They Just Got Lucky: The Role of Luck in Success

You have probably heard that luck is when opportunity meets with preparation, and that seems to put an end to the debate once and for all – if you want to get lucky, work hard and prepare.

But just how true is that statement?

Does luck play any role at all in success, or does success only depend on how hard you work?

Well, let’s look at some very successful people and see if luck ever featured in their stories.

1. Bill Gates

He was the richest man in the world for a long time, and he made his fortune through the company he co-founded – Microsoft. But how did Bill Gates get into computing in the first place?

In 1968, about 18 million people of high school age lived in the United States. About 270,000 of them lived in Washington state. A little over 100,000 of them lived in the Seattle area. And only about 300 of them attended Lakeside School.

Gates was one of these 300. He just happened to attend Lakeside School, one of the very few schools to have a computer.

And how did Lakeside School get a computer? Bill Dougal was math and science teacher during Gates’ time, and he was able to petition the Lakeside School Mothers’ Club to use the proceeds from its annual rummage sale to lease a Teletype Model 30 computer hooked up to the General Electric mainframe terminal for computer time-sharing.

This was Gates’ first major introduction to computers.

Then after Microsoft was a company, it just so happened that Bill’s mother, Mary Gates, was a member of the board of a nonprofit organization, United Way, where she met John Opel, IBM’s chairman, and she spoke to him about her son’s company. This would later result in IBM contracting Microsoft to make an operating system for its personal computer.

There’s absolutely no doubt that Bill Gates is a genius. But if you removed Lakeside School and Gates’ mother (among other things), would we have a world-famous Bill Gates or a Microsoft today?

2. Christopher Columbus

In June of 1503, during one of his voyages, Christopher Columbus was stranded in Jamaica with his crew. They had some supplies they could trade with the indigenous people for food, and the locals were happy to help them. But after about six months, Columbus’ crew began to run out of supplies to trade and the locals were not amused.

Soon, the locals stopped providing what they needed and the crew was running out of supplies.

Columbus had among his supplies an almanac of astronomical tables. By consulting the book, he noticed that a lunar eclipse was about to occur. 

He requested a meeting with the local leader, and told him God was angry with how the locals had been treating Columbus and his men. He said God would provide a sign of his displeasure by making the full moon appear “inflamed with wrath”.

When the lunar eclipse and the red moon appeared, the indigenous people were very afraid and rushed to bring provisions to Columbus, begging him to pray for forgiveness on their behalf. 

He made some elaborate prayer gestures and timed the end of his prayer to coincide with the end of the eclipse. Then he told the people they had been forgiven.

Obviously, Columbus’ genius and cunning saved his life here and ensured continued provision for him and his men, but did his genius also cause an eclipse at that specific time, or was luck at work here?

We would all love for our success stories to include how very hardworking, smart and dedicated we are, and how this is what resulted in our success, but how big of a role does luck also play?

To illustrate, during Gates’ time in high school, he had another best friend along with his co-founder, Paul Allen, whose name was Kent Evans. Gates himself said Evans was the best student in class. He too was a computer prodigy like Gates, and shared Gates’ business mind.

He would probably have started Microsoft with Gates and Allen, but he died in a mountaineering accident before he could graduate high school.

In his case, he experienced the opposite side of luck – risk.

There are hundreds more examples we could discuss, but I think it should be clear by now that, along with hardwork and a good business mind, luck also plays an important role in success and it cannot be discounted. So when you succeed, don’t pat yourself too much on the back, thinking it’s all due to your effort. There are things outside of your control that influence results in life.

But the opposite is also true, risk plays an important role in failure too, so when you experience failure, give yourself some slack – you may have made the absolute best decision possible, but there are still things outside of your control that influence results in life. Accept this fact and roll with it.

Samuel is an avid reader and a freelance writer, in that order. He fancies himself funny, but his friends regularly don't laugh at his jokes. I have been a student of personal development for several years, and I created this blog to share my knowledge with others and help them become better versions of themselves.

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