A Great Career – blind luck, making your own luck or just no luck…so far!

Harnessing the little serendipity in your life


Are successful careers the result of careful planning or rather a series of lucky breaks (or maybe a bit of both)?

‘Lucky break’, ‘Right place at the right time’, ‘Just knew the right people’, ‘Just got her timing right’ and ‘Just a fortunate accident’ are terms often heard in reference to someone whose success on the surface appears to be the result of luck. Inferred in these statements is the desired result (e.g. landing a sought after role, getting promoted, having great demand for a service or launching a successful business venture) being down to factors outside the individual’s control or circumstances which could not be predicted and therefore planned. 

Work by Dr Christian Busch, at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business suggested that ‘luck’ is a little more nuanced and can be influenced. In his book, ‘The Serendipity Mindset’, The Art & Science of Creating Good Luck, Busch provides evidence that for the majority who attain success in broad domains such as business, medicine, science, politics and entertainment have in fact, made their own luck. Although they are unable to predict the precise path, timing or even the exact form their success will take, they exhibit a set of attitudes and behaviours which increase their chances for success. They intentionally work at creating the conditions which encourage serendipity.

So, what is serendipity? Serendipity is defined as an unexpected encounter with ideas or insights and their intentional use to achieve favourable results. Busch states that, ‘serendipity is smart, active luck. It’s when you see something unexpected and connect the dots. It’s different from blind luck, which you can’t really influence.’ 

He goes on to cite these examples:

  1. A medical researcher carrying out a trial of a medication for angina who noticed that male participants were requesting more of the medication and reporting heightened sexual activity. They looked more closely into the phenomena and created Viagra.
  2. A Chinese washing machine manufacturer who noticed they were receiving an abnormal level of warranty repair requests from a specific rural area. On closer examination, they found that a group of farmers were using the machines to wash their potato crops. The machine’s components were becoming clogged up by the soil. The manufacturer responded by re-purposing the product with heavier duty components and filters. The end result was a discovery of a new market segment. 
  3. Busch cites a personal example; when single and in his early thirties, he accidentally spilled his coffee over a female patron of a similar age. Rather than just apologising, helping to clean up and then vacating the premise to save further embarrassment, he asked the woman a little more about herself, an interaction which then led to an ongoing relationship. In the moment when he was pondering on how to proceed, ‘flee’ or ‘face the music’, he chose to hang in there and was pleasantly surprised at the result.

The power of attitude and mindset in creating opportunities for serendipity can be illustrated in a social experiment including two participants. 

Using a self-assessment tool, Participant 1 assessed themselves as lucky, whilst Participant 2 saw themselves as being unlucky. The experiment was conducted in a cafe with a camera capturing the action. Actors played the roles of a waiter and a customer dressed like a businessman sitting at a table with an openly free seat. Prior to Participant 1 entering the cafe, a five-dollar note was placed on the floor in the entrance in a spot where there was a good chance it would be seen. 

Participant 1 entered the cafe, saw the five-dollar note on the ground, picked it up, went up to the counter, ordered a coffee, sat down on the vacant chair opposite the businessman and struck up a conversation. At the end of the conversation, contact details were exchanged to follow up on potential opportunities to work together.  

However, when Participant 2 entered the cafe, they walked past the five-dollar note, ordered a coffee, sat down in the vacant chair, said nothing to the businessman and, when finished their coffee, stood up and walked out the cafe.

At the end of the experiment each participant was asked about their days. The participant who identified as being lucky said that he’d had a fantastic day and had met a person who was interested in doing business with him. In contrast, the person identifying as unlucky stated that his day was just an ordinary one. 

Busch identified that in cultivating serendipity or luck, there were three phases:

  1. Detecting opportunities through being curious, alert and open to encounters and ideas
  2. Connecting ideas, by having the insights, the perception and wisdom to ‘join the dots’
  3. Materialising the opportunity by acting with tenacity and decisiveness to ‘seize the moment’

To end, he identified that the critical enabling factors for serendipity included having sufficient resources to move the opportunity towards being a reality and working in a psychologically safe environment. 

It’s all about the mind set!

The conclusion is that cultivating ‘lucky breaks’ is first and foremost about moving in the world with open eyes and an open mind and being able to see opportunities in unexpected places which others often overlook. Busch tells us to ‘start by letting go of the tendency to have rigid plans for every day and every situation. Rather, have a general sense of direction be guided by values. Allow the space (in your day, week, year) to pause, observe, reflect, consider and capitalise on chance circumstances.


Pieces of Gold a collection of “wisdoms” to help navigate lives complexities and uncertainties COMING SOON.