How much of a role does luck play in your career?

January 30, 2023

Why do some people, and not others, succeed in their careers?

It’s mostly luck, 55% luck to be exact—or at least that’s the number calculated by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, professor of business psychology at University College London, writing in Forbes. The other 45%, he claims, is talent and effort.

While we will likely never know exactly how much luck (or fortune, randomness, or fate) contributes to success, it’s clear that it does. And there may be ways to bend it to your advantage.

For Charmorro-Premuzic, luck is anything other than talent and effort, including socioeconomic status at birth. It’s anything that determines outcomes and is beyond one’s control.

Luck may be a paltry concept if we’re looking for explanations. There may be better explanations than luck if we want to know, for example, why a specific person was passed over for a promotion. But as a future-oriented and practical concept, luck may help us to handle uncertainty and harness randomness. If we know that the future is uncertain, that it is governed to an extent by “luck,” then we can plan for it.

Over the years, experts in career advice and leadership have invented methods for working with luck, especially for adapting mindsets and habits that can make luck work for us. In today’s world of work, where rapid change is the norm, the careers that we plan may change dramatically or may not even exist in a short time. By working with luck, we may discover careers we had never considered. Fulfilling careers might find us if we play our cards right.

Passion may not lead to success, especially in careers where luck reigns

Following one’s passion may not be good advice.

A meta-analysis, which examined results from 175 studies, found that people who pursued their passion—compared to people who did not—did not enjoy greater “objective success,” such as higher salaries and promotions. They did have modestly higher “subjective success,” which the study defined as career satisfaction and well-being. But these gains were negligible.

“What typically happens is people with this [passion] mindset are slightly happier, but not to any practically substantial degree,” explain the study’s authors, Daniel Goering and Christina Li. “Thus, instead of focusing solely on passion, realize that any given job requires not only meaningfulness, but also competence.”

While Goering and Li emphasize that one must be competent—not only passionate—to succeed, there is evidence too that some careers have “high variance,” meaning that even people who are skilled have low chances of succeeding. Careers in academia, for instance, are high variance, while a career in dentistry is low variance: skilled dentists nearly always meet with success.

A person who follows their passion may find themselves in a high variance career, where success is unlikely and determined by neither talent nor effort but by what we might call luck.

“Proceed with caution in solely following your passion,” Goering and Li advise.

Explore career paths with an open mind—network and apply widely

Because success often hinges on luck, many career experts recommend not latching onto a single dream career. Instead, you might be better off keeping your options open and learning about alternate career paths.

“Imagine if instead of trying to fit into some idealized version of your future, you let yourself be surprised,” write Thomas Roulet and Benjamin Laker in Harvard Business Review. “You enter the workforce with an open mind rather than a wish.”

Roulet and Laker suggest two methods for cultivating “serendipity,” their preferred term for luck. They recommend meeting people from a broad range of industries and applying to jobs outside your planned career path. In this way, you can take advantage of the unpredictability of meeting new people and learning about careers you have not considered before.

Roulet and Laker suggest what they call “serendipitous networking,” or meeting new people with no goal other than learning new stories and perspectives. The purpose is to learn information about potential career paths with an open mind. According to Roulet and Laker, serendipitous networking can also lead to new careers because, through it, you can learn novel information about job opportunities not available elsewhere.

Beyond networking, Roulet and Laker suggest applying to a broad range of jobs, even if they’re outside your passion, since you might be offered an attractive job that you had not considered before.

“Do not limit yourself — apply to any and everything that sparks your interest,” write Roulet and Laker. “Your goal is to put your name out into the universe and let the recruiters come to you. This is one way of creating luck or ‘tempting fate.’”

Develop learning agility—new careers, new identities, new skills

Once you identify new career possibilities, you may need some help deciding whether to begin traveling along a new career path. You may need help with learning new skills too.

Some career advice suggests reflecting on who you are or who you want to be during career transitions. Sarah Wittman, Assistant Professor of Management at George Mason University’s School of Business, observes that new careers come with new identities, and for a new career to be a good fit, the new identity must be one that can see yourself embracing.

Another approach is to develop “learning agility,” an ability to change even deeply held views when new information comes to light.

“People who measure high in learning agility manage their career with a readiness to adapt, stay curious, are reflective, minimize defensiveness, and unlearn deeply held mental models to make room for more purposeful ones,” writes Nihar Chhaya, an executive coach to leaders at global companies.

People with learning agility are better able to navigate career uncertainty, Chhaya claims. They may be better able to adapt their identities and thinking to new careers and jobs as they emerge.

Careers rarely follow a neat, linear plan. By working with luck, we might be able to find fulfilling careers, even in an era of disruption and uncertainty.

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