What is luck? Can you make your own luck?

Over the last three months, I met two gentlemen, one of whom believes he’s incredibly lucky while the other is dejected with his life and believes he has no (good) luck whatsoever.

Typically, I’m the kind of person who doesn’t believe in luck, good or bad. I’m talking about random luck, the kind believed by people who buy a lottery ticket and hope to win a million dollars. Instead of believing in luck, I believe things happen when you’ve worked towards it. It’s sometimes hard, and sometimes not so hard. But you still have to make that effort.

My discussions with these two gentlemen made me question my own way of thinking towards the subject. The second man is one of the smartest guys I know, so he had what it takes. And yet he believes he was unlucky.

But then what is luck?

Take this example. In 2003, China was suffering from a deadly SARS epidemic. Almost everyone was quarantined in their house. The epidemic affected everyone, but its impact was different for two companies.

Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce giant, benefitted from the epidemic as many people were too scared to death to leave their house and buy things. They instead started ordering online. Before this epidemic, most Chinese people didn’t really trust e-commerce companies. Note: I’m not saying that the epidemic alone was responsible for the uptick in e-commerce transactions for Alibaba. But it helped the company greatly. [1]

The second company is Motorola. Motorola’s then CEO, Chris Galvin, had a plan to turn the company around. The plan was to launch a new generation of mobile devices. But due to the SARS epidemic, the production of these devices was delayed.

The board of directors, facing extreme pressure from both Wall Street and the media, decided to fire Chris. Obviously, the board acted hastily (but that’s another story). Things didn’t work out that well for Motorola at that time.

Things like the epidemic are what I consider pure luck. Good or bad.

In no way could either Motorola or Alibaba have anticipated these circumstances.

Can you change your luck?

I have been mulling over this question for more than two months now. Most of the time when people talk about luck, they completely ignore all the effort someone has put to get the outcome. The only thing they see is the outcome itself.

For example, if someone wins the $1 million in lottery as mentioned above, the person obviously made some effort: they went out and bought the ticket. The chances of winning a lottery are stacked against us, yet the person went out and bought the ticket.

A couple of months ago, I learned about a Nodejs class offered by Samal Gorai. I signed up for his email newsletters. I did this because I had tried learning Nodejs on my own and had failed just a few months earlier. Samal then offered a Bootcamp worth Rs 14,999 and I got to attend it for free as a bonus. [2]

Now I was at the right place at the right time and benefitted from it. Some may call this luck, but they will ignore the fact that I had taken the effort to learn a new skill even though I had failed when I tried to learn it on my own. If I hadn’t made the effort, I wouldn’t have been able to spot this wonderful opportunity. More than 30 people had joined the mailing list, but only five of us continued with the Bootcamp, which is where the real learning happened.

If I had given up learning Nodejs after my first failed attempt, I wouldn’t have been “lucky” enough to get a spot on Samal’s Bootcamp.

So this brings us back to the question, What is Luck?

Luck is 5% spotting things and 95% effort

What could Chris Galvin of Motorola have done in the circumstances to avoid getting fired? He could have acted quickly and found manufacturing capacity somewhere else.

What could the second gentleman I met who’s dejected with his life have done better? He could have tried harder. Sometimes being smart is not enough.


[1] I read about the impact of SARS in the book Alibaba’s World by Porter Erisman. It’s a wonderful book if you want to understand how Alibaba started and its journey so far. It’s a must read if you want to understand how Chinese markets work.

[2] Samal Gorai now conducts classes to teach Nodejs to college students or to train start-up employees. I will not discuss why it’s important to train employees or pick up new skills. I am confident enough with my newly acquired skills that I have picked up a project on Nodejs.

Samal also runs Playschool.me and is now accepting external projects on Angularjs.


Some of our pictures from the Bootcamp:

This post first appeared on my blog at http://unitechy.com