Luck Is a Long String of YES’s

Artwork by Karan Singh.

Here’s a common exchange that I have:

Me: “I owe most of my success to luck.”

Other person: “Don’t say that. You work really hard!”

Most of us have a knee-jerk reaction to the mention of luck. We deny it, choosing instead to focus on the hard work that went into someone’s success. This makes sense: it’s comforting to think that success depends on something you can control — hard work — rather than on something that seems elusive and out of your hands — luck.

But luck and hard work are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the success of almost any endeavor depends on both. Or, as that old Seneca quote goes: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

So what if — rather than denying the role of luck — we asked the question: “Well, how can I get lucky?” Because, funnily enough, there are actually ways to do that. Not to guarantee that you will be lucky, but to substantively increase your chances of getting lucky.

I’ll use myself as a case study: In 2013, I got lucky. I had been working for four years at Behance, where I was the founding editor of a property called 99U, when it was acquired by creative software giant Adobe for some major dollars. I had a small amount of equity in the company and, suddenly, I was — much to my own surprise — in a fairly comfortable position financially.

Luck and hard work are not mutually exclusive.

Did this happen because I worked really hard? I think it’s safe to say that the acquisition of Behance by Adobe had literally nothing to do with me. Sure, I had worked my ass off building 99U. In fact, I worked so hard that I got completely burnt out. But Adobe bought Behance, a network where creative professionals showcase and discover great work, for Behance. 99U was just along for the ride — a nice bonus if anything.

So bottom line, I got lucky. While I did work really hard, I mostly just happened to be in the right place at the right time. That said, there was a lot of preparation and follow-up that went into (unwittingly) being in the right place at the right time.

Luck can’t be controlled, but it can be nurtured. This is the long chain of events that lead to me getting lucky:

  • I moved back to NYC in 2008. I’d taken a crap job in LA, which I quit quickly. I was in transition, freelancing while I figured out my next step. A former colleague, Jason Campbell, needed editorial help setting up a new fashion publication, so I jumped in.
  • Jason asked me to do an interview with a young entrepreneur named Scott Belsky about a creative network called Behance. I had never heard of Behance but it sounded cool, so I said yes.
  • Scott and I hit it off during the interview. I respected the thoughtful approach and vision behind Behance, and we agreed to stay in touch.
  • That summer, Scott got in touch, seeking an editor for the Behance Magazine. (This was the embryonic, precursor to 99U, an editorial website that lived inside with interviews and tips for creative professionals.) But the magazine felt too small to me, so I passed on the job and recommended some possible candidates.
  • Later the same year, I decided to do more editorial consulting. I reached out to Scott to grab a coffee and communicate my intentions in case he had ideas on people to connect with.
  • It turned out Scott had just landed a book deal for Making Ideas Happen and wanted some help shepherding the project forward, conducting research, brainstorming about book structure, etc. He asked me if I wanted the job. I said yes.
  • We collaborated on the book project for about 9 months and found that we really liked working together.

Luck can’t be controlled, but it can be nurtured.

  • In the midst of this, Behance put together the first 99U Conference, a new kind of event focused on idea execution rather than inspiration. Scott asked if I wanted to attend and help him run some workshops based on the concepts in Making Ideas Happen. I said yes.
  • The idea behind the conference resonated with people, and the idea emerged to spin 99U off into its own separate brand. We would fuse the concepts behind the nascent Behance magazine and the 99U Conference, and build 99U into a stand-alone editorial website focused on helping creative professionals make their ideas happen.
  • Behance didn’t have any experienced editorial staff, so I came on as an editorial consultant to help them map out how they would build 99U into a legitimate publication.
  • A few months later, while we were still in the planning phases, Michael Karnjanaprakorn, who had been the driving force behind the first 99U Conference and the original Behance Magazine, decided to leave Behance. (He later went on to found Skillshare.) Scott asked me if I wanted to step in and lead the new 99U brand to launch and beyond. I said yes.
  • Amusingly, we ended up relaunching the 99U brand, unintentionally, on September 9, 2009 (09.09.09). Then there were four years of breakneck startup pace and terrifying learning curves: Producing a 400-person conference having never produced an event of any kind before, figuring out what to do when your brand gets occupied by a movement (99U used to be 99%), editing a three book series with 60+ contributors in less than 18 months, etc. The list goes on.
  • I should also note that I never asked for equity in Behance though Scott was generous enough to share it. I was a writer and an editor — happy to just be making enough money and building cool new stuff — not a programmer with dreams of being part of a unicorn. In other words: A babe in the startup woods.

So, as I said, I got lucky. But there were a million little things that led up to that luck. Like staying in touch with Scott, helping him out when he was looking for a magazine editor, reaching out to tell him about my interest in doing consulting work, jumping into the book project with enthusiasm, agreeing to run workshops at the 99U conference (which, mind you, I had no idea how to do), being proactive about inserting myself into the conversation about what 99U would become after the event, and so on.

Basecamp founder Jason Fried wrote a similar piece connecting the dots that led to his lucky opportunity to write an opinion piece for the New York Times. And again, it’s a long string of meeting people, following up, and saying yes.

Luck is a long string of meeting people, following up, and saying yes.

My example is like Jason’s example is like almost any other example of someone “getting lucky.” Opportunity emerges from a common set of themes:

1. Opportunity comes from open-ness, alertness, and a sense of adventure. Tina Seelig runs the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, which is basically a training program for young entrepreneurs. So she spends a lot of time thinking about the intersection off innovation, risk, and opportunity. In her wonderful book What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20, she writes:

Lucky people take advantage of chance occurrences that come their way. Instead of going through life on cruise control, they pay attention to what’s happening around them, and therefore, are able to extract greater value from each situation… Lucky people are also open to novel opportunities and willing to try things outside of their usual experience. They’re more inclined to pick up a book on an unfamiliar subject, to travel to less familiar destinations, and to interact with people who are different than themselves.

2. Opportunities come through people. In an interview that I frequently quote, entrepreneur and investor Ben Casnocha said, “Every opportunity is attached to a person. Opportunities do not float like clouds in the sky. They’re attached to people. If you’re looking for an opportunity — including one that has a financial payoff — you’re really looking for a person.”

If you want to make more money, if you want a better job, if you want to meet the love of your life… all of these lucky opportunities will come through people. So if you want to get lucky, you need to put yourself in harm’s way by regularly engaging in situations where you will meet new people. That could be attending a conference, dropping in on a networking event, or going to an art opening. And, ideally, doing these activities by yourself (or with someone who will also mingle) so you will be forced to meet new people.

3. Opportunities come through helping people. You no doubt noticed in the summary above that I frequently said: “Yes, I will help you with that project.” Or, “Yes, I think I can recommend someone for that position.” Building trust and goodwill in your relationships is a huge part of building your luck quotient. And I’m not talking about helping people in a quid pro quo kind of a way, where you’re doing it for future benefit. I’m talking about helping people because it’s fun and rewarding.

There’s an Amy Poehler quote I love, “You are interesting when you are interested.” Being actively engaged and interested in what those around you are doing — and lending a hand where you can — paves the way for people to be interested in you and to pass opportunities your way.

4. Opportunities come through telling people what you’re doing (or want to be doing). People won’t think of you for work, unless you remind them to think of you. That means it’s good practice to make sure you regularly share your goals and intentions with friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and your audience if you have one. People can be surprisingly helpful if you are clear about what you’re trying to accomplish and how they might help you. I’m not saying you need to explicitly ask for help; just try to be communicative about what your professional goals are. Then people can file that away, and when a relevant opportunity comes up, you’ll be the first person that pops into their mind.

Get more tips on how to activate your creativity and do the work that matters:

Hi, I'm Jocelyn. I help people find more creativity and meaning in their daily work.

I created the online course RESET, a cosmic tune-up for your workday, and I host Hurry Slowly, a podcast about how you can be more productive, creative, and resilient by slowing down. Occasionally, I write books and give talks too.
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