Living in Las Vegas, I have had the pleasure of seeing planes full of young men and women eagerly waiting to embrace the gambling-centric city of chance. I last overheard a group of young men excitedly planning their latest roulette strategies or blackjack methods in the hopes of winning big and going home wealthy. Everyone wants to get lucky and grab the tiger by the tail. In seeing this phenomenon so frequently I often wondered about the role of luck in our lives.
Are we destined to be blindly guided by the winds of fortune or are we in control? I’ll try to explain how modern individuals tend to view luck and how this drastically differed some 500 years ago. Finally, I’ll provide examples that show how a mature understanding of luck can positively impact our lives and make us more successful.
Modern luck - The lonely sailor analogy
Imagine that you are stranded in the middle of the ocean in a raft with a massive sail. Without a paddle you are at the mercy of the high winds. It may lead you to land, but it may also leave you stranded with no end in sight. You just sit in agony and hope that the universe will blow you in the right direction. Whatever your outcome, you only have luck to blame or praise.
Most people tend to view luck in this analogous way - that is, good and bad things happen according to chance and we have to just adapt while praying for the better. This is especially true with millennials that have a highly external frame of reference for interpreting reality. Your frame of reference is determined based on whether you interpret events that happen to you on the basis of your actions or through outside forces that you cannot control.
The lonely sailor analogy therefore presents us with a “version” of luck that is based on complete chance outside of our control.
Spinning the Wheel of Fortune
Such interpretations of luck are prevalent in our society. Consider one of the best morning time game shows on television, The Price is Right. During the showcase showdown contestants must spin the big wheel and hope that it lands right on or below $1.00. This game is based almost entirely on chance and epitomizes how luck is often times viewed - we spin a wheel and wait for the results. Consider the expressions on peoples' faces while they are waiting for it to land. It's a symbol of not having any control and suffering with intense internal anxiety - the same anxiety that many of us share in our own lives.
Unfortunately, many people don’t realize that a chance dominant view of luck is a modern marvel. It wasn't always like that and it's possible to change it through positive thoughts and a different outlook.
Medieval Luck - A force to master
Centuries ago, our ancestors had a view of luck that was much more favored towards being skill based and thus controlled. Luck wasn’t something that was arbitrary, it was a force that you had to master based on your actions and continued proactive involvement. In chapter 25 of The Prince (1513), Niccolo Machiavelli devoted lots of time to explaining how luck operates. Chance was seen as just one contributing factor of luck:
“Fortune may be the arbiter of one half of our actions, but she still leaves us the other half, or perhaps a little less, to our free will.” -Niccolo Machiavelli
Machiavelli further noted that we must be proactive in building shields and defenses against bad fortune. The main point of his assessment was that we have some degree of control over luck.
Climbing the Wheel of Fortune
If you recall the earlier example (and image) of the wheel of fortune, it represented a case where the person plays a passive role while waiting for fortune to determine outcomes. Now consider the wheel of fortune as something that you climb. The image below is a woodcut from John Lydgate’s The Falls of Princes (c1400) that depicts him pondering the role of luck (and life).
Take careful notice of the important theme of luck that is personified. The princes are climbing the wheel of fortune with their own efforts and as some get to the top (good luck), others are falling below (bad luck). In this scenario, luck is clearly depicted as something that you actively try and control and influence. There are winners and losers, perhaps it’s even a zero-sum game as the woodcut depicts.
Nonetheless, it’s clear that older writers, thinkers, and artists had a different conception of luck than we do today. Good luck required awareness of it, proactive involvement, and pragmatic planning.
Constructing a chance/skill ratio
It is important to craft a realistic definition of luck in order to better understand how we can master it accordingly. Michael Mauboussin published a Huffington Post article that tackled this very issue by noting how different events are governed by chance and skill in different ratios. The amount of chance involved with a given outcome highly depends on whether we have control over it. For example, the table below shows sample chance/skill ratios for common things in life:
Influence of chance/skill on sample activities
While this sample table isn’t meant to be definitive or precise, it does show us that we have varying degrees of control over things.
Changing your luck
Now, the modern version of luck will influence us to take these calculations as they are and simply cross our fingers for the best. The critical difference between the medieval version of luck and the modern one is that the chance/skill ratios are dynamic and can be altered to improve your odds. Odds are improved by focusing energy and action into things you can control, or your sphere of influence.
Take the “being on time” example. Let’s begin with a ratio of 80% based on skill and 20% based on chance. Starting off, you have a high degree of control. Let’s take it a step further with additional actions we can take to impact our “chance” of being on time by examining our sphere of influence.
By taking steps like the ones listed in the first column above we have improved our odds and “changed our luck” to reflect much stronger odds of success at a given outcome.
Dealing with good/bad luck
Now that we know how to impact outcomes and improve our chances, let’s see how we can apply this to the business world and our lives in general. As fortune is a two-sided coin we have to be able to account for both good and bad instances of chance. In doing so we can prevent disaster while taking advantage of ripe opportunities that we didn’t know existed.
Business networking on steroids
For my job I have periods where I travel quite a bit. It’s a relatively mundane experience for me: travel to the location, check into hotel, do work at hotel, attend meeting, go out and socialize, go home, repeat. Unfortunately, this workflow impacted my ability to network because I am naturally introverted and usually too tired to go out and make the effort to socialize after a long day.
I sought to improve my odds of meeting other business professionals in various fields. To do this, I made the change from staying at hotels to using AirBnB for my travels. With AirBnB, other people rent out their homes/rooms on a website where users are verified, screened, and rated. I looked for entrepreneurs offering rooms for rent and went on trips with the intent of networking actively.
Sure enough, during my first AirBnB business trip to San Francisco I met a CTO from a mobile app company (Snaapiq) and a pilot from New Zealand. I still have these friendships today and they have given me social and intellectual value that I would not as likely have gained without AirBnB.
In this scenario, I increased my affinity for good luck by changing my travel routines and conventions. While I don’t always meet someone interesting, I have improved my odds tremendously, making my own luck in that regard.
Creation provision through planning
If you are like me, you fear bad luck and want to avoid it as much as possible. My company recently encountered some back luck during a downpour in Las Vegas where we lost full internet connectivity to our office. Being an online services company, this was catastrophic as no one in the office was able to work and we were losing money by the minute. We scrambled to find a solution but ended up being confronted with the fact that we handled it poorly and did not plan accordingly.
In my post-hoc reflection I realized that I could not control the weather or the uptime of our internet service provider (ISP). These factors were out of our control. So, I asked our IT Administrator to craft a robust solution with the following request: “Please make sure this NEVER happens again.” We wanted to make sure that employees were always able to access the internet and continue workflow of core business processes.
Sure enough, he came back to me with a plan that was truly remarkable. The IT Admin created a comprehensive redundancy plan that reduced our chances of internet downtime almost completely. Take a look below:
Layer 1 - Primary Internet Provider: We have one ISP that provides internet connectivity.
Layer 2 - Secondary Internet Provider: Since we were lucky enough to have ISP options, we signed up with a second provider and installed a Dual-WAN router that easily switched between one wireless connection or the other in the case of a failure.
Layer 3 - Wireless Network Hotspot (via cell service carrier): If both internet connections went down then we could turn to our new wireless hotspot. Since this connection is served via satellite, any local disruptions would be meaningless.
Layer 4 - Reserve Laptops for Remote Use: If all connectivity options failed, then we set up laptops which can be physically taken to a handy list of remote locations with free WiFi.
Layer 5 - Remote Employees for Core Positions: For certain positions like customer support, we made sure to hire remote employees that worked around the country. This allowed us a partial “on-call” model where we could rely on completely independent locations for extra protective measures.
Bonus Provision*: In the case of a power outage we set up special power supplies to hold us over for a limited period of time. Assurance of power is a totally different animal however.
As you can imagine, the extra layers of redundancy don’t fully shield us from down time, but it certainly improves our odds tremendously (no down time has been recorded at our office since this implementation!). By creating provisions against certain forms of “bad luck” we have negated the worry of internet down time and influenced positive business outcomes.
Luck exists and it impacts us every day whether we like it or not. The modern context of luck is generally viewed as an arbitrary form of chance that takes us in different directions without our involvement. However, the concept of luck was different over 500 years ago based on the crucial difference that luck is something to be mastered through planning and active involvement in our affairs.
Surely, luck is divided up into factors related to chance and skill. There is a ratio of skill and chance with every outcome that happens and we able to improve our odds based on acting on what we can control. Staying with AirBnB over hotels during my travels helped me meet other business professionals and make lasting relationships. Building redundancy options for office internet connectivity helped my company avoid down time during an outage. In these cases, I have taken steps to control my own luck for the better no matter what happens to me.
As a final poetic example of this concept, consider Harvey Dent in the movie The Dark Knight. The Harvey character carries a coin that is used to determine menial social decisions with others by flipping it and calling a side. Harvey used the coin flip bet to land a first date with his future girlfriend. Come to find out, the coin had heads on both sides, thus ensuring that he “made his own luck.”
The question I have for you, the reader, is this -- are you spinning the wheel of fortune or climbing it?