Luck has played a major role in some of the biggest successes in history

Luck is a key ingredient in success which we’ve already delved into deeply on this blog. There are also some experts such as Professor Richard Wiseman who believe you can even increase your luck in four steps. Regardless, luck is a force that’s behind much of our success.

Here are a few high profile examples of luck to ponder. They’re mostly based on information from three great books about luck: The Luck Factor by Richard Wiseman, Success and Luck by Robert H. Frank and The Success Equation by Michael J. Mauboussin.

Bill Gates and Microsoft

Bill Gates’ benefited from a healthy dose of luck in his early years.

First off, he went to a private school which gave students access to computer programming terminals where you could build computer programs and get them running in real time. Others had to go through convoluted processes which added days and weeks to what could take Gates hours to complete. Gates himself estimated that there might have been 50 other students in the world who could have done the same thing at that time.

Gates’ mugshot after allegedly running a stop sign in his early 20s

Next, Gates and his partner Paul Allen were able to acquire the precursor to MS-DOS for $50,000 and then organise a rare and lucky deal to get paid royalties for every IBM computer MS-DOS was installed on.

At the time IBM had a pessimistic forecast for PC sales, which helped Gates seal this lucrative deal. Because Microsoft retained rights to their new operating system, when IBM’s huge success selling their PC caused other companies to start selling PCs, Gates was able to sell even more software.

The Mona Lisa

Another example from Success and Luck is the Mona Lisa painting by Leonardo da Vinci. This was a relatively obscure and ignored Da Vinci painting until an Italian maintenance worker stole it from the Louvre in 1911 and tried to sell it to an Italian art gallery.

The resulting global news outrage included countless reproductions of the painting, catapulting it to fame.

Al Pacino

One of my favourite examples of the impact of luck is the good fortune Al Pacino had early in his career.

When The Godfather was being made, director Francis Ford Coppola was adamant that the actor who played Michael Corleone should be unknown and look Sicilian. The executives had other plans and wanted to hire someone like Robert Redford. Coppola threatened to leave the project unless the executives followed his request and Al Pacino was cast as Michael.

This was a good turn of events for Pacino, who was a relatively new actor with only two small roles under his belt.

Adding to Pacino’s luck was the fact that Coppola’s adaptation of the Godfather book by Mario Puzo focused on Michael Corleone’s story instead of his brother Sonny Corleone.

The film was a huge success and this pushed the obviously talented Pacino into the spotlight.

Bryan Cranston

I loved Bryan Cranston in Malcolm in the Middle, but it was his role as Walter White in Breaking Bad which catapulted him into the spotlight. Cranston’s story is also told by Frank in Success and Luck, and was the definition of a lucky break.

Cranston was originally suggested to play the part of Walter White by the producer of the show, Vince Gilligan. His idea was rejected by studio executives in favour of John Cusack and Matthew Broderick who in turn both rejected the role. Cranston was subsequently accepted and the rest is history.  

Scott Adams / Dilbert

The success of the hit comic strip Dilbert is a testament to the power of luck. According to its creator Scott Adams, the comic strip was extraordinarily lucky to be picked up and syndicated across the USA and the world. Some examples of luck include:

  • Adams’ first comics editor was married to an engineer who was a “real life Dilbert” so she instantly connected with the comic and pushed hard for it within her company against heavy objections from colleagues.
  • One day an employee at the Boston Globe went on a road trip holiday with her husband. She was driving and her husband was bored, so he picked Dilbert up from the sales packet she had left in her car. He thought it was funny, and because of her husband’s response the Boston Globe picked it up.
  • The Dilbert comic came to prominence during the mid-1990s when news was dominated with stories of corporate downsizing, technology and the dot com bubble. Dilbert happened to be about the same subject matter which resonated with audiences.
How to fail at almost anything and still win big Book Cover

This story is from Adam’s excellent book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big which delves into his story, and includes some simple but effective tips for success.

Penicillin

Another great story from The Luck Factor is the origin story behind penicillin. Sir Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered penicillin in the 1920s after coming back from holidays and noticing a petri dish of bacteria he was testing was accidentally left uncovered.

Sir Alexander Fleming immortalised in stamp form.

A specific type of mould called Penicillium notatum had fallen into the dish and killed the bacteria, leading to the eventual discovery of the antibiotic which has saved millions of lives.

Warren Buffett

Buffett was famously rejected from Harvard, which led him to consider other education options, one of which was Columbia. At Colombia he was able to study under Benjamin Graham, one of the fathers of value investing and the person who taught Buffett the famous two rules of investing.

Warren Buffett has a great short interview on Forbes alongside Jay-Z about the role luck has played in his life.

Jay-Z

Jay-Z was gifted in music during his formative years, which led to him travelling to London to help his mentor Jaz-O record an album. During the two month trip, Jay-Z’s close friend was caught in a sting operation and jailed for 13 years, and Jay-Z says the only reason he wasn’t with this friend was because he was in London at the time.

Lost

The show Lost was originally pitched as a cross between the reality TV series Survivor and the movie Castaway with Tom Hanks. Michael Eisner, the CEO of Disney at the time rated the pitch for Lost at a 2 out of 10 and later called it terrible. But because it was already in production Lost was still released, and was a surprising hit which spanned six series.

Joseph Pulitzer

The famous reporter, newspaper owner, congressman and namesake of the Pulitzer Prize came to the USA from Hungary in 1864 at the age of 17. He had no money, bad eyesight and no job prospects.

To pass the time he played chess at a local library in St Louis, until one day he met the editor of a local German-language newspaper. The editor gave him his first job , and Pulitzer eventually ended up owning part of the newspaper.

Evelyn Marie Williams and Donald Smith

What list about luck would be complete without some incredible lottery stories?

Evelyn Marie Williams won $4 million in 1985 in the New Jersey Lottery, and then four months later won another $1.5 million.

Donald Smith was even luckier and won the Wisconsin State Lottery three times! He won it in 1993, 1994 and 1995 and won a total of $750,000.

Both of these stories are also from Richard Wiseman’s book The Luck Factor.

John Woods

While not a success story, a great story from The Luck Factor is that of John Woods. Woods was a senior partner at the Thacher, Proffitt & Woods legal firm. He survived not one but three potentially deadly occurrences.

He was originally booked on the ill-fated Pan Am flight that was bombed over Lockerbie, but cancelled his ticket shortly before the flight so he could attend a Christmas party.

Next, he was working on the 39th floor in the World Trade Centre in New York during the 1993 bombing and escaped unharmed through the fire escape.

Finally in 2001 he narrowly avoided being in the second World Trade Centre tower during the September 11 attack. He left the tower seconds before it was attacked.

Leicester City winning the 2016 Premier League Championship

In 2016, English Premier League football team Leicester City had 5000-1 odds of winning the championship. The team was underfunded compared to many of the other teams, and the closest it had come to ever winning was coming second in the 1928-29 season. Even with these odds, Leicester City somehow won the championship in what the BBC called “One of the greatest sporting stories of all time”.

As Janice Kaplan and Barnaby Marsh explain in the book How Luck Happens, after the championship many pundits suddenly had various explanations for why the team won. These included coaching and the analytics used to find players, the poor performance of the top four teams and more.

Closing thoughts about good luck in history

Luck is an interesting and important feature in our daily lives. It’s had a measurable impact on some of the biggest success stories in the 100 or so years this article has covered, and undoubtedly much further back. If you’re interested in learning more about how luck actually works read the following two guides we have:

Do you have a good story about how luck has had a big impact on your own life? Share it below!

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