How Much of Success Is Luck?

by Stephen T. Messenger

February 1, 2022

A young seven-year-old at the playground wanted to find a four-leaf clover. This is certainly a challenging task as there’s one four-leaf clover for every 10,000 other clovers. Some friends saw her searching and joined in the task.

After a few minutes, her friends gave up or were distracted and began playing other games, but the girl kept searching. After over an hour, she plucked her prize out of the ground and shouted, “I’ve found one!”

The other girls ran over in amazement. “Wow!” they hollered, “You’re so lucky!”

Janice Kaplan, author of the book How Luck Happens and witness to this clover hunt, would agree that there was some luck involved. But not as much as the friends thought.

Kaplan argues that while you can’t make your own luck, you can certainly control portions of it. She says that luck is the intersection of chance, talent, and hard work. While chance is, by definition, random, hard work and talent are not.

For example, in any profession, the promotion system is based a little on luck and timing. It helps to have the right job, in the right place, with the right boss—generally all things you can’t control.

When placed in a position we feel isn’t best suited for us, no one wants to hear the dreaded words, “Grow where you’re planted.” We’d rather hear, “You’re right, I have a better assignment for you!”

But that might not happen. Instead, whether in a great job or a lousy one, we can control two things: hard work and talent.

  1. Hard work: This is the easiest to manage. You show up, as the Army would say, in the right uniform, at the right time, and in the right place. Then you focus all your energy into the job when you’re there. Honestly, if you do that, you’re going to be a rock star.
  • Talent: This is a little harder to control, but talented people work hard at being talented (see #1). They study to be students of their craft. They stay physically fit. They practice the skills needed to be successful and use them for practical purposes. They’re lifelong learners and hungry to get better. Talented people grow their skillsets.

Taking a closer look at the promotion system, luck seems to play a small role, but isn’t the biggest factor. Upon closer examination, you find those people who are constantly seeking improvement getting consistently lucky.

Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking Fast and Slow, did a study to see if wanting something can help make you luckier. He surveyed a group of 18-year-olds and asked them on a scale of 1 to 4 how important being wealthy was to them.

After 20 years he tracked them down and found that for every number up the scale, they made an additional $22,000 in annual income. Simply wanting something and then chasing after it makes you “luckier” in that endeavor.

This test wasn’t replicated in other areas, but you can be sure that those who are lucky in places they want to excel would have higher scores than the unlucky ones. This goal be in having a million dollars, shooting a great golf score, being a social media giant, or starting a family. Your goals dictate your luck.

This isn’t because the pieces fall into place better, it’s because your energy and efforts are focused on hard work and increasing talent in these areas.

Let’s come back to our young clover hunter. While it seems not much talent is needed to search the fields, she did need attention to detail, endurance, and the ability to ignore distraction. She failed thousands of times yet kept a positive attitude. These talents are all trainable.

Second, she had to put in the work.  She spent over an hour hunting before she pulled her prize. Sure, there was an aspect of chance, but if she looked at 100 clovers a minute, she saw over 6,000 clovers that hour. Her .01% chance to find four leaves moved to a 60% chance in that hour. If she searches for two hours, it increases to 120%.  I’ll take those lucky odds any day!

Overall, a leader must operate in that intersection between chance, talent, and hard work. When you focus on the areas you can control, you instantly become luckier. This luck trickles down to your team, and before you know it, you’re all finding four-leaf clovers.

Finally, luck begets luck. So go be lucky through hard work and talent.


To dig deeper into luck, Janice Kaplin’s book, How Luck Happens, is a fantastic read. Pick it up today and check out our reading list of some great books to grab in your spare time.

Subscribing is totally free. There are no ads on this site – there is no money to be made. It’s all about developing leaders. Hope you’ll join us!

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