Is Luck For Real?
A short essay on luck and its relationships with our behavior, our lives, our success and failures, and how luck itself is the product of something much more powerful: design.
Luck is the residue of design, wrote John Milton about 400 years ago.
Cut to this century. At Space Matrix, the company that I had my internship in (which, incidentally, was a design firm that built office interiors), a story was remembered and repeated so many times that it is regarded as office folklore, essential for everyone to know. It dated back to the early beginnings of the company, when it was struggling to land clients. They had a particularly heart-breaking moment when one big potential client told them that they were going to select a competitor over them. A cloud hung over the office that day. Weeks, no, months of hard work had disappeared down the drain. There are few pains as severe as to see your work scattered to pieces. Then, a miracle! They received a call telling them that the competitor had failed to show up at the meeting, and that they were calling the designers to come and present their plan to the company's Board.
The office sprang into action. The presentation, already prepared, was given a quick once-over. The employees knew it by heart, having put their own into it. This was the early 2000s, a time of few cars and fewer taxis. Somehow, one was arranged, and they were off, their car kicking dust high into the air. They got to the office where they were to present, and they made the presentation of a lifetime.The client, supremely impressed, gave them the contract, and today, about 15 years later, it is said that that was the client that turned the company's fortunes around and made it into the dominating force in the commercial design-and-build market in India.
Well, why did the competitors fail to show up?
Their car had a flat tire.
The client did not know this.
Now we can look at this story and recognize immediately that there was a lot of luck involved. The competitor was unlucky. The client was impatient and uninformed. Space Matrixwas in the right place, at the right time, with a car that did not have a flat tire.
But we can also understand that had Space Matrix not created a product that was absolutely wonderful, and the presentation that they made was not up to the mark, they would have not gotten the job. They worked long hours, all week, for months. Weekend breaks were alien concepts to them. They planned, and they worked. Luck was what was left after everything else was done. Luck was the residue of design.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote a wonderful book called Outliers that seems to point out that some factors that heavily contribute to extreme success are almost entirely based on variables that no one could control i.e. luck. He lays out, with beautiful prose, irrefutable data and solid logic, how technological advances, the month and year of birth, the location of one’s home, and several other variables resulted in Bill Gates becoming a billionaire many times over. He explains that the reason why Chinese students do so well in math in the USA is not that they are smarter (IQ scores typically have been higher in Western countries), but because they grew up in families that grew rice, where getting up at 4 in the morning and working till 8 in the evening was normal.
When I read this book, I was a bit depressed for a while. It seemed that some influences were so massive and so out of our control, that our own power was so limited, that it was practically useless to strive at all. Luck, it seemed, drove everything. And Gladwell laid it out well, with data, with logic, with beauty.
And yet, there is something about data that kills the story. The data comes after the fact, and hindsight is always 20/20. Data forgets that behind the numbers, there is an individual, an individual who woke up everyday and did things no one else did. One could say that no one else did those things because they could not, but that’s not true. Bill Gates had hundreds of competitors, many smarter than him, more privileged than him, better placed than him. Despite the (luck-based) advantages that he had, as laid out by Gladwell, his success was not inevitable.
Penn Jillette, the famous sceptic and half of the Penn and Teller duo, is fond of saying that luckis probability taken personally. Now, no matter how lucky you are, in all probability, it will run out.
And then what you will be left with is design.
Not many believe that luck is the only thing that matters. It is a very self-defeating outlook, one in which the accusation itself is a confession. At least, nobody acts as if luck is the only thing that matters, and if you want to know what a person really believes, look at how they act, and not what they say.
So, is luck for real?
Yes. Absolutely. But it is the residue of design.
And design is the result of careful planning and resolute execution.