Uncertainty, Luck, and Talent

by Stephen Mills on December 11, 2011

“Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.”

–Gilda Radner

I submit the following points:

  • Most of the particular details of your situation came about by chance.
  • Most of your belief about your control of outcomes is simply an illusion of control.
  • People have different kinds and different amounts of natural talent
  • Despite all of the above, success is not just “dumb luck”.  There is a reason why some people are successful and it has nothing to do with dumb luck.

Steve Jobs was in the news a lot lately because of his tragic death which was the result of a chance event, pancreatic cancer – really bad luck.  But what about his incredible success in life?  Was that just luck too?  In my opinion the answer is both yes and no.

If Jobs had not come of age about when he did, if he had not met and become friends with Steve Wozniak in high school, or if he had not visited a Xerox lab and have seen the idea he used to create the Apple computer interface, we probably would never have heard of him.  We might have anyway but in my opinion likely not.  That is what I mean by the first bullet point that the particular details of your situation are the result of chance.  If you met your lifelong partner at a party that you only went to because bad weather cancelled other plans, then but for that chance event you life would have been very different in its particular details.

Most of what happens are things we don’t control.  They are just a series of contingent occurrences in our life.  After the fact and in hindsight we compose narratives to explain the events and how we were in control of it all. Gurus tell their story of success and use it to convince you they have discovered the true path to success and that you should buy into it – literally.  The control over the outcomes that these stories describe is illusory.  It is in this sense that much in life is driven by chance events.

I think it is incredibly important to accept the uncertainty of life – that you don’t control outcomes and that conditions will constantly change. By believing we are in control of these events we set ourselves up for failure. When things inevitably depart from our plans we are disappointed by failure or see ourselves as victims of circumstance.

Accepting you don’t control the outcomes, which you don’t, allows you to roll with the punches with a much better attitude. Shit happens so just deal with it.  You control what you can control and then accept whatever happens and move on.

Are Some People Lucky?

Richard Wiseman who has made a specialty of studying luck says that lucky people are just much more open to possibility.  Unlucky people are stuck in routines and are afraid to take chances when opportunities present themselves.  I think he has completely nailed the issue.

Lets say something about Steve Jobs’ life had happened differently and he had not “lucked” into those chance events I mentioned above.  Would he have been a success at something else?  I think it is highly likely he would have been because he was the kind of person who looked for opportunities and took advantage of them.  He might not have become a famous multi-billionaire but probably by any standards he would have been successful.  Other people were in similar situations and saw the same things Steve Jobs did but not create Apple computers.

The one thing that will guarantee you remain stuck in “bad luck” is to be afraid of uncertainty and change and to play it safe.  Life changes too rapidly and too unpredictably for that to be a successful strategy in today’s world.  You might not like it and it may scare you but that doesn’t change the fact that is the way the world works.  Successful people are opportunistic chance takers.  Eventually they find something that works and all the complainers are still sitting around whining about how unlucky they are.

I do not believe we are all equal in talent either.  I watched a documentary called Bobby Fisher Against the World yesterday.  Malcolm Gladwell was on their spouting the 10,000 hour mantra and making it seem like luck had nothing to do with Bobby Fisher.  I completely disagree.  Bobby Fisher had an IQ of 180 which puts him a category that only something like one in a million are lucky enough to be born with.  Certainly without his obsession with chess (he spent virtually all his time with it from age 6 on) he would never have achieved what he did.  On the other hand had he not been born with a brilliant and very unusual mind he wouldn’t achieved it either.  There is luck involved here but in one respect Gladwell and I are on the same page; it’s what you do with what you are lucky enough to be born with that is most important for YOU.

There are some genuinely undeservedly lucky people and some genuinely undeservedly unlucky people.  However, in general I think over time most people create their own luck by either taking advantage of whatever circumstances life delivers up or by failing to do so.  That choice is yours to make.

The Keys to Luck

  • Accept that life is uncertain and can’t be predicted and planned out
  • Accept that what happens is not under your control
  • Be resilient so you can bounce back when life smacks you on the head
  • Be open to see the opportunities chance delivers to you
  • Be flexible so you can take action on those opportunities
  • Don’t be afraid of doing something

“So what do we do? Anything. Something. So long as we just don’t sit there. If we screw it up, start over. Try something else. If we wait until we’ve satisfied all the uncertainties, it may be too late.

–Lee Iacocca”



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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Brian December 12, 2011 at 10:24 am

I am 24 years old and in the crisis of finding out what to do with my life. I’ve been feeling a lot of anxiety and had meltdowns on more than one occasion this fall season. I’ve been slowly realizing that life is in fact not as controllable as I thought it was when I was only a couple years younger. This article has great wisdom and it is an encouragement to me. All your articles are great by the way, I signed up about 5 months ago. It excites me every time you write one. Thank you so much.


Stephen Mills December 12, 2011 at 7:08 pm

Hi Brian, thanks. I’m glad to hear it helps and good luck!


Rochelle December 13, 2011 at 7:38 am

I don’t believe in luck. Not a bit. i believe in a mixture of coincidence,circumstances,and what we put out,we get back. In the form of work I mean,not in the Law of Attraction sense.
Rochelle´s last blog post ..online investments


Stephen Mills December 13, 2011 at 11:07 am

Hi Rochelle,

I think you are saying basically the same thing I’m saying in the article unless you are saying somebody can’t just be plain lucky sometimes, which I disagree with. If win $200,000,000 in a lottery you were just plain lucky. In general though like I said over time people make their own by how they respond to their circumstances.


Chris December 13, 2011 at 2:19 pm

I don’t believe in luck, good or bad.
Chris´s last blog post ..Be Passionate About Life and Business


Stephen Mills December 13, 2011 at 2:31 pm

Hi Chris, I guess that means you don’t believe in chance because that’s all luck is when you get right down to it. We shouldn’t be playing word games but instead talking about real concepts.


Anna Childs August 2, 2012 at 12:30 am

I believe in luck. Everyone of us has a luck. However, talent is always there inside of us.
Anna Childs´s last blog post ..Sex and Herbs to Boost Man’s Libido


Sasha Moretz August 5, 2012 at 9:16 pm

I believe in luck because when there are things that I don’t know would be the result I just looking forward for good result.
Sasha Moretz´s last blog post ..Male Enhancement Supplements: A Guide to Discover the Best


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