Improve Your Probability of Success at Work by Turning on the Luck Machine

Luck matters a lot.

Think of an Olympic 400 meter runner who slips on a stray banana skin just before the finish line, ruining their one chance at a gold medal. A split-second stroke of bad luck means the difference between crushing disappointment, regret and alcoholism compared to joy, adulation and their image on a Nike billboard at Narita airport.

Even when you have skills, talents or underlying gifts, luck can play a crucial role:

– You’re extremely eligible bachelor (people tell you that you look like a middle-aged Justin Timberlake), but even then, meeting the woman of your dreams may come down to a chance meeting at a rehab center in Florida.

– JK Rowling is an extremely good writer. But it’s almost certain that there are authors just as talented as her who have written potentially global bestsellers but are still making a living scraping congealed cheese from plates in the back of a diner.

“Luck is probability taken personally” Chip Denman.

One way to think of luck is as probability taken personally.

Anything that can happen has a probability attached to it. In a raffle, lottery or casino game you may know the probability. In most of life you have no idea. No one does [1]. Probability happens at the level of a system but if the event happens to someone, it’s called luck.

If you buy a ticket in a raffle and win, you take home the prize and call yourself lucky. If someone else wins it, the luck is theirs. The probability didn’t change, but who got lucky did.

But luck is unpredictable and outside of the realms of human control (by definition). So crossing your fingers, stroking a lucky rabbit’s foot, performing a blood sacrifice to Odin or saying a positive affirmation while seated in the lotus position won’t change the odds of the ticket winning.

In a (fair) raffle, a ticket has a fixed chance of winning and there’s nothing we can do about it. The underlying probability of that one ticket can’t be changed, meaning that we can’t change our luck. BUT we can actually improve our odds overall. How? By simply buying more tickets.

The more tickets you buy, the more you improve your odds of winning

We can apply this simple idea to many different endeavors in life.

The Bestselling Author’s Secret

In the book “Write, Publish, Repeat” [2], the authors say that when it comes to selling books, most writers will focus on how to promote their existing book. But the surprising truth about book marketing is that:

“Writing more is almost always the best way to find readers”

In other words, the best marketing for an existing book is to write another book.

They go on to say:

“Each book is a little funnel and it’s out there scooping a few people towards you at a time. Some will stick, and read your other works. If you actually have other works for them to read…”

For similar reasons, in other fields, you improve your odds of success, when you are more “prolific”:

– A salesperson who calls on more prospects improves their chances of making a sale.

– The more children you have, the more likely one will be the next Lady Gaga.

– A painter who has created a new sculpture should get back to doing more painting.

(Though I’m not sure if this advice is good for dating [3].)

The Fast Track to Hollywood

If doing more increases your chances of success, where does quality of what you’re doing fit into the equation?

Imagine that you’re a young movie director who is absolutely determined to make it to Hollywood.

You decide that your best bet at getting the attention of the big studios is to focus on making the best possible movie you can, no matter how long it takes.

15 years later, after extensive rewriting, switching genre from romantic comedy to horror, months of editing and a ton of reshoots on a shoestring budget, you’re ready to release the movie.

Was this the best use of your time?

Put another way, does spending more time on a movie improves the chance of it being a breakout hit?

Sure, there is a minimum level of quality needed for success to be possible (It’s hard to imagine any possible universe in which “The Adjustment Bureau” is a hit) but beyond that, predicting which movie will be a blockbuster is impossible. A lot of it comes down to luck [4].

And if you can’t predict success with a particular movie, then it’s clear that extra time spent agonizingly fine-tuning your work of art is a waste of time. You’re better off using the time to make another movie.

If the Beatles Had Released Just One Song

If you have just one shot at glory, you’re probably going to fail.

If the Beatles had released only one song and then just waited for their big break, we would never have heard of them. Even one-hit-wonders have usually been producing lots of music before they get their golden opportunity.

With any band (even Nickelback), the more songs they release the more their chance of success

In many ways, what we’re talking about is a VC approach to success. Venture capitalists invest in lots of startups. Like with movies and music, they find it hard to accurately predict which companies will succeed (and the chance of a particular startup becoming the next Dropbox or Instagram is very low). So they are OK with most of their investments failing as long as one or two really make it big. Again, obviously a minimum level of quality for each investment is crucial.

Movie studios are also essentially using the VC model, because they finance lots of sequels hoping that one will be the next blockbuster.

But it’s not just a number’s game. There are other benefits to producing more that will maximize your odds of success.

The $10,000 Wager

Imagine that a friend offers you a wager.

You’ll flip a coin 9 times.

– If the coin comes up with 5 out of 9 HEADS, you get $10,000.
– If it comes up with 5 out of 9 TAILS, you pay $10,000.

Crucially you get to choose the coin to ensure your friend is not pulling any funny business.

You accept the wager.

Let’s say that the first coin tosses go against you: 3 tails.

If 2 more tails come up, you’ll owe $10,000. Should you start to panic?

Yes. Because a coin toss has what’s called the Markov property. This means each toss of a fair coin is unaffected by previous ones. A run of tails doesn’t automatically get evened out by a run of heads.

This is bad news for you, because you now need 5 out of 6 heads to win.

Three unpopular novels. Now what?

Now imagine that you’re a novelist who has written 3 novels but still had zero sales. Should you panic?

Not necessarily. Because novels don’t have the Markov property. Each additional novel is like a funnel that increases the chance of previous novels being bought. 3 novels could be just the beginning.

But there’s more to it than that. If you focus on improving your writing skills, each novel should be better than the subsequent one. By the time you get to the 5th or 6th novel, your chances of success may be improving because your writing is so much better.

You can also improve your skills at promoting your work. For instance a jazz singer who builds up a database of hipsters who buy their albums, can more efficiently market to them so that subsequent albums get a boost that earlier ones didn’t.

Bear in mind that what we’re talking about here isn’t just the passive improvement that results from repeating a task over and over again. This is also about conscious improvement built upon feedback, trial and error and deliberate practice. It’s not automatic; you have to work at it.

If you are improving, this means that the more you do, the more your chances improve. Returning to the coin toss analogy, it’s like you’ve got a magic rigged coin on your side. Each additional flip of the coin actually improves your chances [6].

So to summarize what we’ve covered so far:

– You improve your odds of success when you produce or create more. Success rarely comes from one shot.

– Not only do you need to produce more, but you need to ensure that what you produce is of a minimum level of quality

– The more you stick at it, the more likely the quality will improve. It’s a virtuous cycle.

So what’s the problem?

The Challenge of Being Prolific

Let’s say you’re a blogger whose site is extremely popular with your mother but very few other people. If you want more non-family members to discover your blog, you should write more quality blog posts (and promote them more).

But for many bloggers, after a few months of writing with no positive feedback and no income (and the pain of realizing that telling people you’re a blogger gets you more pity than awe), they soon get disillusioned and give up. They have not given themselves enough time to get the benefits of being prolific.

To avoid this fate, one useful trick is the idea of the “First Goal”.

The “First Goal” is a commitment to an initial amount of work that you are 100% sure you will stick with “no matter what”.

In this example, although your eventual goal is worldwide blogging stardom over a long career, you decide to make a cast-iron initial commitment. You pledge to write one blog post per week, for 50 weeks. In other words a year of blogging, no matter what.[5].

In this example “no matter what” includes:

– No one reading your blog

– Feelings of failure and despondence

– Thermonuclear war

– Lots of second thoughts (and seemingly rational justifications about why you should change course).

– Suggestions by family or friends about how it would be a better idea to give up “this blogging nonsense” and join the Bloomingdales Executive Sales Program.

In short, you will expect to have bad days, terrible days and even awful days, but for the period of time it takes to write 50 blog posts you will not be swayed.

All the setbacks that would cause lesser mortals to throw in the towel will not affect you because you’ve essentially made a deal with yourself to ignore the doubts for this finite time. After the time has elapsed, you are welcome to have as many doubts as you like.

It’s important to note that your first goal is never your ultimate goal. You don’t expect a six-figure income from your blog after achieving the first goal (although that would be nice). But what you do expect is a habit of regular production and momentum which are crucial ingredients of success.

How to make sure you stick to the plan

– Persisting through setbacks until you reach the goal is clearly much easier if you enjoy the process itself. A writer who would prefer to dress up poodles in Victorian formal attire than write their book will have a lot of difficulty sticking to the task. If you don’t love what you need to do to achieve the goal, then it’s better to choose another goal.

– Having someone else to keep you accountable to the goal is very helpful. This accountability should be structured, regular and scheduled (the scheduled part is very important).

– Being able to ignore negative thoughts and doubts (until you’ve reached the first goal) is a skill just like gall bladder surgery and distilling whisky. You will get better at it, the more you do it.

– Be open to the fact that especially if your goal is rare or difficult, there is still a high chance of failure. In these cases it’s handy to have other benefits from the process, like skills acquisition or being able to use what you’ve produced to pivot to another goal.

The crucial thing is that you must be completely inflexible about the need to reach that first goal. Nothing must stand in your way. If you don’t think you can be inflexible, then don’t set the goal. Every time you set and then DON’T fulfill a goal, you undermine confidence in yourself.

The First Goal works, because it is finite, manageable and feels achievable rather than vague, open-ended and overwhelming

Using the “First Goal” to get a promotion at work

I’ve used a blogger as an example, but this sort of approach could also be applied in plenty of other situations.

Imagine that you work for a company and are sick of getting passed over for promotion. You realize that your value to the company is dependent on your particular set of skills (skills that you have acquired over a very short career). The more you develop each skill, the more valuable you are and hence the greater likelihood you will be promoted or hired away (taken – so to speak) by another company.

Let’s say you decide that there are 5 areas you could improve in: data analysis, report writing, hiding your feelings of contempt and disrespect for your manager, public speaking and project management.

You could make a “first goal” to focus on one skill per 6 months.

Over two and a half years, you would have potentially developed five new skills and be significantly more qualified than you were before. Each area you have improved is another raffle ticket, with the prize being promotion.

If you think two and a half years is a long time, remember the time will pass anyway. And rather than wasting it flitting about getting more and more resentful at not getting promoted, this provides a focused approach to create value and skill.

Conclusion: Don’t be a Hero

Most people are extremely short-term focused, always searching for a quick fix. Dieters want to lose weight in a few weeks, company executives look at the next quarter and some families make financial decisions based on whether they have space on their credit card to handle it.

Similar to looking for a quick fix, many people think that success should come from one heroic long shot. If this is your plan, the sad news is that you will require lots and lots of luck, and even then, you’ll probably fail.

But when you take a long-term view you turn on “the luck machine”. Instead of hoping for the best, you focus on creating more. The more you produce, the better you’ll get and the more chances of victory you’re creating.

This is the most reliable method for improving your odds of success.

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1. Three excellent books about probability are all by the same author, Nassim Nicholas Taleb: Fooled by Randomness, Black Swan, Antifragile. Black Swan is the most well known, but they are all brilliant.

2. Write, Publish, Repeat: The No Luck Required Guide to Self-Publishing

3. When it comes to dating in order to find a long-term relationship, I’m not sure if “buying more tickets” is such a good idea. The tyranny of choice – too many options – can actually prevent some people from making a commitment because they are constantly thinking “Maybe there is someone better out there?”. This is the downside of online dating, because meeting another person is just a click away so people don’t feel as invested in making any particular meeting work.

4. In fact, anything that relies on popularity has unpredictable positive feedback loops that can turn small initial (and uncontrollable) advantages into runaway success.

5. This is actually a variation of the approach I am using for this blog you are reading right now. I’ve committed to starting a blog from scratch and a “first goal” of writing 10 long-form articles.

6. If we fully apply the coin toss analogy to novels, because a new novel can also increase sales of already written novels, it’s actually as if each additional flip of the coin improves the chances of current and future flips but also past flips!