Skip to content

Want A True Formula For Success? Prepare For Luck.

2024 March 24
by Greg Satell

One of my favorite podcasts is Derek Thompson’s Plain English and, on a recent episode, he focused on how Stanley water bottles got so popular. It’s a great story that involves a heritage-laden, 166-year-old company, a group of Mormon mothers, astute executives and social media. It’s hard not to listen to the podcast and be inspired to follow in Stanley’s footsteps.

That would be a mistake. As Thompson points out on the podcast and in his book, Hit Makers, runaway successes are unique. They succeed by doing things differently. If everybody followed in the same footsteps, it would be hard for any of them to break away from the pack.

The simple fact is that there is no tried-and-true formula for success. We can compute the odds any way we want, but the truth is that mathematics tells us anything can happen. Take a look at any runaway success and luck played an important part. Yet results aren’t completely random either. We all have luck, both good and bad, the difference is how you prepare for it.

The Strange, Cosmic Quality Of Flukes 

I’m of the generation that grew up watching the hit show Happy Days and remember fondly its theme song, “Rock Around the Clock” performed by Bill Haley & His Comets. The song was chosen, I am sure, because as one of the most iconic hits of the 1950s, it epitomized the period that the show was trying to convey.

Yet “Rock Around the Clock” was almost never recorded. Written in 1952, Bill Haley couldn’t get anyone to record it for two years. Its raucous beat just seemed out of step with the clean-cut culture of the early 1950s. Eventually, given a little extra time at the end of a recording session for another song, he was able to fit it in and his record label released it as a B-side.

Then lightning struck. Hollywood star Glenn Ford was looking for a song to reflect the nascent teen revolt he wanted to portray in his upcoming film, Blackboard Jungle. His young son Peter played him “Rock Around the Clock” and it fit perfectly. Blackboard Jungle was a commercial and critical success. Bill Haley’s song shot to the top of the charts and became one of the biggest hits in history.

The incredible success of “Rock Around the Clock” was a fluke, but it wasn’t just dumb luck. Bill Haley was already a successful performer when he recorded it and was encouraged to play other songs. Yet “Rock Around the Clock” was what he wanted to record, over the objections of record producers who wielded power over him. Still, he kept at it.

Without “Rock Around the Clock,” Bill Haley would have been a successful performer. But it was pushing to record a song he believed in that made him a legend.

Einstein, Chance And The Matthew Effect

Although we remember him as an icon today, for a long time, Albert Einstein wasn’t very popular, or even well liked, in the early 20th century. He was German in the wake of World War I, Jewish in an age of heightened anti-Semitism, and so seemingly aloof that he claimed that only a handful of people on earth could understand his strange theories.

That abruptly changed when Einstein first arrived in America on April 3rd, 1921 and a handful of journalists dutifully went to meet him. Yet when they arrived at New York Harbor, they were amazed to find a crowd of thousands waiting for him, screaming with adulation and waving handkerchiefs. Surprised at his popularity, and charmed by his genial personality, the story of Einstein’s arrival made the front page in major newspapers.

It was all a bit of a mistake. The people in the crowd weren’t there to see Einstein, but Chaim Weizmann, the popular Zionist leader that Einstein was traveling with to raise funds for Hebrew University (and who the WASPy science reporters didn’t recognize). Nevertheless, that’s how Einstein gained his iconic status, which would overshadow the other great lights, such as Bohr, Heisenberg and Schrödinger, in the golden age of physics.

From there, the Matthew effect (or what network scientists call preferential attachment) took over. Because Einstein was now so well known, newspapers wanted to report about him and ask him about the other scientific breakthroughs of the day. Just as the rich get richer, the popular get more popular. Einstein became more than a scientist, but a cultural touchstone.

Einstein wasn’t a fluke like Bill Haley. He was already world famous and favored to win the Nobel Prize when he arrived in New York Harbor. Still, there are hundreds of Nobel Laureates that most people have never heard of. Einstein became not only famous, but emblematic of both physics and scientific genius. It’s ironic the trigger came not from doing physics, but by supporting a cause he believed in.

Preparing For Your Trigger

When Vitaliy Shabunin and Dasia Kaleniuk founded the Anti-Corruption Action Center at the height of the Yanukovych regime in 2012, most people thought it was a fool’s errand. Ukraine at the time was hopelessly corrupt. The regime not only stole, it looted with a degree of avarice that was exceptional, even considering the post-communist country’s checkered past.

Yet Vitaliy and Dasia were undeterred. With funds provided from international NGOs, they investigated corruption at state enterprises and possible reforms that could be undertaken. Almost nobody read their reports. They also developed anti-corruption legislation, which no politician would dare to take up. It was grueling, thankless work.

Yet events at the end of 2013 would change the course of history. At the behest of Vladimir Putin, President Yanukovych pulled out of an EU Association trade agreement that he had promised to sign. It led to an outcry which triggered the Euromaidan protests and, in turn, led to the Revolution of Dignity. The regime was overthrown, Russia’s little green men took Crimea and Ukraine, left broke after Yanukovych’s looting, was at war with a superpower.

The powers in the west, such as the US, the EU, the IMF and the World Bank were sympathetic, but were also clear-eyed. They told Ukrainian officials in no uncertain terms that they must install credible anti-corruption reforms or no aid would be forthcoming. The legislation that Vitaliy and Dasia had been working on gained sudden interest and was passed in record time.

When I spoke to Vitaliy several years later, in 2018, the legislation was still in place, but the backsliding had already begun. Undeterred, he told me that you always have to be preparing for your next window of opportunity. You can’t dictate your luck, nor can you predict when it will come, but what you can do is prepare for it.

The Power Of Existential Rebellion

The French writer Albert Camus believed our existence was absurd. He compared the human condition to Sisyphus, the mythical Greek king condemned to roll a boulder uphill, only to see it roll back down, for eternity. Incredibly, Camus imagines Sisyphus, returning to his labors at the foot of the mountain, as happy, having found meaning in his task.

That is the nature of existential rebellion, to find meaning for yourself in a universe that provides none. In two decades researching innovation, transformation and change, one constant I have found is that you can’t control your luck. Anything can happen. “Sure things” often fail while low-probability events occur all the time.

Bill Haley performed “Rock Around The Clock,” because it spoke to him, even over the objections of the record labels. He had no way of knowing it would be a hit for the ages. In a similar way, Einstein pursued physics as a clerk at the Swiss patent office to answer his own questions. Anti-corruption activists worked for years in Ukraine—at great risk to themselves—when it seemed pointless or even, absurd.

Yet it is not hard to imagine Haley joyfully jamming away, even if incredible fortune had not smiled on him, and that Einstein would have lived a fulfilling life even if his miracle year had never happened. Activists like Dasia Kaleniuk and Vitaliy Shabunin continue to investigate corruption in Ukraine, even while being subjected to vicious attacks.

It is a simple truth that we can’t control our luck and luck greatly influences our successes and failures. But we can pursue meaning in things that we define ourselves—an idea, family, justice, compassion or anything else. Or, as the mathematician G.H. Hardy put it, “The case for my life, then… is this: that I have added something…”

Greg Satell is Co-Founder of ChangeOS, a transformation & change advisory, an international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto and on LinkedIn.

Like this article? Sign up to receive weekly insights from Greg!

Image by Microsoft Designer


No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS