What’s Luck Got to Do With Breakout Success

I enjoy putting together a once-a-year panel of successful entrepreneurs for the Pune OpenCoffee Club. This year’s panel was posed an interesting question. Someone from the audience asked “What role do you think luck has had to play in your success?” There are two extreme perspectives that one might take. These were relatively young entrepreneurs, each one having distinctive achievements early on in their lives. On one hand, was the surprise breakout success each one had had. On the other hand, each one’s struggle was undeniably real. While each one of them listed the ingredients of their success, none of them mentioned luck. The audience on the other hand didn’t immediately believe that the panelists weren’t favored in any way.

Tom Preston-Werner, Cofounder at GitHub has one way of looking at luck (from his talk at Startup School 2010 “Optimizing for Happiness“). As an entrepreneur’s wits get sharper with time (or hungrier, if you must) the way he looks at luck is both what he can control and what he can’t control. It’s both you and this constant we can’t change. He might not be able to control if someone will invest in him, but he can control if he will choose to invest in himself.

Tom’s journey began with that choice. He relates that he asked himself “Should I seek permission to build GitHub from an Investor? Or build it anyway?” He’s shared other choices in a similar fashion, including picking a big idea, moving to San Francisco, bootstrapping his company, giving Gravatar away to WordPress, choosing his cofounders, giving autonomy to his employees, deciding on an office space and so on.

In hindsight, I do agree with Tom that luck does have a role to play whether good things will happen to you or not. Before luck swings your way you cannot know for certain when it will strike. With that in mind it’d be foolish to assume that you can cease stacking the odds. Pick the objectives that you believe are right (or as Tom says, optimize on happiness) and keep at it. Learn to get better at recognizing what needs to be in your favor and its role in your eventual success. Interacting with a peer-circle of successful and experienced entrepreneurs is one way to stay sharp.

As Tom recommends, stop waiting on Luck and start acting on key decisions proactively. Then you have a real choice from day zero and a better chance of picking up on favorable winds.