The Importance of Luck in Your Career and How to “Manage” It

Last week, researchers in Italy published an article that quantified the impact of luck on success. Turns out it’s a big factor in success. When I’m asked about my career, I often cite the role of luck. So it was nice to have this validated. But if luck is so important to success, how do you manage it? By its nature, luck is a function of chance. Should we all just hang our hats and go home? 

Success is Linked to Luck

What the researchers found is intuitive. Talent is normally distributed in the population (like a bell curve). But success and wealth are not. Instead, it’s skewed – with just a few people with very high levels of success and wealth.

To determine this, the researchers developed an “agent” model where each agent was given a set of skills or traits that were normally distributed. Then they randomly assigned chance events that were either lucky or unlucky. Through repeated simulations, they ended up with the same outcome: the agents with the most lucky events came out the wealthiest.

The researcher’s model showed that even when talent was balanced across the population, success was not. Number of unlucky or lucky events were related to success.

Intuitively this makes sense:

  • ‘Being in the right place at the right time’ is luck.
  • Picking a field that unexpectedly became relevant is luck.

The importance of luck can be deeply unsatisfying – even an existential crisis. Why try? Why bother? Why strive?

How to “Manage” Luck

There are certain luck factors that you can’t influence: where you’re born, who you’re born to, your mix of genetics.

But I do believe there are factors that you can nudge at least a bit. They all center on increasing the surface area on which chance can happen:

Network – even when you have your dream job

How many of you have landed a job and stopped networking? I do it every time and every time I regret it.

Networking matters because it increases the chances that you run into someone or something that will be your next opportunity.

My network led to my current role. A friend of mine heard about the job, knew I was looking and let me know about it. And just in time – I applied at 10pm the final day it was open. If people don’t know you and your skills or interests, they don’t think about you when an opportunity opens.

Diversify and grow your skills

This is another way of saying: don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Much has been written about the concept of T-shaped or Pi-shaped people: people with deep knowledge in one or more areas and broad knowledge in multiple areas.

I always joke that I’m a four legged stool (also known as a chair). I have deep knowledge in design, data, technology and policy.

Understanding multiple disciplines allows you to identify linkages in work and the right mix of approaches to problem solving. This in turn increases your chances of success in your work, leading to more opportunities. It also allows you to qualify for a greater number of roles.

Pick jobs where change is happening

If you aren’t in an environment with some level of dynamism, opportunities will be infrequent. So if you are in the position of picking among multiple offers or career paths, select the more dynamic one. By its nature, there will be more opportunities for you to jump on. Sheryl Sandberg quoted advice she received about joining Google: “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, get on, don’t ask what seat.”

Make or advocate for change

Whether you are in a dynamic environment or a slower one, advocate for change. Show initiative and generate ideas. Even if they aren’t adopted, they show you are thoughtful and creative. If they are adopted, there’s a good chance that you’ll be asked to lead or champion the change.

Jump on opportunities or convert suggestions into opportunities

Recently I was on a flight and started chatting with my neighbor. She had risen in the ranks of her first organization suddenly and unexpectedly after jumping at a suggestion.

The company had received news of a major threat to their operations. They asked all the middle managers to come to a meeting with ideas for how to respond. The next day, she was the only one who showed up with a plan. They ended up adopting her plan and putting her in a senior executive role.

Always be the one with a plan. And good luck!

Joy Bonaguro is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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Kaitlin Moller

This is such an interesting concept. I love how all of your suggestions fall directly in line with “making your own luck,” as it’s dangerous to just sit idly by and hope something good happens for you and your career. Thanks for encouraging this line of thinking!