The Intersection Between Skills and Luck in Your Professional Life (and Elsewhere)

Connie writes in:

Liked your article about competence and mastery. Did you see this piece from MIT Tech Review about luck’s role in all of this? I think it would make a good follow up article.

You’re absolutely right, Connie. That article does address a lot of good points about the role of luck in terms of skill and how they combine to form your income level.

Before I dig into this, a bit of review is in order.

Last week, I published an article entitled The Value of Competence and Mastery. In it, I argued that there’s a lot of benefit, financially and otherwise, to reach a level of competence in a lot of skills, and that if you can couple it with mastery in a few skills, that’s even better. I defined “competence” as being a level of ability with a particular skill such that you have no need to pay someone else to do it for you (outside of situations of pure convenience), whereas “mastery” is a level of skill where people will pay you just to perform that one skill.

The core idea of the article is that many people make a living by combining a few competencies in a unique way that gives them a set of skills that’s really valued. If you have a lot of competencies, then you have a lot of unique mixes that may be the source of a career or at least a nice-paying job for a few years. Masteries are even better, but they require a much more intense level of investment in a single skill; often, people who can combine a mastery or two with a number of competencies set themselves up for a high level of earning in their life.

What that means in a practical sense is that you should be spending at least some of your time in self-education, but that doesn’t have to be about building a new mastery or honing one you already have; rather, there’s a lot of value in building up more competencies and figuring out how to combine competencies you have.

For example, I would describe my father as being someone with a ton of different competencies. That’s why, during his life, he started several successful side gigs in completely different areas and was always able to make some money when he needed it. I wouldn’t describe him as having mastered any particular skill, but he could grow a garden, catch fish at a commercial level, befriend almost anyone, fix a car, fix almost any small mechanical device, do basic woodworking and carpentry, handle most plumbing tasks, run and troubleshoot computer-robotics interfaces… the list goes on and on. Often, he was able to combine those competencies to do certain things incredibly well.

So, what does all of this have to do with luck? The MIT Tech Review article that Connie shared, If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich? Turns Out It’s Just Chance, makes an interesting argument. Their argument is that if you have a reasonable competence in a particular skill, the biggest factor that determines whether or not you are able to make a lot of money with that skill is luck, because opportunities essentially randomly fall on people’s laps:

And yet when it comes to the rewards for this work, some people do have billions of times more wealth than other people. What’s more, numerous studies have shown that the wealthiest people are generally not the most talented by other measures.

What factors, then, determine how individuals become wealthy? Could it be that chance plays a bigger role than anybody expected? And how can these factors, whatever they are, be exploited to make the world a better and fairer place?

Today we get an answer thanks to the work of Alessandro Pluchino at the University of Catania in Italy and a couple of colleagues. These guys have created a computer model of human talent and the way people use it to exploit opportunities in life. The model allows the team to study the role of chance in this process.

The results are something of an eye-opener. Their simulations accurately reproduce the wealth distribution in the real world. But the wealthiest individuals are not the most talented (although they must have a certain level of talent). They are the luckiest. And this has significant implications for the way societies can optimize the returns they get for investments in everything from business to science.

In other words, the study that’s being referred to here indicates that given that a person has a certain level of skill in a particular area, their success in that area is largely based on luck. If you’re competent at a skill, your success and failure has a ton to do with being in the right place at the right time, not your ability or lack thereof.

There are two ways to look at that idea.

On the one hand, it can feel depressing. You can work very hard building up some skills, only to never be able to do very much with them because you weren’t in the right place at the right time.

On the other hand, it can feel enormously motivating. Even if you’re not superbly gifted at a particular skill, you can find lucrative work with that skill if you put in the effort to be lucky.

What do I mean by be lucky? Luck is a mix of random chance and the choices you make in life. Opportunities float through the air all the time and some will, by chance, land in your lap. However, there are a lot of things you can do to make it much more likely for those opportunities to land on your lap rather than drifting away.

This is a topic I’ve written about in the past, in a more general sense. Ten Tactics for Improving Your Luck described some methods for improving your luck in your all-around life, while Designing a Lucky Life added ten more tactics to the list.

Here are those twenty tactics, for a refresher course:

1. Keep a notepad and a pen in your pocket at all times.
2. Keep a reasonable amount of cash on you at all times.
3. Don’t get into a desperate debt situation.
4. Be social.
5. Establish relationships with many people who share your interests.
6. Help others out when they need it.
7. Shop at places where extreme bargains might be found.
8. Have confidence that you can do something challenging.
9. Know the actual value of lots of items in a particular specialty.
10. When you need something significant, tap your social network instead of buying blindly.
11. Do the task in front of you as well as you can, no matter how mundane it is.
12. Never eat alone.
13. Never speak negatively of others.
14. Cultivate skills during your spare time.
15. Ask questions.
16. Get involved in the community.
17. Know your neighbors.
18. Be humble.
19. Be generous.
20. Don’t spend time or money on events of pure chance.

That’s a pretty solid list of strategies to live your daily life by, and they will definitely open you up to a lot of opportunities that might have been closed to you before.

Here, though, I’m more interest in specific tactics you can use to improve your luck in your career. If luck is at least as important as skill (above a basic skill threshold), what can you do to maximize luck in your career?

If there’s one thing I’ve done right throughout my professional life, it’s that I’ve done a lot of positive things to allow myself to be as lucky as possible in professional situations. I don’t view myself as highly skilled at anything, but I do think I’m good at finding opportunities or, more accurately, having them fall right in my lap at the right moment. Here are seven tactics that really accentuate this.

1. Always work hard on the task at hand and produce quality results, regardless of whatever it is that you’re doing.

It doesn’t matter how simple the task before you is or how complex it is. What matters is that the results you produce are of the highest quality you can produce in a reasonable timeframe.

The reason that this helps with your “luck” is simple: your quality work becomes a calling card for you. At some point, someone will look around and notice it and start looking for who is pumping out the quality work. It might happen tomorrow. It might happen in five years. It might never happen.

On the other hand, if you don’t do your best to do efficient, quality work, someone will look around and wonder who’s not doing their job very well. It might happen tomorrow. It might happen in five years. It might never happen.

Most people get comfortable doing the bare minimum to not get noticed for bad work. As a result, it is really easy for good work to stand out.

The “luck” part of this equation is someone noticing the quality work. You can’t make someone notice your quality work. All you can do is produce quality work and hope someone notices it over time.

I’ll give you an example. When I was an undergraduate, I spent years working in a public computer lab, fixing minor computer problems and helping users. A lot of the other lab workers did the absolute bare minimum to collect a paycheck. I spent a lot of my time doing things like wandering around and checking on things, cleaning up messes, helping people if I could see they were struggling, and so on. This got me no recognition at all for a good year, but then one day a professor stopped in and said that they had heard that I had went out of my way to help one of their graduate students. This wound up leading to a job, the first in a series that put me on a path to my long term career.

Sure, I spent a year working hard when I could have sloughed off, but because of that work, an opportunity fell on my lap that would have never been there otherwise.

2. Be humble about your own skills and contributions and give lots of credit to others.

If you do good work, there will eventually come moments of recognition of some kind or another. Someone will compliment your work, or you may even receive a commendation for it.

Whatever happens, remember this: the person complimenting or commending you already thinks highly of your work and your skills, so there is zero benefit in patting yourself on the back further. You only look arrogant by doing so. You don’t have to insult or minimize your own efforts, but you don’t have to talk up or embellish what they’re already impressed by.

Rather, this is an opportunity to be humble. The easiest way to practice humility, if you can, is to share credit with others. If someone is complimenting you on your work, mention the person that mentored you or taught you your job. Mention your supervisor or others who have given you good advice. Mention anyone and everyone on your team who played any role on the task. Talk up what those people contributed. This is a great thing to do any time you’re called upon to present your work – give lots of credit to others throughout and at the end.

Another good practice is to simply say something like “it was my pleasure.” Again, this avoids the trap of self-criticism as well as the trap of boasting while acknowledging the comment. This is a good route to follow when you can’t think of anyone else to acknowledge.

Remember, you’re only receiving compliments and getting opportunities because the other person already thinks highly of you. Don’t burn that by being arrogant or self-serving; rather, build upon it with some humility while also, if possible, giving a positive rub to the people who helped you get there.

3. Put yourself in lots of situations where you’re interacting with lots of people in your field.

Go to workplace meetings. Go to conferences. Go to conventions. Go to local meetups. Join professional organizations and go to their meetings. Involve yourself in social media in a purely professional context. Most importantly, be actively involved in those things. Volunteer to present your work or your company’s work. Spend every spare moment you can at these meetings getting to know people and building those relationships. You should be learning (about your field or about the people in your field) or building relationships with every spare moment at those meetings.

This requires turning on your social side more than you might otherwise be comfortable with. I know that’s true for me. Whenever I have gone to such an event, I usually find myself socially burnt out, and when I feel that way, I do retreat somewhere quiet to socially recharge and I do feel utterly spent at the end of the day. That’s okay.

The goal of such meetings for you should be to meet a lot of people, start building some relationships, and share what you’re working on and what you’re about so that others know you. If you’re willing to do that, go to as many meetings as possible and participate in professional social media in your career path.

Yes, this does include meetings at work. People often “zone out” during those meetings and avoid any sort of active participation and look for any excuse to run out the door. Don’t treat meetings that way. Treat them as an opportunity to build relationships with the people in the room – people below your professional level, at your professional level, and above your professional level. Nothing in your workplace should be treated as a full waste of time or else you’re just saying, “No, I don’t want opportunities.”

4. Jot down ideas and contact info as soon as they come into your mind, and process them regularly.

Whenever you have an idea or learn something that you want to investigate further or want to remember again in the near future, write it down immediately. Don’t hesitate.

Whenever you meet someone and you’re clicking at all with that person, jot down their information before you forget it. A first name, an email, a social media handle, and the reasons and things you might want to follow up with them about.

I keep a little notebook and a sturdy pen in my pocket at all times for just those situations. It probably accumulates 10 to 15 such notes a day. Once a day or so, I go through all of those new notes and process them one at a time, doing something meaningful with them.

If it’s a piece of contact information, I contact the person, following up on whatever I jotted down, and adding the person to my contacts and/or social media.

If it’s something I need to do, it goes on my to-do list.

If it’s an idea of some kind, it either goes into my professional idea folder or I investigate it right away.

That covers almost everything I jot down. As I deal with each one, I cross it off.

This ensures that I start the follow-up process with everyone I meet in a meaningful way, which starts building a new relationship. It also ensures good ideas, which are an opportunity in and of themselves, don’t fall through the cracks.

5. Take on new challenges constantly, especially when they allow you to build new competencies along the way.

As noted earlier, one of the surest ways to be able to have luck work in your favor is to have at least a basic level of skill in that area. Thus, if you want to have lots of luck, have lots of competence.

How does an adult build a lot of competence? They do it by taking on challenges constantly, trying to do new things for themselves rather than just letting someone else do it for them (or paying someone to do it).

Need some food? Make a meal yourself and learn the basics of short order cooking. Having some plumbing issues? Hit up Youtube and start figuring out what’s wrong. Need to write some software that’s over your head? Start with what you do know and start working toward what you don’t know. Yes, it’s probably scary, and that’s okay. Overcoming the fear is part of it. This logic is true for every challenge life throws at you. The goal is to build up new competencies, as many as possible.

Doing things this way opens the door to a lot of opportunities in your life. There are new working opportunities. There are new opportunities to build relationships. There are more opportunities to create a great impression with your skills, as someone who can just handle an unexpected event always creates a great impression. You can only do this by becoming competent in lots of things, and you can only do that by taking on challenges as a matter of routine in your life.

6. Don’t speak negatively of others unless criticism is specifically requested of you (and even then, focus the criticism well).

There is almost zero benefit to talking badly about someone and there is often negative consequence to doing so, consequences you don’t often directly see. Often, word of your negative talk gets back to the person you were criticizing, or you look like an arrogant and callous person when you do it face to face. The blowback you get, either directly or indirectly, makes negative talk almost always not worth it.

That doesn’t mean criticism isn’t something valuable that you should sometimes do. You should just choose the right context to do it.

For example, if you’re going to criticize someone, the best way to do it is in a one-on-one situation with no onlookers. Do it in a way that also reinforces what’s good about the person and what they can do to overcome what you are criticizing.

If you’re going to criticize an idea or a thing, do it in a way that isn’t personal toward anyone and, again, also point out the positives and potential good directions forward.

Never, ever do this kind of criticism behind someone’s back. It almost always hurts you in the long run.

For most people, this applies most strongly in an “office politics” situation. Don’t get involved in tearing down other people, because when you do, you create an easy invitation for others to tear you down. Don’t get involved in tearing down the work of others, either. You should only be doing this if you’re in a supervisory role and are doing it with care or you are specifically asked for criticism, and it’s done with the suggestions above.

There’s almost nothing you can do that’s more effective at making opportunity fly away from you than being a negative person who criticizes and tears things down constantly.

7. Thank people in a genuine fashion when they help you.

If someone gives you genuine help in your professional life, whether it’s an interview or some great advice or an opportunity or an exceptional helping hand or whatever, thank that person in a genuine way.

My preferred method for this is to write a simple handwritten thank you note, which simply states what it is that they did for me (showing that I actually remember it) and how that has impacted me. This doesn’t have to be long and complicated – a few sentences will do.

The reason this is so beneficial is that it holds up the “peak-end rule” in a positive fashion. Most people, when they recall an event or an interaction with someone, remember the “peak” of that event or interaction – the moment of greatest intensity – and the “end” of that event or interaction – whether it ended on a positive note or a negative one. A thank you note basically guarantees that the “end” element is a positive one. They’re going to see that note and feel good about it and it’s going to create a positive “end” for your interaction.

Get a bunch of simple thank you notes with blank insides and envelopes and give them out generously. If someone stepped up far beyond what was needed to help you with a project, thank them with a note. If someone invited you to speak, thank them with a note. If someone gave you great advice, thank them with a note. If someone gave you an opportunity, such as an interview or a job offer, thank them with a note. You’ll be adding a bunch of positivity to the “end” of your interaction with them, and that will leave them out in the world with a positive view of you, one that will often invisibly lead to them being a positive force for you in the world which will inevitably increase the chances for more opportunities to fall in your lap.

Final Thoughts

Having a lot of skills and competencies is great, but you also need to open your life as much as possible to opportunity. Opportunities come along randomly and they can often feel like pure luck, but you can do a lot of things under your own control to make it much more likely that opportunities will find their way into your lap.

Luck is a vital element in career success. Make yourself as lucky as you can.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.