Making Your Own Luck
If the twentieth-century career was a ladder that we climbed from one predictable rung to the next, the twenty-first-century career is more like a broad rock face that we are all free-climbing. There’s no defined route, and we must use our own ingenuity, training, and strength to rise to the top. We must make our own luck.
Ten years from now, we’ll probably all be doing some new type of work that we couldn’t possibly imagine today. That thought is both exhilarating and frightening. How do we prepare for a future filled with uncertainty?
- Look beyond the job title, and focus on your mission.
It’s easy to get sucked into chasing after a specific job title—whether it’s becoming a creative director, a chief marketing officer, or a product manager. But titles are a trap. The job you want today may not exist tomorrow. Thus, by tailoring your goals and your skill development to attaining a specific position, you limit your options.
- Explore new technologies with enthusiasm.
The tools you use today will not be the tools you use in the future. You may have heard the term “life sport” before. It refers to sports—like golf, tennis, or swimming—that you can play from ages seven to seventy. Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly recently expanded this concept to include technology as life sport, outlining a list of “techno life skills” that we should all cultivate.
- Make a habit of helping people whenever you can.
We can all be pretty sure we’re going to need help at some point in the future. As leadership expert and ethnographer Simon Sinek articulated in a rousing talk at our 99U Conference, “We’re not good at everything; we’re not good by ourselves.” Sinek went on to describe how the ability to build relationships is the key to our survival as a race and to thriving as idea-makers. The number one way to build relationships is, of course, by helping each other.
- Be proactive about taking on additional responsibilities and pitching new projects.
The days of “grooming” young employees for senior positions are over. No one is going to spend more time thinking about your career than you are.
- Cultivate your “luck quotient” by staying open and alert.
A chance meeting at a coffee shop leads you to your first business partner, a friend of a friend introduces you to a mentor who changes your life, a comment you posted on a blog ends up landing you a new writing gig. These are the kinds of chance events we chalk up to luck, as though they are totally out of our control.
- Always be asking “What’s next?”
If you’re not asking questions, you’re not going to find answers. We often wait to ask those hard career questions right up until the moment when we need the answer desperately. We wait until we get laid off to think about what’s next. Or we wait until we’re completely miserable and burned-out at our current job before we even begin to contemplate the next one.
Focusing on Getting Better, Rather than Being Good
People with above-average aptitudes—the ones we recognize as being especially clever, creative, insightful, or otherwise accomplished—often judge their abilities not only more harshly but fundamentally differently than others do. On the flip side, gifted children grow up to be more vulnerable and less sure of themselves, even when they should be the most confident people in the room.
Understanding why this happens is the first step in realizing your potential and avoiding the pitfalls that have derailed you in the past. The second step is to learn how you can change your own mind-set—the one you didn’t even realize you had—and learn to see your work and your world through a new, more inspiring, and more accurate lens.
When we have a Be Good mind-set, we are constantly comparing our performance with that of other people’s, to see how we size up and to receive validation for our talents. This is the mind-set we end up with when we are given too much “ability” praise and come to believe that our talents are innate and unchanging.
The problem with the Be Good mind-set is that it leaves us vulnerable when things get hard or when the people we compare ourselves with are excelling. We quickly start to doubt our ability
and this creates a lot of anxiety. Ironically, worrying about your ability makes you much more likely to ultimately fail. Countless studies have shown that nothing interferes with your performance quite like anxiety does—it is the creativity killer.
A Get Better mind-set, on the other hand, leads instead to self-comparison and a concern with making progress: How well am I doing today, compared with how I did yesterday, last month, or last year? Are my talents and abilities developing over time? Am I moving closer to becoming the creative professional I want to be?
Asking for Help on Your Journey
Many creative people see their work as primarily an individual endeavor. They consider the most valuable thing that others can do for them is to leave them alone. At times, of course, most of us do feel that way. After all, only one person can hold the pen or sit at the keyboard, and in the creative realm the best work often reflects a strong individual vision rather than a collective one.
As Albert Einstein wrote, “Everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual who can labor in freedom.” Many creatives follow this edict in pursuing their own projects. But if this approach is followed too closely, we can miss out on valuable help that can advance our work.
- Seek fellow travelers.
Regardless of your needs, there is one quality that is especially important in choosing fellow travelers: Will they tell you the truth? There are many reasons why people may fail this test—the quality of your relationship, their position in the organization, their personality traits—but many perfectly nice individuals, with whom you could enjoy a drink or a dinner, may not be ideal helpers. Get very concrete about the help you are seeking and learn to “audition” people until you find what you need.
- Ask for help.
This can be very difficult for people who see creative work as a solitary pursuit and any request for assistance as some combination of laziness or cowardice. If you think along these lines, and are able to overcome it, you are likely to encounter two surprises: first, people in general will be willing to help and, second, that help will be far more useful than you might have imagined. In any case, the first step is to ask. The worst that can happen is that someone will say no or will offer suggestions that are not especially helpful and can be ignored.
- Build a structure for collaboration.
This can take care of itself if a single meeting serves your needs. However, a broader engagement is often helpful.
- Consider yourselves “accountability partners.”
There are several important points here. First, it requires a fellow traveler who is willing to hold you accountable, which means to help you establish milestones in a project and remind you of them or help you reach them as needed. Second, it implies a partnership, as the most enduring of these arrangements involve some reciprocity, though not necessarily within a given meeting or even a given month. Finally, note that strong partnerships are often based on contrasting rather than coinciding strengths, so you’ll want to avoid the comfortable trap of seeking someone too similar to yourself.
Leaning into Uncertainty
Every creative endeavor, from writing a book to designing a brand to launching a company, follows what’s known as an Uncertainty Curve. The beginning of a project is defined by maximum freedom, very little constraint, and high levels of uncertainty. Everything is possible; options, paths, ideas, variations, and directions are all on the table. At the same time, nobody knows exactly what the final output or outcome will be. And, at times, even whether it will be. Which is exactly the way it should be.
Over time, the creators or teams begin to act. They spin all the crazy ideas in their heads onto the page, the digital landscape, the canvas, the business. With each trial, they begin to see what’s working and what’s not. Data and experience begin to replace intuition and leaps of faith. Freedom begins to yield to constraint, the variables and possibilities that created great uncertainty begin to become fact, creating more certainty about what the process will yield and whether it will succeed. The venture and its outcome begin to take form.
Bumps along the way inevitably happen. Ideas that seemed to have great potential bomb, sending the creative team back to the drawing board and ramping them back into higher states of freedom, but also uncertainty.
Finally, through much experimentation, the deed is done. The book is written. The brand is designed. The company is launched. The move made. Freedom, at least with regard to this phase of the endeavor, is gone, consumed by structure and form. Uncertainty has given way to certainty. You now know exactly what it looks and feels like, and whether you were capable of pulling it off.
Move too slowly and there’s no output. The process becomes consumed by inertia and either suffers from paralysis or moves at a pace that’s so slow it all but ensures the endeavor is killed before it ever yields meaningful output. We’ve all experienced that.
What may be less apparent, though, is that moving too quickly can get you faster to output, but end up yielding something that’s far below what you’d have been capable of creating had you stayed in the process longer.
Richard Wiseman actually conducted a fun experiment around this. He assembled two groups of people who identified as either being very lucky or very unlucky. Each was given a newspaper and told to count the number of pictures. The unlucky group took about two minutes. The lucky group took about two seconds. Both came up with the right number. What gives?
Turns out, these were specially printed newspapers. On the inside front cover, above the fold in two-inch block letters, was a message that read: “Stop counting. There are forty-three photographs in this newspaper.” The people who identified themselves as unlucky were so focused on the task that they completely ignored the much bigger prize. The people who identified themselves as lucky remained open to the possibility that something outside the rigid instructions might come their way to make the task better or easier.
The Better You
Someone is sitting at your desk. There is something familiar about this person. From a distance, this person bears a striking resemblance to you: they have the same frame, the same face, the same features as you. But as you get closer, you begin to notice subtle differences between this person and yourself. They look like they eat healthier and exercise a little more regularly. Their posture is slightly better and their clothes have fewer wrinkles. This person is the Better You.
The Better You knows the same things you know. They’ve had the same successes you’ve had, and they’ve made the same mistakes. They strive for the same virtues and falter to the same vices. The Better You procrastinates, too. The Better You is not perfect. But the difference between you and the Better You is that the latter reacts a little faster, with a little more willpower. They practice their virtues a little more often and succumb to their vices a little less often. They rein in their procrastination a little quicker. They start their work a little earlier. They know when to take a break a little sooner.
The Better You knows, just as you know, that doing what you love is difficult but worthwhile. They know, just as you know, that the difficulty is what makes it worthwhile in the first place. They know, as you know, that if everything was easy, nothing would have significance, and you wouldn’t need to adopt new metaphors or read new books about how to do the work you should be doing.
But the Better You knows, just as you know, that the thrill is in the chase, that happiness is motion, and that fulfillment is the constant striving for that which is just beyond our reach. The Better You knows this is the way it has always been, and the way it always will be. And you know it, too.