Is Luck Really a Four-Letter Word? This Cornell Economist Says No

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“You’re so lucky.”

It’s a terrible thing to say to someone who feels their success can be attributed only to their own hard work and tenacity.

After all, which one of us wants to believe our success is just a matter of happenstance?

You probably didn’t fall into your business or career by accident–you spent a lot of long days and late nights working hard to build it.

It wasn’t luck that guided you through years of education and/or internships and/or grinding away in thankless, crappy paying positions to get where you are today.

‘Luck’ is a four-letter word you just don’t use in polite business company.

And yet most of those at the top of their game would have to admit that somewhere along the way, a little something you might call fate or kismet or chance or… ugh, LUCK!… helped move them to their next station in life.

It turns out that acknowledging the role that luck played in your success just might be better for you, according to an economics professor at Cornell University.

In a recent article, Robert H. Frank explored the way luck had influenced his own career, and how that had shaped the work he did in the years that followed. He recalled how a stroke of bad luck had actually paved the path for a great success. A paper he’d written was no longer needed when the project it was written for fell through. “On a lark,” he said, he submitted it to a prestigious journal.

It was accepted and based on the success, many more followed in short order.

Sure, the quality of the work played a role. But you can’t deny that luck did, too.

That’s how it is in our careers and businesses… I don’t think there’s a person in existence who can look back and go, “Yep! I did everything just right.” That’s crazy.

We each make a ton of mistakes and have things go wrong all the time. Things happen that are beyond our control. But we don’t want to attribute our successes to good luck, either.

Frank decided to explore this whole luck vs. skill concept recently in a pretty ingenious study. He created a fictional character and wrote contrasting versions of an interview excerpt with this character, whom study participants believed was a real business figure.

In one “interview” called the skill version, the character comes across as competent but cocky:

“But success didn’t just fall into our laps. We’ve worked hard, and my partner’s experience and market intuition were undoubtedly important factors. But lots of people work hard, and lots of MBAs are market-savvy. The real breakthroughs in our lab were highly technical, and I’m probably the only one who could have made them happen.”

In the luck version, he acknowledges the lucky breaks he received along the way:

“We’ve worked hard, but we’ve also been lucky. I got to speak at that Berkeley conference only because another speaker canceled at the last minute. If those investors hadn’t happened to be there, if they hadn’t seen some promise in the work, I don’t know if any of the real magic in our lab would’ve happened.”

Three hundred study participants were asked to read either one or the other and then answer three questions: how likely they would be to hire him, whether he seemed to be the kind of person who valued kindness, and whether they would be likely to befriend him if the opportunity arose.

Not surprisingly, people didn’t tend to like the Cocky Character all that much (he sounds like kind of a jerk, right?). They pretty consistently wanted to give the more modest man a job, considered him kind and felt likely to call him a friend.

And I think that’s really the point… does believing in luck make you more successful? Probably not.

But acknowledging that some of your accomplishments were situational or helped along by circumstance doesn’t take away from your successes. In fact, it seems to make you more likeableand in doing so, increases the likelihood that “good fortune” will shine on you again, by way of people giving you the benefit of the doubt in future.

Who said it doesn’t pay to be nice?