What Is The Role Of Luck In Success?

I am currently listening to “The Virgin Way” audiobook by Richard Branson. One of the more interesting stories so far covers the subjects of good luck and good judgement.

And then there are those other serendipitous situations that come along once in a life time, where being in the right place at the right time can present an opportunity that doesn’t require a preparation to take an advantage of it. When that happens, it falls to the individual’s ability to recognize a situation for what it is and seize the moment.

My friend, let’s call him Antonio, was raised in Santiago, Chile and eventually attended California’s prestigious Stanford University, where he would earn a post-graduate degree in business administration and behavioral sciences. One day, while he was attending Stanford, Antonio was waiting on a long line outside of a movie theater, when he and the stranger next to him were told that the show was sold out and they’ll have to come back another day. The two of them struck a conversation and with some unanticipated free time on their hands, ended up going for a cup of coffee together. Over coffee, Antonio asked what the stranger, who was also attending Stanford, was up to. Antonio was told that he and a fellow student were working on a research project that has something to do with search engines. As they parted company, the stranger handed a copy of his research paper and suggested he read it over so they could talk more the next day. Antonio said he tried reading the highly technical document at night, but the bulk of it was all about algorithms and way over his head. He was however highly intrigued with the object of the exercise, which was to organize a vast amount of information on the web according to the popularity of the pages. In short, it struck his as an idea that had a lot of market potential. When Antonio met up with his new friend the next day, he asked how he could get involved. He was told they were in the early stages of raising capital to launch their business, that it was valued at a million dollars and they’d love to have him as an investor. In what was to become the watershed moment in his life, Antonio responded by saying – “Well, I have $10,000 that was intended for a second-hand car, but I might consider putting it into your company instead. What could that get me?” He was told it would give him a 1% ownership stake. And so they agreed that they had a deal. If you haven’t guessed by now, the student Antonio was speaking to was Sergey Brin…

A counter-point to my friend Antonio’s story is that of Ronald Wayne. Wayne had worked alongside Steve Jobs at Atari and became of the co-founders of Apple, along with Jobs and Wozniak. At 40-years of age, Wayne was almost twice older than his co-founders, so he agreed to essentially add as the venture’s adult supervisor, in return of which he was given a 10% stake in the company. Among other things, Wayne drew the partnership agreement between the three, drafted the company logo and wrote the Apple I manual. For a variety of reasons however, Wayne didn’t just feel comfortable that things are going to work out. He also didn’t particularly enjoyed working with Jobs. And so, after only a couple of months, Wayne called it quits and relinquished his stock in the company for a one-time payout of eight hundred dollars…Was it bad luck or bad judgement? Maybe a bit of both, but I’ll let you make up your own mind on this one.

My Chilean friend was no Ronald Wayne and has been astute enough never to sell a single Google share. He never got the used car, but that $10,000 is now worth billions. Suffice it to say that luckiest thing to ever happened to him is that Antonio went to see a popular movie in a small theater. Had there been just two more sits left, his life would have been very different. But in terms of making the luck work for him, he had to have the smarts to recognize an opportunity when it came along and greater, still the gut to risk his $10,000 (about all he had at the time) on a couple of young fellow students with a dream. This one I’d certainly put down to a combination of good luck and good judgement – two elements that the sum of which will always be greater than the whole.