Lucky or Good0
By Frank J. Rich
Most of us are familiar with the now famous line from the movie “Dirty Harry” in which Clint Eastwood’s character asks of his nemesis, “Feeling lucky? Go ahead, make my day!” Simple enough — Harry was itching for a fight (as was his wont), ready to do the deed and fully prepared to pull the trigger and fulfill his death wish. But what was Harry really asking as he posited the notion kindling in the mind of his adversary?
The Patriots were an exceptional team for most of the season. Their opponents were unprepared for a team that could execute so well and with the resolve and confidence uncommon to most. Then the tables turned. The Patriots played poorly in the last 5 games of the regular season and playoffs, including the Super Bowl. What happened? Simply, they were unprepared for teams that rose to the level of their play, teams that devised ways to penetrate their system and break it down.
Were the Patriots lucky to have gone 18-0? Were the Giants lucky to have beaten an undefeated (presumably unbeatable) team? How do we know? Let’s examine the tenets of luck to answer the question.
The Model of Luck
Luck is defined as “the arbitrary distribution of events or outcomes, something that seems to happen by chance rather than as a logical consequence.” It is clear by this definition that “luck” is a circumstantial mechanism, and one that owes its magniloquence to a propitious ordering of the stars. We know the feeling. We walk out of a difficult meeting and onto the street and there on the sidewalk is a $50 bill just waiting to brighten our day. We call this “dumb luck.” There’s not much that we had to do with it; we just happened to be where the $50 bill was at that precise moment, and we saw it before another.
Perhaps, in the moments or hours that follow we will hold on to the feeling of euphoria that good fortune improvises. It may even raise our level of contribution to greater heights than we have known before or might have been achieved had not good fortune met with us on the sidewalk.
But there is another kind of luck, the one that so many businesses refer to when they begin an initiative that the market takes to. The iPod may be an example. The response to it was nothing short of spectacular. On the other hand, how did Apple, Inc. arrive at this extraordinary success? Remember the Newton—innovative, but bulky, slow, and with the brain of a mouse (no pun intended)? Then there is its progenitor, Steven Jobs—he, impugned of ignominy despite his founding of this creative and genius computer products company. Next, Inc. was next (no less creative), a failure, then, Pixar, a success. And a return home finally, just for the fun of it at $1 a year.
The iPod is an MP3 player like so many. Was it that good, or was it luck? Was it that different from all the rest? How? Luck, again? The iPhone is the same script. And then, the MacPro Air and the iPad Air. Just another computer, right? Just more luck? Or “not”!
It is said that luck is the intersection of preparation and opportunity. The math looks like this:
Preparation + Opportunity = Luck
If luck is where preparation meets opportunity and it is something we can influence, why don’t we work harder at creating it? Perhaps, it’s because we haven’t spent a moment to study it, to learn what it really is.
Some say “I’d rather be lucky than good.” It means that if someone wants to toss us the keys to the kingdom, we’ll gladly catch them in the air. But then, why do we go to school, honor the so-called Protestant ethic of hard work, suffer through the failure of 92% of the businesses that start each year? We go to school, work hard, and suffer loss to prepare ourselves for success. We know that we learn from doing, that we can’t know success until we fail, and that giving up sacrifices opportunity. So we persevere, preparing ourselves in excellence, in the hope that we get lucky. Excellence, we have learned from Thomas Edison, is formed of 2% inspiration and 98% perspiration. Excellence, we are told, comes from an average of 10,000 hours of practice before realized. Ask a concert pianist. Being “good,” as it turns out may produce more luck than happenchance.
Inspiration (2%) + Perspiration (98%) = Success
Luck is often made of the following:
- Limited Crisis—when things could have been worse, but aren’t.
- Circumstances—good ones that just worked out that way.
- Unexpected Help—someone says, “Boy, you look like you could use some help. What can I do for you?”
Good is often made of these:
- Training—skills and knowledge acquired over time and from intensive study.
- Preparation—a disciplined approach to things.
- Readiness—the competence that is obtained from the previous two.
- Willingness—that quality of resourcefulness that won’t quit, even when all around you do.
- Pride—that sense of the value in oneself that drives excellence.
- Quality—the notion that doing things well produces better, less costly results.
Being good may be the banner ad of the ego, but it contributes one very important thing to an ultimate outcome; it allows us to have influence over it. In doing so, we construct a model of behavior that is more repeatable, more controllable, and more successful than that which relies on chance alone. Being good may require something more of us than a hopeful attitude (a good thing), and it may be just the elixir that separates us from the crowd and raises the odds in our favor. Being “good” may be just the “preparation” that produces “luck.”