Sir Ken Robinson did an interview on Mixergy the other day and I took away some very insightful points from it. I definitely recommend watching it. The most salient point for me was Mr. Robinson’s view on “luck.”

I’ve been reading a few biographies lately and one way I try to contextualize a person’s success is by trying to identify what factors were attributed by luck. How much of their ascent was based on things beyond their control? Throughout history, you’ll find plenty of self-made people, but they will likely also fall with in circumstances that are rare, ephemeral, or privileged. Some grew up wealthy, in a network of well-connected families and friends. Many prodigies had fathers/mothers involved in their same fields, and were able to groom their talents from an early age. Others were able to gain edge due to geography, and/or an advantageous economic period. While none of these factors cheapen a person’s success, it certainly should be accounted for if you try to follow a similar path.

But Ken Robinson approaches the topic of luck a bit differently. In fact, it made me question if I was making an error in framing such contributing factors in this way. There is certainly a survivorship-bias in retelling someone’s accomplishments. If you are aggressively networking with people, and eventually, after many many relationships that have gone nowhere, finally meet someone who can help you in a substantial way, that might be retold as a simple matter of happenstance.

I have found most biographies are written with a specific consistency, usually a theme or the title of the book influencing the retelling of history. Information that reinforces the thesis will be made more prominent than less relevant, yet equally important, parts of someone’s history. They are also told with an unnatural, linear-type fashion – the way history never unfolds in real-life. I presume that is to keep the reader’s interest, but its not a very realistic telling of facts. The point is, all these non-apparent and unrelated factors of highlighting person’s life affect our understanding of their success.

Here’s a quote from Ken Robinson’s interview that is particularly relevant:

The third bit is attitude, because I know a lot of people who will say to you, “It’s great for these other people, but they’ve just been lucky. I never had the breaks.” In fact, a lot of the people I’ve spoken to who you would consider to be very successful, often themselves say they’re very lucky. But luck is, I think, a bit of a cop out because it sounds like it’s all about serendipity. But you know from the work you do that you make your own luck; that luck is partly a matter of opportunity. It’s what you do with the opportunity. It’s not what happens to you, it’s what you make of what happens to you.

There’s a lot of very interesting research, and I have a chapter in the book called, “Do I Feel Lucky?” which looks at the psychology of luck. Luck is about seeing opportunities. Very many people will miss an opportunity because they’re not open to it. It’s seeing it and it’s taking it. That comes back to questions of personal attitude like, “Do you value yourself? Do you think you’re entitled to this and are you willing to overcome the obstacles?” There are a lot of obstacles to being in your element — other people’s disapproval of you and other people’s opinions of you. There’s a whole section on attitude.

The fourth bit is about opportunity. It’s about creating opportunities for yourself like you’re doing and like the people who watch this program. It’s creating something that wasn’t there, or going toward something that isn’t in your current environment.

While it is such a simple concept, it affected me in a strong way. There is definitely a psychological tendency to follow processes that work for the vast majority of people – after all, if many people have gone through a systematic process, you know it works, its reliable, and you can get help from others who have done the same thing. There are perhaps countless ways to get a particular job, yet how many people use the traditional application process?

Ken Robinson suggests those factors that can be considered “luck” should be framed as people seeking out their own particular advantages of their environment. He states part of it is holding that view, to seek out and maximize the opportunities that might be available to you. You do not need to have the friends or influence of a particularly successful businessman, but you do need to take advantage of the best and most unique opportunities that are available to you in your particular environment. The next obvious bit is being able to create or seek out these opportunities. But thats preceded by having an attitude that luck is something you create for yourself.

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