Illustration: Ashley Siebels
Even though we experience the role of luck in our lives over and over again, we are often inclined to discount it. We want to believe that successes are earned and that failures are deserved.
It’s often discomforting to think that things we cannot anticipate or control affect our lives, but they do. What’s most important is how we react.
Luck is a step on the career ladder
Luck plays a role in almost every job interview and job offer—whether it is for the position of clerk, consultant, or CEO.
There’s an element of chance in how successfully a candidate navigates the job-search gauntlet. (Remember that interview question you wish you had answered differently?)
And there’s also a bit of luck in how well the company evaluates a candidate. (Remember that interviewer who was having a bad day?)
Uncertainty makes it more likely that candidates and companies make errors in how they rate each other. This means that people who are hired often don’t do as well as expected. And companies that looked great during the job search often disappoint.
A particularly dramatic example is Yahoo, which spent almost $1 billion over a decade on five CEOs (four of them outsiders). In every case, the gap between expectation and reality turned out to be enormous.
Yahoo also walked away from opportunities. In 2002, Google wanted about $3 billion, but Yahoo didn’t take the deal. Today, Google is worth more than $500 billion. Yahoo also had a deal to buy Facebook for $1 billion, but the deal fell though when Yahoo tried to cut the price. Facebook is now worth more than $350 billion.
It happened to me
My entire career is the result of several happy accidents.
As a student at Harvey Mudd College, I decided to join the debate team. The national debate topic was on economics, something I knew nothing about. The captain of the team the previous year, Orley Ashenfelter, was at Princeton getting a PhD in economics and helped us prepare.
After this intoxicating taste of economics, I took two or three economics courses and decided that I really liked the subject. I took one class simply because it was the only economics class that fit in my schedule.
That class happened to be taught by Orme Phelps, a no-nonsense professor whose class made me appreciate economics because it was rigorous and could make a real difference in people’s lives. He also showed me that being a professor is a terrific job.
I decided to go to Yale to get a PhD in economics and become a professor.
Who knows what paths my life would have taken if economics had not been the debate topic, if Orley had not inspired me, or if my schedule had not directed me to Orme, who changed my life? I was truly lucky.
Once we recognize the ubiquitous role of uncertainty in our lives, we can anticipate that there will be surprises, and we can recognize luck for what it is when it does happen.
How can we apply this lesson to our careers?
I love the saying, “If you love your job, you will never work a day of your life.” When you have the good fortune to find the perfect job—something you are really good at and look forward to every morning—be humble and grateful for your good fortune.
If your job does not work out as well as you hoped, don’t assume that it’s your fault. It is to be expected in the uncertain world in which we live in. The good news is that you can try again—and again—until you find something you love.
Uncertainty is a package of pitfalls and opportunities. Avoid the pitfalls and seize the opportunities. That’s the true secret to luck.
Gary Smith is the Fletcher Jones Professor of Economics at Pomona College and the author of What the Luck?: The Surprising Role of Chance in Our Everyday Lives