What if...

When I look at the history of the great rock bands I’m always struck by the random occurrences that happened early in their careers that enabled their later successes.

If Paul McCartney hadn’t met John Lennon at St. Peter’s Church in Liverpool or if the group’s booking agent, Alan Williams, hadn’t sent them to Hamburg (where they had to play six sets a night for months, turning them into a professional band) or if young record buyers hadn’t alerted music store owner Brian Epstein to the existence of the group (which he soon began to manage)—there would be no Beatles phenomenon.

Likewise, if Larry Mullen Jr. hadn’t posted a notice on the bulletin board at Dublin’s Mount Temple School seeking musicians for a new band or if Paul McGuinness hadn’t been introduced to the group (which he was later invited to manage) or if Bono, Edge, and Larry had abandoned the band to pursue a more spiritual path (as they almost did)—there would be no U2 phenomenon. MANY serendipitous incidents have to fall into place for bands like these to make their mark.

And so it goes for any winning business. If Steve Jobs hadn’t met future Apple partner Steve Wozniak at Homestead High School or hadn’t visited Zerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (where he was inspired by their graphical interface display) or wasn’t kicked off another Apple project, freeing him up to lead the MacIntosh development team—there would be no Apple computers, tablets, or smartphones today.

The most overlooked aspect of business achievement may simply be...luck. Every success story I can think of is dominated by happenstance. But that doesn’t make for compelling narratives—and won’t sell business books.

But there’s the other side of the story too. Successful individuals and teams take advantage of luck and to some extent attract the opportunities they manage to exploit. Nobody finds you unless you’re out there doing it. (A 16-year-old Lennon was performing on the back of a pick-up truck when McCartney first laid eyes on him.) As Seneca, one of my favorite business consultants, observed a few years back, “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.”

This relates to the “Butterfly Effect” (or “Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions”) in which small differences in initial circumstances can generate dramatically different chains of events. It's always fun to imagine alternative outcomes if earlier events had been different. (If The Beatles had never acquired a savvy manager with a theatrical background, would they have become more than a local Liverpool band?) Interesting to apply this to your own life too. If you had a different high school trigonometry teacher or piano tutor or basketball coach (NOT the one who lit a fire under you at the time) would your career arc be different today?

I posted a few thoughts on this here at Tom Peters’ website four years ago.

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  1. In Dr. Richard Wiseman's book "The Luck Factor" he makes his well-researched scientific point that luck, rather than being a mysterious force of the universe, is a natural consequence of our actions driven by what we believe. Two of the major factors in improving luck are openness and extroversion, which clearly played a role in all your anecdotes.

    One of my favorites rock band serendipity stories was when Denny Laine left the Moody Blues to work with a bass playing singer whose previous foursome was falling apart. Grahame Edge and Mike Pinder went down the pub to drink and moan and sat next to Eric Burden.

    Eric said "I advertised for a guitar player and found one before the mail started coming in. I've got a whole sack full of names if you want it."

    The took his sack back to Grahame's apartment and pulled the first envelope out at random.

    And called Justin Hayward.

    1. Joel, luck as a “natural consequence of our actions driven by what we believe” matches my working philosophy—though it appears that there are also events driven by something beyond that. (Maybe there’s luck and there’s blind luck, as Mark points out.)

      Mentioning the benefits of extroversion is a nice balance to earlier discussions on the benefits of introversion. Even those with a preference for privacy benefit from the deliberate practice of putting themselves in the public arena to “sell” themselves, their ideas, their art, etc. That’s the rock & roll world I used to inhabit—a world of ridiculously smart introverts who had to step into the marketplace to express and sell their music.

      1. Yes, serendipity plays a role. If Alan Jackson stumbled across one of my songs and wanted to record it, that'd play a huge role in my musical career. The fact that such a serendipitous event hasn't happened is pure chance (which is the real word, not luck.)

        But when chance happens, the "lucky" (that is, open, relaxed, extrovert) ones are exponentially more likely to benefit. The "unlucky" miss chances all the time.

  2. I'm not sure you can say that if Larry hadn't met Bono there would be no U2 or if Steve hadn't met Woz there would be no Mac. All these characters are bright, driven guys who'd probably have met someone else and ended up doing broadly similar stuff. It might well have been different stuff to the U2 or the Mac we know today, and probably wouldn't be called U2 or Mac, but - who knows - it could have been better or worse or about the same. And by the same token, who knows what we're missing out on because these guys did meet each other and didn't do the other stuff they would have done if they hadn't met?

    Depending on who you believe, Napoleon and Montgomery were both reputed to ask if Generals assigned to their staff were lucky. I suspect both of them knew that being lucky was in large part about being able to assess a situation and benefit from it, i.e. to make your own luck. Blind luck comes into it sometimes but I suspect that this combination of preparation, opportunity, motivation and execution has a large part to play.

    1. Jeez, given the fortuitousness of circumstances leading to the successes above, it's hard for me to imagine Lennon, Bono, or Jobs having comparable achievements without those events. Jobs, for instance, needed Woz, Jef Raskin, and a dozen other geniuses along the way to get him to the point where he got his first Mac out.

      But then again, with an infinite number of monkeys at typewriters writing out an infinite number of life scripts (which is probably the way it actually works), Lennon, Bono, and Jobs might have even wound up in the same band.

  3. This is slightly orthogonal to the subject at hand, but I just came across something from the blog of Sam Harris (The End of Faith) relating to luck (or, if you’d prefer, chance), which reigns supreme in his world. Sam, as a neuroscientist, discounts “free will,” because he says there are always neurological conditions and events that are upstream from the conscious decisions we make. He's especially derisive of those who claim to be "self-made" men or women.

    "Many of my critics pretend that they have been entirely self-made. They seem to feel responsible for their intellectual gifts, for their freedom from injury and disease, and for the fact that they were born at a specific moment in history. Many appear to have absolutely no awareness of how lucky one must be to succeed at anything in life, no matter how hard one works. One must be lucky to be able to work. One must be lucky to be intelligent, to not have cerebral palsy, or to not have been bankrupted in middle age by the mortal illness of a spouse. Many of us have been extraordinarily lucky—and we did not earn it. Many good people have been extraordinarily unlucky—and they did not deserve it. And yet I get the distinct sense that if I asked some of my readers why they weren’t born with club feet, or orphaned before the age of five, they would not hesitate to take credit for these accomplishments. There is a stunning lack of insight into the unfolding of human events that passes for moral and economic wisdom in some circles."

  4. I think luck and determination, along with environment, play a huge part in what we become. For me born into a middle class family where though I didn't get everything I wanted. I wanted for nothing.

    I consider myself very lucky to have had the great privledgre to have had people take an interest in me and the patience to pass along what they had learned.

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