There’s really nothing better than the chance to brag. Even when it comes to games based almost completely upon the odds — like choosing a March Madness bracket — we’re never convinced a good bet was just “dumb luck.” You had a gut feeling, you did the research, you wore the right thing that day, you sent those good vibes to the Retrievers. It wasn’t just luck — you had a part to play, and you want everyone to know it.
And yet, when it comes to talking about our own true, hard-won successes, a lot of us suddenly get bashful. When we sit down with leaders and professionals across the country to hear their secrets to success, their first instinct is to downplay their accomplishments by attributing them to luck. “I was just in the right place at the right time. I think it was just dumb luck.”
It’s entirely possible that luck played a part, but time after time, we’ve found that regardless of good or bad luck, success comes as the result of demonstrated commitment and the determination to overcome obstacles. In essence, the most successful people don’t wait for luck to find them; they go out there and make their own luck.
What does it take to make your own luck? We’ve recognized a few patterns woven throughout our Interview Archive, and we’ve boiled them down to a simple formula we’re willing to share. To create your own luck, you’ll only need these three things: confidence, preparation, and a whole heck of a lot of hard work.
Luck Takes Confidence
Singer/songwriter Zee Avi is one of those people who likes to chalk her success up to luck—after all, she was chosen to be featured on YouTube’s front page on her 22nd birthday. But if you look closely, it’s easy to see exactly how brave she had to become before she could get her deceptively lucky big break!
After years of writing poems and songs, Avi finally got the courage to post a video of her singing on YouTube. It only got 30 views…but she got excited about it! And that little spark inspired her enough that she decided to keep posting her original songs.
So yes, she was “lucky” that YouTube eventually chose to feature her on the front page…but it wasn’t just luck. It was only after she posted several videos that someone out there heard her, had a positive reaction, and stood up for her. And none of that could’ve happened if she didn’t have the confidence to put her amazing music out into the world in the first place.
It doesn’t matter who you are or how much talent you have: No one’s going to stick their head in your bathroom window and offer you a record deal while you’re singing in the shower. (And maybe that’s a good thing…) Nope, it’s on you to put your talent on display.
That’s tough, and that’s not always going to be fun. You’re going to face some criticism. You might also face silence, which can sometimes be even worse! But if you’re like Zee Avi, even a little bit of positive feedback will give you enough fuel to keep going and going.
“Some may say I’m lucky, but I think that if you want enough to know what you’re meant to do, it’ll come to you.”
It doesn’t have to be your work that you put out there; you can also just make yourself available to the world!
When Roadtrip Nation leader Laney Gradus realized that she wanted to work at Framestore, one of the most acclaimed visual effects studios in the world, she decided to strike up a conversation with global president of integrated advertising, Jon Collins.
“I said, ‘I want you to know what I’ve done, but I really want to hear what you guys do. And if there’s a fit, that’s great, and if there’s not, you’re one more person I know’…You can’t know enough people.”
Even after Collins repeatedly told her they weren’t hiring freelancers, she kept in touch — but again, instead of begging for a job, she made it personal. “‘Hey, how was your trip to this place? Hey, I saw that your team won.’ Not too pushy, not too distant; just, ‘I’d love to talk to you.’”
Eventually she got the “lucky” call from Collins: “‘Hey, you know how I said we never hire freelancers? Well actually I could use you — are you available in November?’”
Eight years later, she’s the general manager at her dream company, and not a stitch of it was luck—that was all pure, calculated confidence.
Luck Takes Preparation
In our Roadtrip Nation curriculum, we use an anecdote to explain the difference between getting lucky and creating your own luck: the story of how scientist Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin.
One day, Fleming forgot to put away a bacteria-covered Petri dish he’d been studying, and while he was away from his lab, an unusual change in weather caused mold to start growing. When he returned, the bacteria he’d been monitoring stopped growing in the places where mold had formed. Seeing this, he started developing ideas about how mold could be used to stop the spread of bacteria within the human body — and through a seemingly fateful event, Fleming changed the world of medicine forever.
Many would say it was careless luck that led to Fleming’s discovery, but the reality is, mold was not some new thing! Yet, because Fleming was a trained scientist, he was prepared to ask the right questions about the relationship between the mold and bacteria, and push his discovery to a new world-changing level.
Of course, Fleming had a set of skills and training that made perfect sense to set him up for his discovery—he’d attended medical school and earned an additional degree in bacteriology—but when it comes to preparing for success, you shouldn’t be afraid to deviate from a pre-plotted line.
Leader Paul Salopek says his environmental biology degree has “nothing” to do with his current work as a journalist, but he only got his first journalism job on the strength of having a college degree — any degree! And now, his current, most well-known project — the “Out of Eden” walk — has brought him full circle, clearly reflecting his interests in science and human nature.
Plenty of people will start down the path to becoming a writer by studying English, creative writing, or journalism. But choosing to curate a separate unique perspective or expertise like Paul Salopek did isn’t just lucky — it prepares you to seize opportunities that others wouldn’t be able to tackle.
Luck Takes Work
“The most important thing is effort — the people that work the hardest seem to get the most. So you’re not lucky; you make your luck by being there.” — Roger Penske
We’re inclined to listen to the advice of Roger Penske; the racing legend climbed his way up from working in a gas station and repairing old cars in his spare time to running a billion-dollar empire. His successful racing career wasn’t luck, either; he devoted countless hours to his driving and his cars.
But that kind of work — truly hard work, the kind of work that will put you in a lucky position — often takes sacrifice. Early on, Penske abandoned his dream of a college degree to focus on his growing business. “Snap Judgment” host Glynn Washington and comedian Wanda Sykes both talked about working through holidays to put in time on their auditions and routines, much to the chagrin of their loved ones.
Basically, the work part of this equation can be painful sometimes! But it’s also the most important part of the formula: no matter how much confidence or preparation you have, you’re never going to find your luck if you’re not showing up and putting in the work.
What If You‘re One of the Lucky Ones?
“To make your own luck, you have to take opportunities.” It’s a big idea at the heart of this post…but “take opportunities” isn’t especially useful advice when you can’t see any.
“It’s not that people don’t want to make it out; it’s just that people don’t know that they can.”
That’s why Jessica Santana thinks more people from her Brooklyn neighborhood can’t connect to luck or success. Her New York on Tech co-founder Evin Robinson says that he and Santana were both “lucky” enough to have mentors who pushed him to enroll in an enrichment program that took them out of their underresourced communities and into the working world — but many others in Brooklyn didn’t see the same opportunities.
To combat that, they’ve created a nonprofit that provides the tech classes and internship opportunities that Brooklyn’s public schools simply don’t have the resources to offer.
It’s an important thing to remember if you’re one of the “lucky” ones who manages to get started down your dream career path: There are people behind you who could use a lifeline to the same opportunities you seized, or could use some inspiration to jump, to put their work out there.
You don’t have to start your own organization like Jessica and Evin (although that would obviously be incredibly cool!). But you should definitely look into sharing the luck via our favorite pastime: mentorship! You can look for general local mentorship groups — like Big Brothers, Big Sisters — or find opportunities tailored to your skill sets or the populations you want to reach by using sites like mentoring.org.
Or you can put in just ~30 minutes and become a mentor right now by telling your story on our Share Your Road platform. If you really want to extend an opportunity to the students and job-seekers who need it, you can also include your personal website or LinkedIn profile so people who want to take Laney Gradus’ advice can reach out to you — and take the first steps towards creating their own luck.