Is success in life simply down to good luck? - A Few Wise Words

Is success in life simply down to good luck?


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Preparing Volume One of A Few Wise Words gave us a unique opportunity to spend time in the company of a wide range of extraordinarily successful individuals (our contributors) and to talk with them about their lives.

From leading entrepreneurs to world-class executives, Olympic gold-medallists to celebrated performing artists, one fascinating detail would consistently emerge from our conversations with them: nearly all will have said at some stage, just how ‘lucky’ they believe they have been to have got to where they are today… 

Many went on to say that if it wasn’t for one or two very specific ‘lucky breaks’, they would probably not have been able to reach the heights of success that they have managed to enjoy in their lives.

For anyone that aspires to be truly successful in life, this may seem like discouraging news! Fortunately, however, success does not have to depend solely on the roll of a dice. In fact, far from it…  Significantly, these same contributors also shared with us exactly why they believe they have been lucky, and more importantly, what they actually did to ‘make their own luck’ in the first place.

Thankfully, virtually any one of us can have a shot at becoming successful… We just need to know what steps we need to take, to make our own luck too.

How to make luck work for us…

So, what can we do from today? And how can we use this to kick-start, or accelerate, our journey towards success? Here are TEN key principles (that are each interconnected) which have stood out most clearly from what our contributors have expressed consistently throughout the book.

1.   Keep searching until we find our passion…

This is certainly one of the most important of these principles, and often the most elusive to begin with, but one that must always remain central to our ambitions.  Because, when we do eventually find that ‘special something’ that we can feel genuinely passionate about, this naturally becomes our main source of inspiration. It will galvanise our attitude, focus, and drive – attributes from which all manner of positive things will then start to unfold for us.

As one of the most successful women in US corporate history tells us in her chapter:

“If you are really passionate about ‘this thing’ that you are doing, and you work really, really hard at it, and you put all of your energy into it, then you will find success and you will find happiness.” 

Ursula Burns, former chair and CEO of Xerox

The most important takeaway from this first principle is that we must always remain on the lookout. We must never just settle for where we are, especially if we’re not excited about what we are doing right now. Throughout our journey, we must keep exploring until we eventually find that thing that really moves us, gives us a purpose and that we feel truly passionate about, however long it takes. If we are persistent, and we keep searching, we will find it!

2.   Understanding the Maths…

There is nothing too complicated here, it’s simple Probability Theory and knowing how to ‘play the numbers’.  Once we do fully grasp the importance of the maths however, and when we start applying it centrally to our thinking and our planning, it becomes another vital key to unlocking the good luck we need and making it work for us.

The leading Irish entrepreneur, who built one of the world’s most successful PR and CEO consulting groups, encapsulates this point very neatly:

“If you cast a line in the water, you might catch a fish. If you cast fifty lines in the water, you are going to catch a fish”

Declan Kelly, co-founder of Teneo

At a networking event, we should make an effort to approach ten people rather than just two… When applying for a job, send our CV to fifty potential employers instead of just ten… When prospecting for sales opportunities, reach out to twenty individuals today, rather than just five…  But one of the best value-ads for us here is that the more we practice, the better we get at all of these activities and in turn, the better the results.

3.   Saying ‘yes’ and exploring every opportunity presented to us…

This also leans heavily on the maths of course – it’s all about increasing more possibilities for ourselves. When Dame Katherine Grainger, one of Britain’s most decorated female Olympic athletes, was still at school, someone once told her; ‘The best piece of advice I can give you is to say “yes” to as much as you can’. She would never forgot these important words…

When she went on to study Law at Edinburgh University, she was introduced to several clubs and activities that she could participate in alongside her studies. But rather than pre-judging what she felt she may like, or may not like, she simply said ‘yes’ to everything and would go on to explore a wide range of different options. One of the activities suggested to her was to try the Rowing Club. She wasn’t particularly drawn to it at first and didn’t know if she would like it, but she still went along to take a look… Five medals later, for rowing at five consecutive Olympic Games, the rest as they say is history.

Once again, the more we explore, the greater our chances of finding something that we can become truly passionate about. Because we will never really know, unless we open all the available doors, which one may lead us to it!

4.   Meeting with people who matter…

Virtually all of our contributors will look back at their lives and point to important encounters that occurred with significant individuals, who ended up having a hugely positive impact on their journey towards success. They would often talk about these special moments or individuals when referring to the ‘lucky breaks’ they have enjoyed during their careers.

For most people, such encounters tend to happen purely by chance and when they are least expected. Some may arise naturally within a work, social or networking environment. But central to this particular principle is a willingness to circulate and engage with other people.

Those of us who get out there and regularly meet new people, are the ones most likely to find someone special that can open important doors for us. It’s back to the maths – the more we interact with colleagues, the more events or gatherings we go to, and the more people we meet, the higher the probability of encountering someone that could really make a big difference for us and our future success. And of course, the more we practice engaging with other people, the better we get at doing that too!

Networking is a great way to build our confidence and to develop our soft skills (see 9. Below). It will mean having to step out of our comfort zones for some of us, but the more we do, the easier it becomes and the more we will enjoy doing it.

5.   The importance of working hard…

There is no substitute for hard work. In practice, nobody ever truly succeeds without working very hard at it. As the most successful sailor in the history of the Olympic Games puts it:

“There are lots of talented people in the world, in many different walks of life, but the really successful ones are those who genuinely apply themselves the most to whatever they are doing. It’s hard work – and there are simply no short-cuts”  

Sir Ben Ainslie – Olympic Sailor

And this is where all of these interconnected principles really start to work for us. Because, when we do eventually find our purpose, and start doing something that we feel really passionate about, working hard at it doesn’t actually feel like hard work! We simply enjoy doing it and doing more of it.

When we apply ourselves fully, we get things done and we move forward. But significantly, people will also begin to appreciate us, and start opening doors for us too.

When we are young, working hard at our education is where it all starts. The harder we work at our studies, the more we learn and the better we will do. For most, our education is the primary springboard from which our journey towards eventual success begins…

So, whatever stage we are on our journey, working hard is without doubt one of the most important enablers that can generate good luck for ourselves.

6.   Being enthusiastic and having the right mindset…

When we are optimistic, enthusiastic and enjoy what we are doing, something magical starts to happen. People are naturally attracted to positive individuals. They start to notice us, warm to us, and want to be associated with us too. They will also want to include us within their circle or team.

We are also far more likely to attract those important individuals, who can make a big difference to us, if we are confident (but not arrogant) and enthusiastic about our work. Big opportunities are mostly offered to those that are perceived to be ‘open’ to them and who are ‘ready’ to pursue them.

Being led by good values is really important too, and it shows.  Those who display good discipline, who are honest, sincere, polite, punctual, presentable, and who also look out for others and not just for themselves, will always be appreciated and respected.

Developing a positive attitude becomes easier when we are around other positive individuals, and we avoid those who are perpetually negative. We must also remember that our success will often depend on the team we build around us. The more positive and enthusiastic we are, the greater the chances of attracting the right people to come and join us.

7.   Finding a mentor to support us…

Very few people succeed entirely on their own. Most of our contributors have expressed just how instrumental the role of a mentor(s) has been for them at different stages of their lives.

Needless to say, there will always be someone out there who has more experience than us, who has more knowledge than us, and who also knows about the area in which we are working or heading. A mentor is someone that recognises the potential in us to go far and who is willing to help us on our journey.

Finding a mentor however is not that straightforward. The coming together between mentor and mentee is an organic process that cannot be forced. It has to happen naturally and most often starts with a chance encounter – it’s back to being lucky. But there is little doubt that our ability to find or attract a mentor will always be greatly enhanced when we actively follow these principles. Because by doing so, we will not only increase the chances of crossing paths with someone in the first place, but we will also convey the qualities or attributes that any potential mentor would want to see invested in us as well.

8.   Being prepared to take risks, but also being prepared to fail…

Those who are risk-averse are mostly afraid of failure. But a curious irony also exists here; fear of failure is actually far more likely to limit our chances of becoming successful in the first place, than failure itself…

The late Rabbi Sacks, one of the greatest intellectuals and spiritual leaders of our time, expressed his thoughts on failure beautifully in his chapter:

“It’s your failures that really make you grow up, grow strong and grow to be the person you could be. None of us would like to relive our failures, of course, but we couldn’t be the person we are today without those failures. But if you do not have the courage to fail, then you do not have the courage to succeed – full stop!”  

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (1948 – 2020)

We all make mistakes in life, and we will often fail badly at things. But when we fail, it is also an opportunity to learn – we build our resilience, and we also learn how to anticipate failure in the future.

As we push ahead, many of the decisions we face will involve taking risks, with often little certainty of what the outcome may be. When we get a decision right, we can move forward. When we get it wrong and fail, we will often move backward. The art is to get more good decisions under our belt on average than bad.

We also have to be brave. We need to realise that the road ahead will indeed pose many challenges for us, and some of them may be huge.  We will all have moments of insecurity and even self-doubt along the way (that’s part of being human). But we must also recognise that experiencing failure from time-to-time is an inevitable, if not integral, part of our journey towards success.

9.   Developing our soft skills and continually educating ourselves…

One of the key enablers to getting ourselves noticed and attracting key opportunities, is our ability to communicate and to interact with confidence. Developing our soft-skills is therefore hugely important. Fortunately, this is something that’s easy to practice (but will often require discipline to push us out of our comfort zone). We just need to talk to more people…

We should always be prepared to speak up and speak out. If a question is raised in class, at work, our club, or at a dinner table, we should aim to be the first to contribute. The most confident and charismatic people we tend to meet, are usually the ones who are particularly well-practiced at social interaction, leading conversations and making presentations.

Being able to ‘hold our own’ when speaking is naturally dependant on our knowledge around the topic of conversation. Self-education is therefore essential. Many of our contributors have expressed how they never stop learning and will continue to educate themselves throughout their careers. This takes time but it is important to allocate a portion of our day or week in order to enrich ourselves with knowledge. We also need to keep up-to-date with current events. The more ‘relevant’ we can make ourselves when talking to others, the more they will listen to us and respond to us.

10.   Setting the right goals and knowing where we are heading…

How we create goals is a big subject all by itself (and one for a future blog). The goals we set will always vary depending on the nature of our career and also our ‘individual nature’. For some, their principal goal will extend to simply ‘being my very best at what I am doing today’.

One of the UK’s most respected business leaders addresses this very point in his chapter:

“For everyone, the principal goal should really be to become the best version of yourself you can possibly be. That involves focusing on the task in front of you today rather than constantly looking ahead at a goal for tomorrow. If you only look ahead, you may not be able deliver now what’s actually needed to make ‘the ahead’ come true.”

Sir Roger Carr – chair of British Aerospace

There is an important place of course for setting longer term goals as well. Some may assert; ‘if we don’t have a target to shoot at, we will never hit anything’. An athlete for example, may set their sights on winning Gold at an Olympic Games one day… But first, they will need to win at club level, then at regional level, then at National level and so on, and their shorter-term goals may be set clearly around these benchmarks. Each stage can then be further broken down into yet smaller goals – hitting fitness targets, improving their best times and so on.

Our end-goal should never be defined by lifestyle or material things. If we choose to be an entrepreneur and set our goal on ‘becoming a millionaire’, that’s simply not a realistic target and is one more likely to lead to failure than success. But if we set our sights instead on creating a quality product or service that people will want to buy, and to build a team and a brand around that, then we are far more likely to succeed.

The reason why our goals are so important is that when it comes to creating good luck, they provide direction and an organised structure for all our activities, disciplines, and focus.

Whether our first goal is to explore three new sporting activities this season or to attend one new networking event this month, these will help us to move forward, and that’s the first thing we are trying to achieve. Goals can also help us to step out of our comfort zones through creating the disciplines we may require, to compel us do the challenging things that we might otherwise procrastinate or perhaps never do.

We are all familiar with the expression ‘being in the right place at the right time’, which is really just another euphemism for being lucky. But something that is totally within our control is our ability to increase our chances substantially, of putting ourselves in that place, and at the right time, in the first instance.

The ten principles described above, have been drawn from what our extraordinarily successful contributors have shared with us brilliantly in A Few Wise Words. They provide a fundamental, values-led approach to finding our direction, our purpose, and our passion. When we follow and apply these principles, they will enable us to attract great people to us and will help us to find amazing doors to open.  We will also become far better prepared to seize opportunities when they are presented to us, by knowing what we need to do next to make the most of them.

Finally, when we combine the application of these ten principles into our playbook, their effects won’t just ‘add up’ for us but will compound themselves into a much greater whole. Collectively, they become a virtually guaranteed way to make luck work for us and are probably the best enablers we could ever have, to achieve real success in life.

Peter Mukherjee and Lord Mervyn Davies

A Few Wise Words (Volume One)

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