The Soul of Success Part 4 – Role of Luck


Happy new year to all that celebrate it today (Tamils, Malayalis, Assamese, Punjabis..). As always, thanks for the insightful comments on part 3  (here is part1part2). Kumaran’s comment on Penicillin and Potato Chips , Nimmy’s comment on the invention of electric car being appreciated when fuel shortages occur, Ganesh’s comment about startups reinventing themselves  really got me into thinking about the role of luck.  In fact, Malcolm Gladwell’s dedicates most of his book Outliers to the concept of being in the right place at the right time, which is luck wearing fancy clothes. 

Extreme Luck

First, i wanted to look at Luck in the extreme. Someone who won a jackpot in the lottery is the best example i could think of. There is almost zero effort (if you don’t count driving to the lottery store) and marginal expense (cost of a few lottery tickets).  I am sure you will all agree that there is simply no explanation other than luck when someone wins a lottery ticket.  I am sure you will all agree that this luck doesn’t come to most people. 


Opportunity is a word that often goes with Luck.  There seems to be 4 kinds of opportunities:

1. When you are chasing a particular goal, you find opportunities that fit your goal, you execute and meet your goal. 

2. When you are chasing a particular goal, something else more promising happens, that forces you to look at the something else and make it your goal. Most serendipitous discoveries of the type Kumaran pointed out. 

3.  When you are chasing a particular goal,  after a lot of trying, you find out that the endevor is a failure and reinvent yourself.  This is the type that Ganesh pointed out. 

4. When you are chasing a goal, you make some mistakes, but you find out that due to mistakes that other people made, your mistakes didn’t affect you and you are able to chase your goal and succeed.  To quote an example from my life –  in my early days of being a leader, i didn’t know how to flex my style to work with my team mates. Some people who i found very difficult to work with due to style differences quit the company and that turned out to be my advantage because they were not around to spread negativity to the rest of my team. 

Are there other kinds of opportunities you can think of? 

Right Place at the Right Time

If you look at the list of opportunities again, it would be clear that none of those opportunities will be present if one is not at the right place at the right time. For example, if Alexander Fleming weren’t studying bacteria, he would not have observed the mold killing the bacteria.  Since we don’t control for the most part directly, where we are born, what exposure we get to have in our childhood and youth, being in the right place at the right time is critically important.  Malcom Gladwell, is right about that part.    I also firmly believe, from my experience, that being in the right place at the right time matters a lot. However, Gladwell missed one critical ingredient.

Luck Revisited

If you look at the opportunities list again, it would be clear that all these opportunities occur in most people’s lives. But then many of them don’t take advantage of it. Take the same Alexander Fleming example. I am sure there were several scientists who were studying bacteria during Fleming’s time but only he was able to discover penicillin.   Why is it that Fleming succeeded when the others didn’t even when presented with the same opportunity? 

In the same way, instead of asking whether we should recalibrate our goals, ask whether you have spotted a big possibly insurmountable reason to recalibrate, you may find the answer. 

Prof Richard Wiseman  , a psychologist from the UK,  has done extensive work on Luck.  Please make sure to  read this brilliant article titled “The Luck Factor” that covers his key research findings.  His interesting research proved this – that people who are seen as lucky are simply better at spotting opportunities

The Goal

From Wiseman’s research, it is clear that spotting opportunities is a mindset thing. How can we get that mindset?  In my view, it is focus. If we focus ourselves on the right set of goals, and our mind is in a prepared state to spot opportunities, that occur in all of our lives, we can succeed. 

I will give a trivial example of what focus can do. When was in the USA, we bought our first car – a Saturn. We bought a green car because my wife likes green. The salesman trying to do his bit said to us – you know what “green” is a rare colour in Saturn, very few people buy that color.  Once i started driving the car, i started focusing on green color Saturns and i found to my dismay that almost one in three Saturns were green in color.  Is this because, all of a sudden people started buying green Saturns? Absolutely not, it is simply due to the fact that until then, i had not noticed the color of  Saturns.  


In sum, being in the right place at right time matters, but with a mindset that is focused on your goals, you can spot opportunities and be successful. Remember where we started – have the right goals – don’t chase money or fame as goals. 

As always please chime away with your views.

Notes & References:

1. Charlie Munger’s speech – f***ing brilliant speech that is one of the most insightful i have ever read about success. 

2. Steve Jobs’ brilliant speech at Stanford


  1. Quote

    A fascinating series of posts, in all! 🙂 Just read the previous post and left a comment. Looks like I am early in on this one. I like what you’ve pondered over under the section “The Goal” and how you’ve concluded that it’s all about spotting the opportunity and developing a mindset that helps us focus. In other words, we must work really hard to scan the horizon and be alert enough to see the opportunity and grab it even if it happens to be disguised in beggar’s clothes. (Spectators may perceive that to be luck!)

    I guess there is another angle to this whole thing…..having the ability to recognize what the world needs…or at least what your immediate circle/community needs when you’re out to set your goal. Having said that, it may even so happen that you achieve your goal, but are not appreciated for it, by the world, at that point of time but your genius is recognized later on when the time somehow seems to be “right” for it. But as long as you were happy chasing that goal for what it was expected to deliver in the long run and was not looking for fame/credit, all is well with the world! It simply means you are a visionary and ahead of your times or in some sad cases, it may mean you failed in selling your idea to the general public.

    Funnily enough, going back to the concept of luck, there are people who get lucky but don’t see themselves through it! (Like a person who gambles away what he received in the lottery) Maybe because their goals aren’t strong enough to lend them the passion that they need to “stay” lucky! I think I am going all over the place! Let me try and summarize!

    – You don’t have to be lucky to be happy or achieve what you want to achieve. That is, you don’t have to wait for an external power to make things happen…you have the ability to control your own life. Paradoxically, when you control your life, external things will actually fall in place and align themselves thus making it seem like you’re lucky!

    PS: There are some more thoughts floating around in my mind right now….but I think it would be tantamount to rambling if I go on…maybe will come back and post those thoughts later…with more clarity!

  2. Quote

    Interesting perspectives as always. They seem pretty coherent to me, definitely not rambling.

    1. Vincent Van Gogh fits your description of a person whose works were much appreciated only after his death. though his success is posthumous, which is sad, he is a roaring success all the same.

    2. You are right, people who hit the jackpot, rarely have the skills to keep their luck. That is often the problem when we have not earned our success, we don’t know how to deal with it. This happens a lot to celebrities who have hit the big time too early in their careers. Success gets to their head and takes them downhill.

    3. The third point seems like it has been inspired by “The Laws of Attraction”. In my view, as i said in my post, luck still plays a part in you being in the right place at the right time. i am not sure you can control your life to that extent, because a lot of external factors play a part.

    Look forward to more of your insightful comments.

  3. Quote

    karma, fate, maktub, destiny, inshallah, it is written, predestination, no independent origination …

    ramana maharshi said everything the body will go through is set in motion at the moment of conception …

    not easy concepts for the masters of the universe to accept, or for people who see themselves as doers …

    and isn’t it amusing how everyone takes credit for what goes right, everybody blames circumstances for what goes wrong … goals or no goals

    enjoy, gregory lent

  4. Quote

    Interesting perspective Gregory. With all due respect to great sages like Ramana Maharishi, complete predetermination (in other words extreme unluckiness) does not seem to be a correct model of the world.

    In my view, this whole previous birth’s karma holding us down in this birth philosophy has caused enormous damage to India.

    Let me give an analogy. I think life is analogous to a game of cards. You are dealt a certain set of cards, but then like in a game of cards, you can use your skills to win the game.

    Complete predetermination seems to lead to a defeatist attitude. It may work for sages who have renounced everything, but for regular people, the philosophy of complete predetermination can only cause problems. As i said before, this is one of the main reasons, why India is held back. Our people don’t seem to believe that they can get things to change for the better.

    On the other hand, as i explained in my previous comment, the “Law of Attraction” philosophy which is arguing the other extreme view – everything is under your control, does not seem to be a correct model of the world either.

    You are right, it is arrogant to think that “right place at the right time” or “luck” does not play a part in anyone’s success. As i explained, “right place at the right time” is the set of cards we are dealt. It is upto us to develop the skills to win the game.

    Hope that helps.

  5. Quote

    Very nice post Sukumar as always and interesting too. I have a very mixed opinion about it, because stroke of luck may mean different things to different ppl. For some it may be money, for some fame, etc.

    I will call the person lucky, if he gets what he wants just by merely asking for it. They may not work hard for that, but they will get it, they are bound to get what they want. Some external force, yes, definitely may be stars, or may be, as they say, some good deed they must have done, or with someone’s blessings.

    On the other hand Look at the celebrities( freida Pinto, Shilpa shetty) what do they do, act in some movie/reality show, get fame, money, everything ; shilpa shetty even got a honorary doctorate (for what, i don’t know ) and look at doctors, engineers, who work around day and night, but do not get the same amount of fame and success.

    You gave the example of Alexander Fleming, he was the only one to discover penicillin, the others didn’t because I think the fame was not in their destiny, so they just didn’t get lucky.

    There are different thoughts that cross our minds, when we talk about luck as we start correlating with our lives and whom we have seen luckier than ourselves.

    I will read the links provided by you and may be come back again and comment!

  6. Quote
    kumaran said April 14, 2009, 9:37 pm:


    I like the analogy of being dealt with a game of cards. But it is funny I look at the same analogy from a slightly different perspective. Just another concept or a thought process obviously not a theory. 🙂

    To play the game of cards I need to get into a casino/club. I need to buy myself some chips. But to do both I need money.
    Also once the card comes I need to play.

    So it goes like
    1. I have to work hard with full commitment to earn money to enter the casino and buy the chips. ( hard work needed )
    2. Then I depend on luck to get a good set of cards compared to my house or my opponents at the table. (luck needed here )
    3. Now play the game ( skills needed here – skills got by hard work )
    4. Hopefully the opponents are not as smart as I am ( I am greedy that my luck will help me here to some extent )

    so I guess for every game in life we go through phases where hard work and luck play their part. I guess the key is identify which task or activity is depended on luck and which one on hard work.

    This point looks like ties into your comment about sweeping statements like ‘I control everything’ or ‘nothing is my control’. Well I guess the challenge is to differentiate both.

    A para that comes to my mind which rhymes with the above not an exact fit but something along similar lines the Serenity Prayer
    God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. .

  7. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said April 14, 2009, 9:51 pm:

    Thanks. Yes, this topic of luck is quite controversial. Not sure, if you read part2, where we discussed Extremistan Professions (Shilpa Shetty..) and Mediocristan Professions (Doctors, Engineers..). Hopefully that answers the first part of your comment.

    As i said in my post, Alexander Fleming was the only one who decided to explore why the bacteria were dying and discovered that it was a mold which led to the discovery of penicillin. I am sure a zillion scientists contemporaneous with Fleming would have a bacterial culture that didn’t grow and they would have simply thrown the batch out and started over. But Fleming decided to explore what happened. That is certainly not luck. Luck may have played a part in him choosing to become a scientist working with bacterial cultures but not completely in the discovery of penicillin. This is a crucial distinction between luck and opportunity. I tried my best to explain this distinction in the body of the post.

    Look forward to your comments after you got a chance to read and reflect some more.

  8. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said April 14, 2009, 9:56 pm:

    Wow! you have explained the same deck of cards analogy more fully fleshing out the concepts of luck and opportunity. Well done.

    The Serenity Prayer is brilliant. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Quote

    Successful people are also those who create opportunities instead of waiting for them.
    Lucky are the ones on whom opportunities thrust themselves when they neither recognized it nor pursued any goals in that direction.

  10. Quote

    Success is something unique, so we can never formulate it, if we do formulate it will be copied by everyone and lose its uniqueness and success will have to be recaliberated. I guess we can just provide a framework and guidelines to it. Everyone has to create their own formula.

    Nice Series !!

  11. Quote

    I got one more aggressive opportunity type. The one in which u disable all the other competitor’s opportunity and thereby establishing your dominance and success. Coca Cola and Pepsi removed all the local competitors or bought them.

  12. Quote


    I got a chance to read the 4 part series yesterday in leisure. Brilliant. The past 3 months, I have been thinking about similar things like money, opportunities, fame, goals etc and I find your posts very apt/relevant now.

    I agree with you when you say //If we focus ourselves on the right set of goals, and our mind is in a prepared state to spot opportunities, that occur in all of our lives, we can succeed.

    I was looking out for opportunities in the social sector after coming back from the U.S. My mind was focused on that goal. One day I actually found out that there is an NGO right next to my house here in Hyd. I have walked through that road a 100 times and I have lived in this house for 10 years but I never saw the “board” of the NGO till now. When my mind was focused on opportunities in the social sector, I actually first time “noticed” the board and entered the organization where I am presently working on a temporary basis.

    It shows how our mind becomes alert to opportunities when we focus on a goal.

    Great series. Was really interesting to read all your views in such a coherent manner.

  13. Quote

    Thanks Rajesh. Good one – “Lucky are the ones on whom opportunities thrust themselves when they neither recognized it nor pursued any goals in that direction.”

  14. Quote

    I think you are contradicting yourself. If success is unique, which i agree, how can people copy it. What we are discussing is a general framework, right? The framework needs to be filled out by the individuals.

  15. Quote

    Good one. Disabling competitors. Sometimes you may need to do that. I never would advocate doing that, but i guess it is something to have in the repertoire.

  16. Quote

    Thanks for the kind words. That is a fantastic example of how a prepared mind spots opportunities which were lying right there in front of us all along.

    I am still not satisfied with the “goals” part of it. while it is clear that if you have a goal and focus on it, it works. we also agree that money or fame cannot be goals. But we have not explained what the right goals are still. We have some broad ideas about Extremistan and Mediocristan, but we yet lack the specifics.

    Maybe since you have been thinking about this a lot recently, maybe you can contribute some thoughts.

  17. Quote


    One more good post in a nice thread of articles. You bring up a very good point – ability to spot the opportunity and taking advantage of it. I do agree with you that being at the right place at the right time counts for a lot and that is where serendipity stops. But, once you are at the right place/right time, being able to spot opportunities and more importantly taking advantage of such opportunities separates the successful ones from the also rans.

    Having said that, there are a few who are always (or mostly) at the right place at the right time. Warren Buffet comes to mind. We cannot call them as being consistently lucky, just that they have been able to create their own luck 😉

  18. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said April 20, 2009, 9:04 am:

    Thanks. I am sure there are exceptions to the rule, right? It is very difficult to see 2 people at the helm in the same company with extraordinary abilities (Buffett and Munger) like Berkshire. Can we say, we can manufacture our own luck, if we can work closely with one or more such extraordinarily capable people? I don’t know how to answer this question, frankly.

    Maybe others in the group have a bright answer?

  19. Quote

    Yes Sukumar , I did mean we can just create a framework for success.

    Although you may not like disabling the competitors, this has been the order of the day since evolution ” Survival of the fittest ” either in aggressive way or as last man standing(recognizing opportunities).

    Being at right place and recognizing opportunity is like discovery , while creating your opportunities is like invention. Associating with extraordinary people will help me better my current skills to a new level, but i have to outshine or better all those extraordinary folks in order to be successful, it would rather be easy to be a white spot in a black background. I guess we need to think more to define “creating opportunities”.

  20. Quote

    Thanks Rajesh.

    You are right, disabling competitors has been around and will continue to be around. i just don’t want to advocate that in a broad framework for success.

    Interesting distinction between invention and discovery. You are right about that.

    Can you please help me think about “creating opportunities”? I am also not satisfied with the “Goals” we need to have. We need more detail around goals. We only have a high level concept in terms of extremistan vs. mediocristan.

  21. Quote


    Luck is something that we get without being aware of and realise only after we get it. In that case, when a person is able to spot opportunities and utilise them, can we call that as luck?

  22. Quote

    Thanks. That is a good point. In my view, luck is being in the right place at the right time. But spotting opportunities is definitely not luck as i have explained in my post. Opportunities come to everyone, but only a few spot them and take advantage of them.

  23. Quote

    Thanks sukumar.. however, how can we judge a thing as right place or a right time.. there is no comparison that can be made here, as there are numerous other possibilities that could have occured, but could not be judged..

    In that sense, i feel, luck be considered as a thing that gives us some immense benefit/position, that we realise only after getting it.. in that case, i can only judge luck based on the benefit i am getting, and i could not judge the environment.. ie we dont know if its right place or right time.. but i am lucky to get these..

    For eg, in my career, i was about to resign thrice due to my health problem, but i dont know if its my luck that i got me a favor that majority of others wont get.. or is it my luck that i landed in the current project, without being even aware of? What can i say as right time or right place here?

  24. Quote

    That is a good question Senthil. In your example, i would say, you were lucky to be in the project – right place at the right time, but because you are talented, you were given the opportunity to continue to work though you tried to quit. If you were in a different project, you may not have got the opportunity. Hope that helps.

  25. Quote
    vidhyashankar said April 23, 2009, 12:25 am:


    I was reading outliers as well when i came across this post. Two points which stand out to me,

    In my mind the undercurrent for what we call luck (right place at the right time) is a positive reinforcement at crucial junctures in one’s life. Darwin’s survival of the fittest fails when you bring in chance. 2 stains of a bird are as eggs, by chance if a snake spots & swallows the fitter stain and overlooks the weaker one, the world gets to see only the weaker stain. So the inflexion point is crucial. Perhaps if the fitter stain had hatched out of the egg it might have escaped, but it never got there in the first place.

    Second is to your point on taking advantage of opportunity, it ties back to the gladwell message on oppenheimer. What you see from childhood makes you back yourself to believe in the opportunity. If you have seen strong failures around you ( typical in poor households) you start to view opportunities with skepticism, which reduces your conviction to capture the opportunity and this thought feeds itself into further disaster.

    p.s : cant agree more on your thoughts on pre determination of human lives

  26. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said April 23, 2009, 10:51 am:

    Thanks Vidhyashankar. those are great points. The main fault i see with Outliers is that it gives too much importance to right place at the right time. That makes the world predetermined and defeats human endevor.

  27. Quote


    About your question – “Can we say, we can manufacture our own luck, if we can work closely with one or more such extraordinarily capable people?” – I guess one should consider themselves to be lucky to work closely with such icons :). On the flip side, these great ones did not get to where they are without surrounding themselves with good-great assets. So, perhaps it is not luck, but the goods you bring to the table.

    I guess I did not answer your question. But the point is to be at the right place, right time and then recognize, grab hold of the presented opportunities and shine.

  28. Quote

    Thanks Ganesh. Yes, luck does a play a part in getting you to a certain place, after that grabbing opportunities and shining is the individual’s skill not luck.

  29. Quote


    I am getting back to the comments after a delay thanks to my laziness.

    “Choosing” or “identifying” right goals is definitely the toughest thing. I am still not sure what my “right” goal is. But these are my thoughts:

    1. Experiment: When I came back to India, I wanted to work in the social sector. But now after 4 months, I have visited a number of NGOs, met people from this sector, discussed, attended interviews etc. The “goals” I had set 3 months back don’t seem to be applicable today as I have “learnt new things about this field”. So when we experiment, we will get more clarity of what “right” goals can be.

    2. Don’t have too much ego or rigidness w.r.t your goal: The “goals” I set 4 months back are no more applicable. So I am re-configuring my goals. If I have attached too much “ego” to my goal, it will be difficult to re-configure. People may say “This girl started off saying she is going to do so-and-so and now she is not sticking to it’. These comments will be common. But unless we are open to “reconfigure” our goals based on our learning, i feel we will become stagnant.

    3. Before talking with others, sit down and think what you want: It is very easy to get influenced by others when you are in the process of setting goals. It will be “tempting” to follow the path somebody else has followed. But it is better to sit down and write down “What you really want?”. Taking advice from others is not bad. It does help. But unless “we are clear” what we want, all other advice is not going to help. I have faced this problem the last 4 months.

  30. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said May 2, 2009, 5:30 pm:

    Those are great insights on Goals. What i am finding more and more is that a lot of people don’t have any goals at all. They simply drift through life.

    Is it because goal setting is so hard or are they afraid of setting goals and not meeting them? Maybe they don’t realize that setting a goal is a great way to get your mind focused there by increasing the chance of making the goal.

  31. Quote
    Karthik said August 28, 2009, 3:42 am:

    Another great post Sukumar. Two days before reading the blog i was thinking about the focus. Let me give an example from my side on focus. We use to travel to buffalo downtown daily to clients office and we do car pooling with other 4 people. Almost a year we are travelling in the same road and none of us noted the NY lottery billboard thats display the lottery amount which is usually in millions.
    For the last one month we had a new member who is interested and when we cross this billboard everyone on board watches this amount and discussion goes on. For tomorrow’s lot it is is 325 million. 🙂 Interesting discussion goes on what everyone will do if they win the lottery.
    The point here is as you said it is just we don’t see lot of things thats happening around us since we are not focussed on such items. Focus on goal is very important.

    I used to go for amazon reviews for good books, and from this blog i am getting great recommendations from you all. Thanks to everyone.

  32. Quote

    Thanks Karthik for the kind words. That is a great example of how we spot things in the same areas where we operate for a long time. Saraswathi has recounted a similar experience from her life.

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