Luck Is Not Luck: You Can Influence Your Return On Luck

Feb 13, 2018 5 Min Read

These past few weeks, with the Chinese New Year celebrations coming in full swing, many friends wished me “luck” many times. Everyone was hoping for a great year with lots of “luck”.

Most believe that luck happens by chance. We believe luck is something that we cannot plan for or obtain by design. Luck is fated, written in the stars. Or is it?

I remember a conversation I had with Datuk Seri Idris Jala (former Minister in The Prime Minister’s Department) many years ago, and he explained the secret to his success as a leader.

He had six key points to success in leadership, and his final point was about having good luck. He did not term it “luck” but called it “divine intervention”.

He believed that we can only control about 40% of the things we work on. The remaining 60% are things beyond our control, where we have little influence.

However, Idris believed that if you are a good human being, operating with ethics and spending time in solitude and reflection, you could “influence” the divine to be on your side and bring yourself good “luck”.

As I pondered on the conversation with Idris, a number of questions were triggered.

Among them: Why do some people always have all the luck, whilst others are plagued with bad fortune?

If luck was an entirely random event, surely, it would even out, and at some point, someone’s luck would run out. Yet it doesn’t seem to even out.
Could luck be more than a random occurrence and something that can be influenced?

Was I lucky?

I have always felt I was extremely lucky to get a job at General Electric earlier on in my career.

My internship with them was a lucky break as my resume happened to be on the desk of the newly hired chief recruiter on his first day at work. He needed to fill an intern slot and called me.

I felt even luckier when I was selected for an interview for the prestigious high-potential entry-level programme at the end of my internship.
However, only a handful of the 45 interns interviewed would be picked, and the interviewers were extremely tough.

I noticed many candidates coming out of these interview rooms in tears and some openly crying, especially those exiting the chief interviewer’s room. I walked into his room expecting the worst.

But to my surprise, his first question to me was, “so, you play soccer for your university?” I noticed a smile as he asked that question. I nodded and quickly continued the football conversation.

I then told him about how I had spent part of the summer going to watch live World Cup games (it was 1994 and the World Cup was in the United States (US) that year), and he shared his experiences watching football games too.

An hour went by so quickly, and I walked out smiling after a pleasant conversation on the state of football in the US.

I was one of only three interns who got the offer. I always thought that I was extremely lucky to have caught my interviewer’s excitement for his newly adopted passion.

On the contrary, in recent conversations with a number of “luck” experts, they claimed that I might not have been merely lucky. Was it luck?

Would you agree that some people just have “all the luck” in the world? Click to watch the corresponding “Be a Leader” video based on this article.

Types of luck

As a young boy, I frequently read biographies of famous people. I became a great fan of Benjamin Franklin and US President Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson once declared:

“I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.”

Franklin similarly shared Jefferson’s belief in luck – that it had everything to do with effort.

Yet, many people work hard and still remain luckless all their lives. Surely, there has to be more than the mere effort that determines luck?
Researchers Anthony K. Tjan, Richard Harrington and Tsun-yan Hsieh postulate that there are two types of luck – luck that you cannot affect (like who your parents are and your blood type, etc) and luck that you can influence (like your business success or your career progress).

In fact, they believe that a majority of “business luck” can be influenced and it is really about understanding how. Their conclusion: “luck is about attitude as much as it is about probability.”

They found that people who describe themselves as lucky tend to be luckier because of their right attitude. They concluded that the right attitude comprised three traits – humility, intellectual curiosity, and constant optimism.
Dale Carnegie said:

“Happiness doesn’t depend on any external conditions – it is governed by your mental attitude.

Carnegie is right. As Idris accurately pointed out, if we learn to control the things that we can, including our reaction to the world around us, we may swing the luck pendulum. Our response to a disastrous occurrence is often more important than the incident in itself.

Authors John D. Krumboltz and Al S. Levin claim that there’s no such thing as luck. They describe luck as 'happenstance'.

They believe that “happenstance” isn’t something that randomly affects us but rather something we create out of the chance circumstances and encounters that run through our lives. A chanced occurrence, an unplanned meeting, or missed appointments may sometimes lead our lives into unexpected directions that might alter it and our careers. These “happenstances” may happen frequently to everyone. The key difference between lucky people and the “unlucky” ones is the ability to recognise these opportunities and leverage them.

Bette Nesmith Graham was a poor woman in Dallas, supporting her small child as a single mom. She got a job as a secretary and learnt shorthand and typing to ensure she kept her job. Yet, she constantly made typing errors.

She was an artist and she recalled how artists would paint over their mistakes on canvas. So, she decided to put some tempera water-based paint in a bottle and took her watercolour brush to the office, using it to correct her typing mistakes.

Before long, her invention, which she named “liquid paper”, became a worldwide hit and she built it into a multimillion dollar corporation.
Was she lucky? Or was this the ability to recognise opportunities even in mistakes?

There were thousands of secretaries who probably went through typing error anguishes just like Graham did, yet no one viewed it as an opportunity to create a solution to their nightmare.

No one can control every outcome but like Graham, leveraging our lucky breaks and taking action can increase the probability of our success.

Return on luck (ROL)

Jim Collins and Morten Hansen completed a nine-year research study of some of the most extreme business successes of modern times. They investigated the role of “luck” in these success stories.

Their conclusion: They found that both successful businesses and ineffective businesses had luck, both good and bad, in comparable amounts. Therefore, luck doesn’t cause extreme success.

Apart from that, they found something more interesting in their study. The successful companies were not lucky. Rather, they had a high return on luck (ROL).

Luck has nothing to do with success. The key to success is what people do when they are hit with a lucky circumstance or situation. They take that luck and create a huge return on it. That is the key difference.

Good and bad luck happens to everyone. The constantly “lucky” people recognise this luck, seize it, and then make the most of it.

So, what is your ROL?

Final thoughts

There is a popular saying “you make your own luck”.

When we see luck as something that is beyond our reach or something that we can’t create, we become victims and complain about others and the world.

Reframing luck as something we may in regardless of how limited our influence may be) is a powerful way to move from being a hostage to being a leader.

Kyle Chandler concludes that:

“Opportunity does not knock; it presents itself when you beat down the door.”

Webster’s Dictionary defines luck as “a force that brings good fortune or adversity; a force that operates for or against an individual.”

So, if luck is a force, you should be able to tap into it… at any time! May the Force be with you!

Read the rest of the article here and find out how to increase your Luck: Top 10 Ways To Increase Your “Luck”

Watch my interview with Datuk Seri Idris Jala:

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Roshan is the Founder and “Kuli” of the Leaderonomics Group of companies. He believes that everyone can be a leader and "make a dent in the universe," in their own special ways. He is featured on TV, radio and numerous publications sharing the Science of Building Leaders and on leadership development. Follow him at


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