Make most of chance

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 December, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 December, 1995, 12:00am

AN MBA candidate in Michigan asked me which I would rather be: smart or lucky? I told him he was asking the wrong question. Success in life is rarely a case of being one or the other.

I've known too many supposedly 'smart' people who wouldn't know a bit of luck if it bit them on the nose. Likewise, I've known an equal number of people who had a God-given talent or were born into considerable wealth or had great connections but, through some intellectual defect, were incapable of exploiting (or enjoying) their good fortune.

The truth is, you won't get far being smart or lucky. You have to be both. Lucky people are smart enough to know when they've been lucky. Smart people know they have to make their own luck.

If you've sometimes thought of yourself as being slightly snake-bitten, or if you regularly find yourself just one step short of a major breakthrough in your career, there's no magic and that can transform you from luckless to lucky. But some strategies can definitely improve your chances.

1. Jump into the traffic.

I know one successful executive who believes the key to getting lucky is to be 'in the traffic'. He spends more time on the phone making small talk than anyone I know. It's hard to argue with his logic. He thinks if you keep yourself in the flow of information in your business, and you are reasonably receptive to people, it's inevitable that something valuable will fall into your lap. It could be overheard information that turns out to be the missing key to a business puzzle. It could be a new contact that opens up new doors for you. It could be an unusual insight that turns your thinking around 180 degrees. It could be a hint about what your competitors have up their sleeves, to which you can respond before rather than after the fact.

But you'll never know unless you put yourself in the middle of the traffic.

Take a look at the perennially lucky people in your organisation. These are the colleagues who always seem to be in the right place at the right time, who habitually are associated with the glamorous projects, who continually 'stumble' on the next big idea, who just happened to be in the room when a big customer decided to spend some money. They didn't get that way holing up in their offices, not returning phone calls, avoiding industry functions, and making a virtue of how little they have to travel.

On the contrary, lucky people talk more, listen more, and read more than their unlucky brethren. They make and take more phone calls. They increase rather than decrease their chances to meet the right people. They structure their lives in such a way that getting lucky is virtually unavoidable.

2. Don't count on merit only.

Another part of getting lucky is realising that merit isn't the only factor determining whether you get what you deserve.

I remember a publisher a few years ago telling me about two people competing for the same reporting job on his newspaper.

The one candidate was a young man with impeccable credentials: a journalism school degree, three years on a small-town paper, a couple of writing awards, and an impressive stack of clippings.

The other was a young woman with two years' experience whose father happened to be the publisher's attorney.

Who got the job? The young woman, of course, because she went in with muscle as well as credentials whereas the young man only had credentials.

This may not be fair, but the young woman didn't cheat or do anything dishonest. She was simply smart enough to know she had a good-luck charm in the person of her father. And she wasn't shy about using it.

3. Don't bluff when you don't know.

We all know people who pretend to have more leverage or know more than they actually do. If life were always like a poker game, we could admire these people. But I think bluffing is one of the surest ways to remain unlucky, and not just because the odds of getting caught are against you.

For example, we've all been in discussions where the other party mentions a name or concept or document we know nothing about. What do you do? Do you let it slide or do you ask them to explain? A lot of people, I've noticed, let it slide. Perhaps they don't want to appear less knowledgeable than the other person. Perhaps they think they can catch up as the discussion continues. Perhaps they think it doesn't matter. Whatever the reason, it's a bad move because, in terms of information and knowledge, it means they're willing to operate at a disadvantage.

In that situation, I always interrupt to ask 'Who's that?' or 'What did the memo say?' before I'll let the other side get too far ahead of me. I'll force them to help me catch up.

Pretending to know more than you do closes you off from learning something new and exploring it. Admitting your ignorance gives other people the opportunity to educate you. And all sorts of insights and ideas can arise from that. I leave it to you to decide if such a strategy is smart or lucky.