Why Are Some People Lucky?

You are not imagining it — some people truly do have better, more predictable outcomes than others. Some serial entrepreneurs may have several successful hits in a row, and others may struggle through several businesses and never get traction.

The popular thought is that if you work hard, you will succeed. This may be true for many smaller service businesses–an accounting firm, say, or a dental practice–since there isn’t a lot of mystery about market timing or product-market fit. For these businesses, the model is well defined and there are numerous predecessors that serve as models. For innovation-driven businesses, however, the outcome is much more uncertain. You can work hard, but you may not succeed. Even more vexing are stories about reluctant entrepreneurs who succeed despite themselves.

Clearly, there is more to the story than simply working hard. The key appears to be your ability to encounter and recognize opportunities. In a 1999 psychology experiment at Harvard University known as “Gorillas In Our Midst,” Dr. Daniel Simmons asked a number of study participants to watch a group dribbling basketballs and to count the total number of times the balls were dribbled. Halfway through the video, a six-foot tall man in a gorilla suit walked slowly through the spectacle, stopped in the middle, and pounded his chest a few times, before walking away. Afterwards, the study participants were asked who saw the gorilla. Surprisingly, more than half of them did not.

A later study by European Sociologist Dr. Richard Wiseman expanded on this research in a book called The Luck Factor. In Wiseman’s seminal study on the subject, he asked a group of participants to count the number of images inside a newspaper. They were given two minutes to complete the exercise, and most people used the full amount of time given to count and doublecheck their answers. A couple of participants however confidently completed the activity within mere seconds, both of them having the right answer. It turns out that, on page two of the newspaper, Dr Wiseman had taken out a one-half page advertisement that read, “Stop counting. The answer is 43. Tell the experimenter you have seen this and win $250.”

These studies illustrate a concept called inattention blindness. When we’re too focused on solving problems, we often do not observe the opportunities right in front of us. Ironically, the answer to improving your luck, then, is not working harder-it actually might be the opposite. If you find that you are always doing “heads down” work and frustrated that you’re not reaching your goals, it may be time to turn off the computer and go to an industry networking event or mingle with your customers. Have a drink and engage in conversation. Not only might you have the opportunity to reframe the problem in a way you hadn’t thought about before, you might even make a few connections who can help you reach your destination a little faster.

When you are trying to innovate and create new opportunity, it is important to be able to step back to see the big picture. Sometimes, it is only when you’ve stepped back and stopped thinking about the problems you’re trying to solve that you can see things from a new perspective. So don’t forget to take a little time to step back from productive work. You might feel guilty, but it could be the only way you’ll see opportunity right under your nose.