Some people will tell you success has a lot to do with luck, and simply being in the right place at the right time.
But others argue that success is the result of hard work, luck has nothing to do with it.
So who is right? What does it really take to be successful?
In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about whether success in life is something you earn or something you are lucky enough to have handed to you.
Does success come with luck?
Let’s start by briefly summing up what we mean by luck.
Luck is defined as: “success apparently brought by chance rather than through one’s own actions.”
So what we’re essentially talking about here is whether or not chance plays a part in success, and if so, to what extent.
Surveys show that wealthier people are more likely to say they earned their success, rather than it being down to luck.
Perhaps that’s unsurprising. But is that true?
Well, research has found it is very common to underestimate the importance of external forces in individual success stories.
According to the Cornell University study, although “it is true that some degree of talent is necessary to be successful in life, almost never the most talented people reach the highest peaks of success, being overtaken by mediocre but sensibly luckier individuals.”
You can say that it’s lucky to be born into a billionaire family. It’s lucky to have a social circle with great contacts in business. Or that it’s lucky to grow up within a country that provides you with a free quality education.
After all, this is the sort of luck in life that the majority of the world certainly does not enjoy right now.
Research done in the UK undermines the idea that inequality is the product of ‘natural’ differences in individual ability.
It found that lower social classes experience more psychological costs than privileged people in society, including self-doubt, social anxiety, stress, and fear of how they are seen by others.
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So having a better start in life is not only about financial benefits, it seems to provide psychological ones as well — which are undeniably a twist of fate that is out of your control.
Winning the ovarian lottery
When it comes to certain life circumstances — where we are born, our health, our parents etc. — let’s face it, some people clearly have a greater advantage that was not “earned”.
Even whether you have a natural talent or stronger intellect than most is a genetic happenstance.
It could be argued then that this “luck” provides greater opportunities which make success easier to achieve.
This is something which has been famously acknowledged by one of the world’s richest men Warren Buffett — who is worth approximately 100 billion in case you’re wondering.
In his opinion, why does success depend on luck?
Because it relies upon what he refers to as “winning the ovarian lottery”.
Buffet says it was “through dumb luck” he was born a white man in the US — all significant factors that he believes allowed for his success.
There’s no shying away from the reality that to a certain extent chance and hence luck is a significant contributing factor in somebody’s success.
But importantly, it is also far from the whole picture.
Can you be successful without luck?
Even if we concede that luck of the draw is a factor in how far you go in life, there are countless stories which prove the same can be said for sheer hard work.
She may not be a household name, but the former chief executive at Pepsi, Indra Nooyi, is one of the world’s most successful women in business.
She’s spoken about how she worked as an overnight receptionist from midnight to 5am, just to earn money whilst she was getting her masters at Yale.
In an interview series for Pepsi, she also described arriving to work at 7 and rarely leaving until 8, taking paperwork home with her, and wishing there were extra hours in the day to do even more work.
Oh, and all this whilst raising two children.
I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to look her in the eye and tell her how “lucky” she is to have got where she did in life.
An unlucky story of success
Another of my own personal favourite success stories where sheer determination, bravery and damn hard work were to thank, is that of Project 523.
More specifically, a scientist named Tu Youyou who was the lead researcher of the secret group commissioned by China in the 1960s to develop antimalarial medications.
Her breakthroughs in modern medicine are thought to have saved millions of lives, earning her a Nobel Prize.
But she didn’t have an easy ride arriving at this phenomenal success. Some might even say luck was against her.
The journey began as a laborious and tedious job, running hundreds of tests that came to nothing.
After 2 years of work, a breakthrough discovery meant her team had to pretty much throw out all they had done and start again.
When they did finally have a vaccine ready to try out, there weren’t any human trials to test it.
So in an incredibly bold move, Youyou decided to inject herself with Malaria (along with two other team members) to see if the vaccine worked.
And even though it did, that was still just the start of her journey.
Prevented by the Chinese government from sharing her findings, she quietly continued her research for another decade before it was released.
Decades later still, in 2000 the World Health Organization finally recommended the treatment as a defense against malaria.
Perhaps if Tu Youyou’s tale tells us anything it’s that 1) Bad luck in life is just as random and uncontrollable as luck 2) misfortune can be overcome by effort and strength of character.
How is success earned?
Here’s the truth about creating our own luck that we often don’t want to hear: it’s rarely easy or even particularly fun.
It is the humble yet powerful foundations you build which make luck more likely to find you as you steadily get to work to earn your success.
You may not have a say in the hand that life deals you, but you can be responsible for creating more opportunities for luck to seek you out.
What are the characteristics of those people who create success in life?
Tenacity and resilience
If there is one thing that’s more likely to give you a shot at success in life, it’s gotta be taking more shots. The ability to try and fail, then rinse and repeat, is huge.
Resilience, persistence, and tenacity are not qualities you are born with, they are more like muscles which are built and flexed.
Research noted that resilience in entrepreneurs is a predictor of their success.
The more attempts we make at anything, the more likely we are to get it right and succeed. Resilience is a key component to ensure we keep on trying.
A growth mindset
Through years of pioneering research on mindset, American psychologist Carol Dweck demonstrated that some people see their abilities as fixed whilst others believe abilities can change over time.
This became known as either a fixed mindset or a growth mindset.
Significantly, she found that people with growth mindsets face challenges better.
They are less likely to give up when things get tough. Instead, they persevere, confident in the knowledge they will improve with time.
Experts now believe that your mindset really does define how well you succeed in life.
Which makes developing a growth mindset one of the best investments you can make if you want to find success in anything you attempt.
Focus and organisation
You can have the best ideas in the world but without a plan, you are at the mercy of luck (which we’ve already seen is a fickle mistress).
Perhaps the unsexiest component of success comes down to the ability to focus your attention on the task at hand.
And in order to do that, you have to have a success strategy to focus on in the first place.
It’s easy to see how keeping your eyes in the direction you are going, and having a map to take you there, drastically increases the likelihood of reaching your final destination.
Bottomline: Does luck or hard work create success?
You could say both do.
Nobody is ever exclusively lucky or unlucky in life.
Even if someone gets their big break from what seems like a stroke of luck, there is never any way of knowing if they would have found success by other means.
What is for sure is you cannot rely on luck to bring you success in life. By its very nature, it is unpredictable and uncontrollable.
On the other hand, earning success is within your control (although it clearly takes a lot more effort on our part).
How you show up for yourself, the steps you take, the resilience you show along the way and the efforts you make towards success are the only things you can influence.