Are you lucky or good? Does it matter? (Yes, and here’s why)

Are you lucky or good? Does it matter? (Yes, and here’s why)

On the first day of business school, I had a statistics professor who asked us to do a little exercise. There were about 50 people in the class, and our professor handed each of us a quarter. He then asked us to all stand up and flip the quarter. Everyone with heads was to sit down, while everyone with tails was to remain standing.

After six coin tosses, there was a single person left standing, and he’d flipped heads six times in a row. At that point, the professor asked us: Is there something amazing about this man’s ability to flip coins, allowing him to flip heads six times in a row? Or do the laws of statistics and probability dictate that someone in this group of 50 must exist to fill the shoes he’s stepped into?

Put differently, the question came down to this: Was this guy lucky or good?


Clearly the laws of statistics and probability would demonstrate that this man was lucky…. But I think that within each of us there is a desire to use our skills to improve our luck and become the person who steps into those statistically required shoes of success.

All of this was inspired by a recent article on Tech Crunch entitled Welcome To The Unicorn Club: Learning From Billion-Dollar Startups. The article is an enjoyable read, backed with a bunch of interesting infographics that make this point: only 0.07% of all venture-backed startups made it to the $1BN mark.

That means that the odds of an entrepreneur breaking through with a $1BN idea are 1 in 1,400.


That said, not all entrepreneurs are created equal, and I thought there must be a few things that one can do to improve his or her odds. After all, whether we are running our own business or launching a new initiative, there’s more at play than just sheer luck. Going back to my grad school example, had that young man who flipped heads six times never applied himself, taken the GMATs and entered business school, he’d never come across the opportunity to flip heads six times, right?

That got me thinking about the qualities of those ultra rare and ultra successful individuals in the world. Forbes had an interesting piece on what it takes to be a billionaire.Entrepreneur magazine has a profile of what it takes as well, and I’m sure there are no shortage of such check lists and statistics. Much of it is not very helpful. Being a white male, for example, improves the odds of achieving financial success tremendously, but that insight wouldn’t help a minority woman. Being born in September seems to help as well, but for the 11 other non-Virgo Zodiacs, that doesn’t seem very helpful.

I’ve had the good fortune to work with some really smart and successful people. Based on what I’ve experienced and what I believe, here is my own list of what it takes to achieve success:


  • Think small, keep it simple and then go big: There’s no shortage of amazingly sophisticated ideas that go on to crash and burn because no one fully understands them. Remember Enron, anyone? The majority of companies and ventures that are successful for the long hall started out by very simply addressing an unmet market need.

  • Be skeptical—of the opportunity and the status quo: Successful individuals are those who can spot opportunities; they see what others do not, and they believe in ideas long before they come to fruition. They are skeptical of the status quo. At the same time, successful individuals don’t blindly fall in love with their own ideas. They also think critically about their own concepts.

  • Take risks, but never gamble: Risk and reward are related, and the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward. Otherwise why bother, but there is a huge difference between taking a risk and taking a gamble. The former entails a thorough evaluation of the variables that affect success with an eye towards controlling and mitigating risks. The latter is just a matter of blind luck.

  • Evaluate all the data—even what you can’t directly measure: Related to the above, successful individuals are those who tend to be fact-driven, but who also know how to follow their guts. A fact-driven foundation typically provides a good starting point, but there’s something to be said about intuition, and successful folks are those who know how and when to follow it.

  • Stick with it, give it time, but know when to walk away: All good things take time to get off the ground and bear success. At the same time, not every idea is going to be successful, and it takes a unique mixture of skill, experience, passion and discipline to know when to “hold’em” and when to “fold’em”.

  • Be passionate and keep it real: Finally, and perhaps most importantly, successful folks are passionate about what they do, but not so much so that they drink their own Kool-Aid. I’ve had the good fortune to meet celebrities, CEOs, world activists and a fair number of people who appear on magazines and television. The first time I met such a person, I was struck by how humble and normal these folks were. As time went on, I came to learn that the typical profile of a successful person is that she or he is very passionate about his or her work, but very approachable and, for lack of a better term, normal.


All of the above are necessary but not sufficient in order to achieve success. There will always be an element of luck (or statistical probability for the quantitative types). Between skill and luck, here is only one variable that can be controlled. The framework above is just my take on how to go about improving the odds.

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