When we observe the lives of people who lead great careers, there are a few patterns at play: hard work, paying dues, knowing the right people, massive failures, and grit, to name a few. But there’s one element that is the most difficult to grasp, and it seems to have a profoundly powerful role in shaping one’s destiny: luck.
Clifford Pickover, in This Will Make You Smarter, explained that most discoveries and inventions were never really achieved by one single person, and the person who received recognition for it was simply lucky.
When we examine discoveries in science and mathematics, in hindsight we often find that if one scientist did not make a particular discovery, some other individual would have done so within a few months or years of the discovery. Most scientists, as Newton said, stood on the shoulders of giants to see the world just a bit farther along the horizon. Often, several people create essentially the same device or discover the same scientific law at about the same time, but for various reasons, including sheer luck, history sometimes remembers only one of them.
Can you imagine the deflating feeling of knowing that you were onto something great, but someone either across town or across the pond shipped something similar and got the recognition for it—recognition that fundamentally changed the course of their work and life?
The pioneering psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention, captures the essential element of luck in a career. His insight is based on hundreds of interviews with some of the most successful scientists and artists [emphasis mine]:
Entering a career requires a great deal of determination and a good dose of luck. In fact, the majority of the people we interviewed mentioned luck most frequently as the reason they had been successful. Being in the right place at the right time and meeting the right people are almost necessary to take off within a field.
Csikszentmihalyi also describes the opportunities afforded to women because of World War II:
Almost all of the women scientists of the generation we interviewed mentioned that without World War II it would probably have been impossible for them to get graduate training, fellowships, postdoctoral positions, and faculty appointments. But because so many men were fighting in the war, and professors needed graduate student-assistants, these women were grudgingly admitted into higher education. When Rosalyn Yalow was accepted to Illinois as a graduate student in physics in 1941, she was the second female—the previous women having matriculated in 1917. ‘They had to make a war so that I could go into graduate school,’ she said.
When I began writing, the craft was going through a radical change with blogs, independent authors, and platforms like Amazon’s self-publishing; it was dissolving the roadblocks that had existed for years created by large entities and gatekeepers. It dawned on me nearly a year into studying the craft that writing was not what most people believed it to be. The establishment said that writing was for the gifted few who had novels inside of them, patiently awaiting large book deals that would provide a firm safety net and the opportunity to produce more books. Sadly, people are still prone to believe that this is the only path of a writing career.
As much as I believe in the fortune of luck, as I have witnessed it unfold in my own career, I also wholeheartedly believe in the other pieces of the equation: hard work, humility, relentless learning, meeting new people, being of service, starting and shipping projects, learning new skills, grit, and more. Without the development of these other aspects, you won’t be prepared to take luck by the hand when it comes your way.
Designer Carin Goldberg—known for her book cover designs for authors like Kurt Vonnegut and Susan Sontag—said to Debbie Millman in How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer that she viewed her career like flounder fishing. It’s an interesting analogy that considers the intimate duality of luck and hard work. She starts by retelling a childhood memory [emphasis mine]:
“When I was little, I used to go fishing with my father. He was an outdoorsman, and we used to go out to the Long Island Sound in a little boat. We’d put our rods out, and we would hope that we would hit big pockets of flounder. And sometimes you would hit them, and sometimes you wouldn’t.
And that’s how I think of my career. I hit some flounder holes. I hit the record business at a time when flounders were there for me. I hit the book business at a time when flounders were there for me.
I was very lucky to find these flounder holes, these moments of utter fertility. I was lucky. Lucky to be there, while it was all happening. But after the luck, there was all the hard work. That’s the part that makes me just absolutely livid, when I hear men talking about women and their careers. In my own career, I had to be as tenacious as a dog with a bone.
I made sure I was observing and watching and looking over the shoulders of the right people and learning from them and killing myself to learn everything I could. So my career has been about luck and hard work.”
What does luck have to do with a great career? A whole lot. But before luck can find you, you’ll have to put in the time to cultivate hard work, humility, constant learning and discovery, exploration, failure, and above all, enjoying the process.