can be passed on to even more people. In time, the compounding opportunity will likely come back around to all those connected in the network. Luck is the coin of the realm, and a small investment today can grow to have outsized returns tomorrow.
“We say, ‘Luck isn’t a zero-sum game,’” Marsh concludes. “There’s plenty of [it] to go around.”