How Entrepreneurs Can Make Luck Work

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Every entrepreneur has heard that success requires the right combination of skill, experience, timing, and luck. But that last, intangible piece of the formula has always been tricky. “He just had a run of bad luck” explains away an excusable business failure, while the opposite expression serves as backhanded compliment from a jealous competitor.

This concept of luck is outdated, however, says David McRaney, author of the You Are Not So Smart books and podcast series. “We have predefined luck in our culture as some sort of fairy dust: a magical, ethereal, nonrational thing. But that is a prescientific understanding of luck that no longer applies,” he says.

Over the past decade, some observers have begun to understand luck not as a random, uncontrollable phenomenon but more as a behavior that happy, successful people employ, whether consciously or subconsciously.

The update comes courtesy of British psychologist Richard Wiseman, who studies lucky and unlucky people as part of his research as a professor of the public understanding of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. His goal is to isolate the traits that lucky people possess and demystify them so that everyone can emulate them.

So what exactly is luck—and how does it apply to entrepreneurs?

People who consider themselves lucky have a way of dealing with chaos and complexity that unlucky people do not, Wiseman says. And chaos and complexity are two things in abundance in any startup business.

Lucky people, he says, are particularly good at noticing and capitalizing on opportunities as they arise. They act on gut feelings and hunches, but only after honing their intuition.

Unlucky sorts, by contrast, tend to be narrowly focused and goal-oriented. If there are new opportunities that arise while they’re pursuing something else, they’re more likely to ignore them than to jump on them.

This ability to change gears, revamp business plans, and ditch ideas that aren’t working out is something that successful chief executive officers have described to me repeatedly over the years. Nearly every mature business owner has a story or two about how an original idea had to be revised or scrapped along the road to finding one that works. But rather than despairing or freezing when one model is proven wrong, these individuals quickly recalibrate and redirect their efforts.

Another trait of the lucky, persistence, has long been associated with entrepreneurial success. “There are people who do things over and over again, and even if they fail 200 times, they keep going forward,” McRaney says. The ability to scramble over a heap of past failures may be the biggest luck factor of all.