I've spent nearly two decades observing what makes people luckier than others and trying to help people increase their luck. You see, I teach entrepreneurship, and we all know that most new ventures fail, and innovators and entrepreneurs need all the luck they can get.
So what is luck? Luck is defined as success or failure apparently caused by chance. Apparently. That's the operative word. It looks like it's chance because we rarely see all the levers that come into play to make people lucky. But I've realized, by watching so long, that luck is rarely a lightning strike, isolated and dramatic. It's much more like the wind, blowing constantly. Sometimes it's calm, and sometimes it blows in gusts, and sometimes it comes from directions that you didn't even imagine.
So how do you catch the winds of luck? It's easy, but it's not obvious. So I'm going to share three things with you that you can do to build a sail to capture the winds of luck. The first thing you want to do is to change your relationship with yourself. Be willing to take small risks that get you out of your comfort zone. Now, when we're children, we do this all the time. We have to do this if we're going to learn how to walk or talk or ride a bike or even quantum mechanics. Right? We need to go from someone one week who doesn't ride a bike to, next week, someone who does. And this requires us to get out of our comfort zone and take some risks. The problem is, as we get older, we rarely do this. We sort of lock down the sense of who we are and don't stretch anymore.
Now, with my students, I spend a lot of time giving them encouragement to get out of their comfort zone and take some risks. How do I do this? Well, I start out by having them fill out a risk-o-meter. Now, it's basically a fun thing we developed in our class where they map out what risks they're willing to take. And it becomes clear very quickly to them that risk-taking is not binary. There are intellectual risks and physical risks and financial risks and emotional risks and social risks and ethical risks and political risks. And once they do this, they compare their risk profiles with others, and they quickly realize that they're all really different.
I then encourage them to stretch, to take some risks that get them out of their comfort zone. For example, I might ask them to do an intellectual risk and try to tackle a problem they haven't tried before; or a social risk, talking to someone sitting next to them on the train; or an emotional risk, maybe telling someone they really care about how they feel.
I do this myself all the time. About a dozen years ago, I was on an airplane, early, early morning flight on my way to Ecuador. And normally, I would just put on my headphones and go to sleep, wake up, do some work, but I decided to take a little risk, and I started a conversation with the man sitting next to me. I introduced myself, and I learned that he was a publisher. Interesting. We ended up having a fascinating conversation. I learned all about the future of the publishing industry. So about three quarters of the way through the flight, I decided to take another risk, and I opened up my laptop and I shared with him a book proposal I put together for something I was doing in my class. And he was very polite, he read it, and he said, "You know what, Tina, this isn't right for us, but thank you so much for sharing." It's OK. That risk didn't work out. I shut my laptop. At the end of the flight, we exchanged contact information.
A couple of months later, I reached out to him, and I said, "Mark, would you like to come to my class? I'm doing a project on reinventing the book, the future of publishing." And he said, "Great. I'd love to come." So he came to my class. We had a great experience.
A few months later, I wrote to him again. This time, I sent him a bunch of video clips from another project my students had done. He was so intrigued by one of the projects the students had done, he thought there might be a book in it, and he wanted to meet those students.
I have to tell you, I was a little bit hurt.
I mean, he wanted to do a book with my students and not with me, but OK, it's all right. So I invited him to come down, and he and his colleagues came to Stanford and met with the students, and afterwards, we had lunch together. And one of his editors said to me, "Hey, have you ever considered writing a book?"
I said, "Funny you should ask." And I pulled out the exact same proposal that I had showed his boss a year earlier. Within two weeks, I had a contract, and within two years, the book had sold over a million copies around the world.
Now, you might say, "Oh, you're so lucky." But of course I was lucky, but that luck resulted from a series of small risks I took, starting with saying hello. And anyone can do this, no matter where you are in your life, no matter where you are in the world — even if you think you're the most unlucky person, you can do this by taking little risks that get you out of your comfort zone. You start building a sail to capture luck.
The second thing you want to do is to change your relationship with other people. You need to understand that everyone who helps you on your journey is playing a huge role in getting you to your goals. And if you don't show appreciation, not only are you not closing the loop, but you're missing an opportunity. When someone does something for you, they're taking that time that they could be spending on themselves or someone else, and you need to acknowledge what they're doing.
Now, I run three fellowship programs at Stanford, and they are very competitive to get into, and when I send out the letters to those students who don't get in, I always know there are going to be people who are disappointed. Some of the people who are disappointed send me notes, complaining. Some of them send notes saying what could I do to make myself more successful next time around? And every once in a while, someone sends me a note thanking me for the opportunity.
This happened about seven years ago. A young man named Brian sent me a beautiful note saying, "I know I've been rejected from this program twice, but I want to thank you for the opportunity. I learned so much through the process of applying."
I was so taken by the graciousness of his message that I invited him to come and meet me. And we spent some time chatting and cooked up an idea for an independent study project together. He was on the football team at Stanford, and he decided to do a project on looking at leadership in that context. We got to know each other incredibly well through that quarter, and he took the project that he started working on in the independent study and turned it, ultimately, into a company called Play for Tomorrow, where he teaches kids from disadvantaged backgrounds how to, essentially, craft the lives they dream to live.
Now, the important thing about this story is that we both ended up catching the winds of luck as a result of his thank-you note. But it was the winds that we didn't expect in the first place.
Over the course of the last couple of years, I've come up with some tactics for my own life to help me really foster appreciation. My favorite is that at the end of every single day, I look at my calendar and I review all the people I met with, and I send thank-you notes to every single person. It only takes a few minutes, but at the end of every day, I feel incredibly grateful and appreciative, and I promise you it has increased my luck.
So first, you need to take some risks and get out of your comfort zone. Second, you need to show appreciation. And third, you want to change your relationship with ideas. Most people look at new ideas that come there way and they judge them. "That's a great idea" or "That's a terrible idea." But it's actually much more nuanced. Ideas are neither good or bad. And in fact, the seeds of terrible ideas are often something truly remarkable.
One of my favorite exercises in my classes on creativity is to help students foster an attitude of looking at terrible ideas through the lens of possibilities. So I give them a challenge: to create an idea for a brand new restaurant. They have to come up with the best ideas for a new restaurant and the worst ideas for a new restaurant. So the best ideas are things like a restaurant on a mountaintop with a beautiful sunset, or a restaurant on a boat with a gorgeous view. And the terrible ideas are things like a restaurant in a garbage dump, or a restaurant with terrible service that's really dirty, or a restaurant that serves cockroach sushi.
So they hand all the ideas to me, I read the great ideas out loud, and then I rip them up and throw them away. I then take the horrible ideas and redistribute them. Each team now has an idea that another team thought was horrible, and their challenge is to turn it into something brilliant.
Here's what happens. Within about 10 seconds, someone says, "This is a fabulous idea." And they have about three minutes before they pitch the idea to the class. So the restaurant in the garbage dump? What does that turn into? Well, they collect all the extra food from Michelin star restaurants that was going to get thrown out, and they have another restaurant at a much lower price, with all the leftovers. Pretty cool? Or the restaurant that's dirty with terrible service? Well, that turns into a restaurant that's a training ground for future restauranteurs to figure out how to avoid all the pitfalls. And the restaurant with cockroach sushi? It turns into a sushi bar with all sorts of really interesting and exotic ingredients.
If you look around at the companies, the ventures that are really innovative around you, the ones that we now take for granted that have changed our life, well, you know what? They all started out as crazy ideas. They started ideas that when they pitched to other people, most people said, "That's crazy, it will never work."
So, yes, sometimes people were born into terrible circumstances, and sometimes, luck is a lightning bolt that hits us with something wonderful or something terrible. But the winds of luck are always there, and if you're willing to take some risks, if you're willing to really go out and show appreciation and willing to really look at ideas, even if they're crazy, through the lens of possibilities, you can build a bigger and bigger sail to catch the winds of luck.