Business success depends hugely on luck. That may seem at odds with what I’ve written in the past and my overall business philosophy, both of which are grounded on the idea that success depends, first and foremost, on hard work. It’s not the contradiction it seems, and here’s why. Obviously, luck is a two-edged sword: it can be good or bad and, while we can’t definitively engineer our own luck, we can come very close to doing so. That’s where the hard work part comes in.
In business, we build a base of satisfied customers by providing top-class services or products. That takes a combination of personal traits like persistence and integrity, and the resolve to always follow-through on our promises. It also takes an astute understanding of our market and our competition. In short, running a successful business requires an extraordinary amount of hard work. It’s why customers give us repeat orders and recommend us to others. All those factors mean more profits for our companies and rewards for us if we’re the owners. If we’re employees, it means promotion and higher pay. Either way, luck plays an important part in those outcomes because, no matter how much we research and plan, no outcome can be guaranteed and, so, taken for granted.
Luck also plays a big part when we don’t work hard, when we take little pride in what we do and put minimal effort into doing it. With that approach, our standard of service is second rate at best. We never build a base of satisfied customers. The customers we have rarely come back and they certainly don’t recommend us to others. Worse still, dissatisfied customers tell others of their bad experiences, which, ironically, means that the more customers we deal with the quicker our business declines. Bad luck may play a part in that decline, but there’s no doubt that our attitude to work is the main cause.
It’s said that we reap what we sow and, broadly speaking, that’s true, but it’s a little simplistic. Sure, we may reap what we sow, but the value of the metaphorical harvest greatly depends on many factors: carefully selecting the seeds, sowing them the right distance apart in the most fertile soil, and tending the young shoots when they appear. After that, the value of the crop hinges mainly on our skills at picking, sorting, drying, storing, and marketing, among others factors. In short, whatever the venture may be, hard work is an indispensable ingredient in its success.
Yet, no matter how hard we work, we cannot plan for every eventuality – those hazards that Shakespeare called “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Much of what happens between the beginning and the end of any complex project comes down to luck. The most diligent and careful farmer can’t accurately predict the weather, or whether the plants will succumb to disease or pests, or whether a sudden change in market conditions will render all the effort unprofitable. Neither can the farmer predict a bumper harvest, nor a surge in the market price. What a smart farmer can do, though, is tilt the odds in his favor by concentrating on all the things he can control. In other words, he can work hard.
Napoleon is reputed to have said that a general’s greatest asset was to be lucky. That hardly meant that he wanted only officers who hung rabbits’ feet around their necks, or wouldn’t engage the enemy on the 13th of the month. No, there’s little doubt that he wanted highly intelligent, cunning strategists, whose meticulous preparation enabled them to fully exploit the slightest hint of good fortune in battle and to extract some advantage even from bad luck. In short, he wanted generals who’d create their own luck through hard work.
Benjamin Franklin also believed in luck, yet his famous cleverly-phrased assertion that the harder he worked the more luck he had left no doubt about what he knew came first. Little has changed in three hundred years: Today, successful generals, statesmen and businesspeople all have to work hard to make the most of the numerous, random challenges fate flings in their paths every day.
Have a happy and healthy weekend!