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How to Create Luck

My entire worldview changed when I realized that luck can be created.

More precisely, you can actively create optimal conditions for lucky things to happen to you. The more I looked into this, the more I realized that this is not only not a new insight, but successful people have studied this for decades and I am just late to the party.

In this post we'll briefly review the "Literature of Luck", and then I'll end with some personal thoughts on how it could be extended.

Binary Luck

Most people have a binary view of luck:

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This is true enough. Some people are born into privilege, some people just win some literal or figurative lottery or other.

The closing question of every episode of Guy Raz's How I Built This podcast asks successful people: "How much of your success is due to skill, and how much is due to luck?"

Those who believe in their own agency answer the former. Others - who've seen people smarter and harder working than them fail - answer the latter. Those who are politically correct cop-out with the half-and-half.

It can be comforting to subscribe to the binary luck model. If you just got a bad roll of the dice, there's nothing you could do. Your lack of success is not your fault.

But what if I told you there are people who have skill at creating luck for themselves?

Luck Surface Area

Jason Roberts coined the term "Luck Surface Area", and it was expanded by Sean Murphy and popularized by Patrick McKenzie.

I liken this model of luckiness to a "catchment area" (a term from urban and hydrological geography). Luck is still randomly occurring, but you can position yourself in a way that captures more of it:

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Jason has a really simple model of how to grow your LSA - do more things, and tell more people about it. Doing and Telling. Already this embodies a more active attitude toward how you can orient your life for more positive random events. It's "Fixed vs Growth mindset" adapted for luck.

Four Kinds of Luck

A parallel, older school of thought dates back to James Austin in 1978 and was repopularized by Marc Andreesen in 2007, then Naval and Nivi a decade later.

Here, there are no helpful visuals. James Austin just gives a list of types, and Marc quotes verbatim. Naval summarizes the 4 kinds of luck as such:

  1. Hope luck finds you.

  2. Hustle until you stumble into it.

  3. Prepare the mind and be sensitive to chances others miss.

  4. Become the best at what you do. Refine what you do until this is true. Opportunity will seek you out. Luck becomes your destiny.

I've quoted this many times to friends and always had trouble remembering what the 4 types are. I gave it some thought and visualized/organized it as such:

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  1. 🌱 Accidental Luck: You have the same luck as a plant. A plant does not move. Whether or not a plant does well pretty much just depends on where it's seed lands. It's not very interesting since by definition you can't do anything about it, but ofc privilege plays a huge part.
  2. 🏃🏽‍♀️ Active Luck: The luck you get from constantly moving around. There's no particular direction in mind, but you're more likely to find something good if you move around and explore instead of stay put and hope. You're more likely to roll a 6 if you roll more dice.

    "I have never heard of anyone stumbling on something sitting down." - Charles Kettering

    "You don’t get extreme results without extreme actions." - Derek Sivers

  3. 💊 Prepared Luck: The luck you get from noticing that something lucky has happened, that most would miss. The canonical story on this is Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin, which was a huge medical breakthrough. The discovery was a total accident (some mold happened to fall in the right spot + Fleming happened to see it + he had a similar experience that was a nonevent 9 years ago), but Fleming was not only "uniquely equipped to observe it" by his background, he took action to confirm the observation.

    "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity." - Seneca

    "Chance favors the prepared mind." - Louis Pasteur

    "Richard Feynman was fond of giving the following advice on how to be a genius. You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say: “How did he do it? He must be a genius!”" - Gian-Carlo Rota

  4. 🧲 Magnetic Luck: "Chance IV comes to you, unsought, because of who you are and how you behave." All sources call it "individualized action" but I've renamed it "magnetic luck" to emphasize the end result rather than how you get there. I'm quite familiar with this as the "Miner" gear of my Learning Gears terminology (since updated to 4 gears in my book). This was already a thing pre-Internet, but search and social media have given tremendous reach and influence to the oddballs and obsessives that become the spiritual leaders of every idea and purpose both big and niche.

I find the 4 of these hard to remember, so I've organized them along two axes - active vs passive, and general vs individual. The first axis is the same realization as "Luck Surface Area" - you actually have the power to do things to create more luck than you were given.

The second axis is the insight - that there are forms of luck that apply to everyone, and there are forms of luck that are available only to someone in your unique position. There is a you-shaped hole in the universe and you can either passively occupy it or you can become a beacon for some idea or purpose.

Habits and Strategy

I of course find the Four Kinds of Luck very appealing, since I've quoted it so much to friends that I'm writing this post at all. But upon closer reading I think there's a slightly different direction that is unaddressed by the Four Kinds (I originally thought this was embedded in the Four Kinds, only to discover that it wasn't in the source material and I had completely read my own thinking into it).

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This model differs in two ways. It treats both axes as a spectrum rather than a 2x2. It also focuses more on actions (you can take) rather than classification (which are a little more abstract). I've also swapped out "Active vs Passive" for "Active Habits" and "Individual vs General" for "Good Strategy". So my version is more about HOW you get more lucky. It's not very actionable to be "more magnetic", but you can Claim a Domain or Hustle and have a good sense of what those things entail.

I've written about a few of these ideas in prior posts so I won't elaborate:

I think Exploring and Prospecting are worth elaborating here.

Exploring (and to a lesser extent Grinding and Copywork) are Actively Habitual, non Strategic activities. But this doesn't mean it is bad. I think this is what you do when you take in general life and career advice and apply them to yourself. You know there are a list of Principles which are just generally good things to do in life, and trust that you will do well if you do those things (e.g. Learn in Public). Keep doing the "right" things, and "trust the process".

Prospecting is a term I've borrowed from the oil exploration industry. Prospecting is a highly Active habit, and highly Strategic. These days, when you look for oil, there is a whole science to handicapping whether or not a plot of land is likely to have oil. You don't know it for a fact, all you're doing is estimating probabilities. Not to get too tautological, but you will be luckier if you can consistently assess and move towards areas where you are more likely to be "lucky". It might look like luck to others, but the motion and intention you invested to get yourself in a position to be lucky was far from random. I've also written many times about how I think strategic manoeuvring for "Megatrends" is a good idea.

In Summary

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This is the state of my thinking on luck right now. That last bit you just read is pretty fresh, I might come back and change this in a couple years when I have refined my thoughts. I welcome any and all feedback.

But overall, the message I really want to leave you with is this: you can create luck. That's it. I don't care how you do it, what mental model you use, who you quote. I just care that you do it. Go make yourself more lucky.

Ordinarily I'd wish you good luck, but now you have something better than a mere wish 😂

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Top comments (13)

willjohnsonio profile image
Will Johnson

In the “Richest Man in Babylon” it says “Men action are favored by the Goddess of Luck”

So I agree you can create your own luck by taking action and doing things that just seem to draw luck to you.

We often here stories like “She was shopping in the Mall a producer saw her and asked her to be in a movie, now she’s famous”. It’s makes people think that those are the only luck there is.

I’ve had more lucky things happen to me once I put in effort for the goals I wanted

Great post Swyx

swyx profile image

thank you for the kind words as always :) :)

hdv profile image
Hussein Duvigneau

I once saw a televised social experiment, where strangers were asked "do you generally consider yourself lucky?"

They were then given a book, and asked to go through and count every picture. On one of the first few pages was a picture with text that read something like "STOP COUNTING, THERE ARE 81 PICTURES IN THIS BOOK!"

The people who initially answered "yes" to if they consider themselves lucky tended to notice the image, while those who said "no" skipped straight past it and counted their way through every page.

The conclusion was that you make your own luck through power of observation and seeking opportunities, rather than being too focused in your own world.

swyx profile image

luck is all around us if we notice it harder :)

iamshadmirza profile image
Shad Mirza

Someone told me once, "Luck is being in the right place at the right time". I was particularly lucky in my career and when I retrospected in this context, I found that I was trying and failing at a lot of stuff in a very short amount of time. Being in a lot of places makes the probability of being in the right place at the right time much higher. Maybe that's why I got lucky.

Awesome write-up btw, thanks for sharing.

swyx profile image

type 2 luck! try being more intentional with what you try :)

peaonunes profile image
Rafael Nunes

Great post! Thanks, swyx. When I think about feeling unlucky, besides privilege, I think about the lack of acknowledgement of your "luck" and the absence of "wins". The first is complicated because when something "lucky" happens to you, you do not perceive that as an output of your initiatives therefore you do not see how you could get more of it. It's hard, but maybe if we were to reason about ours lucky moments we would identify things that worked and things that could be reproducible.

The absence of "wins" is when you do not feel like anything "lucky" happens to you, and there are a lot of things that play and need to be unpacked here. You may not recognise anymore a win because you are in that mindset of unlucky. It may be as well that you are not getting any "lucky" for a long time. These are really bad because they are exhausting, they affect your willpower, and your ability to persevere.

I'm thinking that managing expectations play a big role in continuously creating luck.

stereoplegic profile image
Mike Bybee • Edited

I only sincerely wish people good "luck" (in quotes), because you create it for yourself. If I wish good luck without the quotes, it's a "good luck with that" connotation.

swyx profile image
swyx • Edited

Excalidraw for those who want to modify:

fatmonky profile image

Great post! I wonder, what is your thinking of how Nassim Taleb's Antifragile fits in your framework?

swyx profile image
swyx • Edited

it doesn't - antifragility is useful but isn't really relevant to reflexivity unless you really try to shoehorn it

fatmonky profile image

I have been mulling on this for a while, and I am not sure I agree that there is no relevance.
Taleb wrote of the four quadrants before (, with antifragility &black swans belonging to the fourth quadrant (complex payoffs, extremistan distribution). What he's talking about is the domain, the playing field, the market, etc.
Whereas what you wrote above is about the actor's choices of actions.

The two are interlinked when an actor acts. If an actor chooses a domain that has simple payoffs and mediocristan-distribution, then even if the actor chooses good habits and strategies, there's a limited upside due to the domain choice.

Thread Thread
fatmonky profile image
fatmonky • Edited

the four quadrants here (realised his post is pretty long and this was buried)