The luck vs skill debate: What if generating luck is actually a skill?

GV Ravishankar explores the idea that luck is a skill that one can acquire in ‘Connecting The Dots’, a new series for CNBC-TV18.

GV Ravishankar

Published October 30, 2020

Connecting the Dots—a series by GV Ravishankar that explores and makes connections across a range of diverse ideas on scaling companies, personal growth and leading teams.

Warren Buffet, at the Berkshire Hathaway’s shareholder meeting in 1997, spoke about the concept of “ovarian lottery”—the fact that he and his partner Charlie Munger were born in the 1930s in the USA (a one-in-30 chance), as both male and white which, he acknowledged, put their odds of success much higher than the average person born at the same point in time.

When I turned forty a couple of years ago, I started reflecting and developing a sense of gratitude for all that I had in life—career, family and health. The sense of gratitude also came from the feeling that I have had a fair share of luck—and good life choices triggered by serendipity. This is not to say I haven’t built skills or don’t work hard—one can hardly do well without those basic ingredients—but luck does play an undeniable role in business and life. Can you succeed consistently from only hard work or from pure serendipity? Are some people inherently lucky and others unlucky? Is luck like heredity or can it be nurtured like a skill?

Luck vs serendipity

Before we try answering these questions, it’s important to distinguish luck from serendipity. While these words are used interchangeably, serendipity is usually used in a positive context and to say that you found something (useful) while looking for something else. Luck is random chance, serendipity is that chance event intersecting an observant mind. In short, serendipity is luck + a prepared mind and hence while luck is not controllable, we do have a chance to influence serendipity.

A classic example of serendipity is the discovery of penicillin in 1928 by Sir Alexander Fleming while working on the influenza virus. Fleming, who is often described as a careless lab technician, left a culture plate unattended while on a two-week vacation only to return to a mould that had developed on the contaminated plate. This mould turned out to kill bacteria effectively and became the first antibiotic known to the world. It was not just blind luck that Fleming found something valuable—the fact that he had an observant mind allowed him to pull the serendipity trigger and build something revolutionary without directly looking for it.

How you react to the random event determines the upside from luck—it’s up to you to leverage the unexpected! Only you can convert the lucky event to a serendipitous outcome.

Serendipity sphere

I was intrigued by the concept of Luck surface area, first written about by entrepreneur and podcaster Jason Roberts in his blogpost Codus Operandi. He talks about how the amount of serendipity that will occur in your life, your Luck Surface Area, is directly proportional to the degree to which you do something you’re passionate about combined with the total number of people to whom this is effectively communicated.

In short, Luck surface area = Doing * Telling!

I have often used this myself and with my colleagues to keep them focused when there are minor setbacks and my modified version, which I call Serendipity Sphere, is as follows:

Serendipity sphere’s volume = Show up passionately * Knock on enough doors * Do so consistently over time.

Serendipity for me is a three-dimensional quantity, with the first two mapping to Jason’s framework and the third adding the time dimension because in my view doing something consistently is an important vector in increasing serendipity. Increasing time spent requires you to have the grit and endurance to be at it. Compounding takes time and everything in life is about compounding, even luck!

Luck as a skill

Unexpected and random events happen all the time. This could bring us good luck or bad luck. But luck is only the beginning—we have to connect the dots and this requires us to have a prepared mind. Rupeek’s founder Sumit Maniyar didn’t start the company from top-down research. His loan request to a bank got rejected, which got him thinking about how if a qualified person like himself couldn’t get a loan (a stroke of bad luck), how there may be an opportunity to serve those that may not qualify to access financial services (a trigger for serendipity). Thus he started Rupeek to help banks deliver gold loans to the doorstep of consumers and small businesses, and now has a thriving business!

History is replete with examples of serendipitous inventions—the invention of countertop microwaves in 1946 by Raytheon scientist Percy Spencer (which he hit upon after accidentally melting a chocolate bar he had in his pocket with microwave beams) or the invention of the Post-It note by 3M scientist Spencer Silver (a failed outcome from an attempt to build a super-strong adhesive; the idea to use as Post-It came from another colleague at 3M). In all of these cases, the inventors weren’t looking to invent these products but made astute observations which helped them build new applications from unexpected events.

What we need to capitalise on such serendipity triggers—the chance outcomes you see when working passionately on something important to you —is an open and an observant mind which “connects the dots” or tells enough others (knock on doors) for someone to connect the dots! Alexander Fleming apparently told 28 scientists about his discovery and most saw it as an unfortunate error rather than an opportunity for an important discovery. Fleming’s discovery is credited to his tenacity (persisting long enough) in seizing an opportunity that others had let pass! He was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1945, seventeen years post the discovery.

If we do our work passionately and keep knocking on enough doors in the process and do it long enough with resilience and patience, we will eventually be skilful at making luck work in our favour. We have to complement this effort with an open, curious and prepared mind which is optimistic and willing to accept positive surprises. As Louis Pasteur, the French microbiologist astutely observed, “Chance favours only the prepared mind!”

This column was originally published on CNBC.