Success Strategies

How and Why You Need to Make Your Own Luck

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In Real Leaders Don't Follow, Steve Tobak explains how real entrepreneurs can start, build, and run successful companies in highly competitive global markets. He provides unique insights from an insider perspective to help you make better-informed business and leadership decisions. In this edited excerpt, Tobak explains why you should be focusing on the big picture and swinging for the fences in order to create your own luck.

Looking back on it, every pivotal event in my life happened seem­ingly at random. These events were never planned or well thought out. And had I not been present and willing to trust my gut and go for it, none of those events would have happened.

In hindsight, we tend to view positive life-changing experiences as if we just happened to be in the right place at the right time, but that’s not how it works in real time. First, you’re making a conscious decision to put yourself out there. Second, you’re taking a risk because you have no idea if what you’re doing is a good idea until long after the fact. So you have to make the right call without knowing how it will turn out.

For example, when I was at OPTi, I saw an opportunity to advance my career by building strong relationships with the microprocessor companies we partnered with. Instead of waiting around for something to happen, I created an opportunity and ultimately landed my first vice president job at Cyrix. That’s called "making your own luck." Think of it as equal parts luck, risk taking, and decision making. Successful entrepreneurs and executives make their own luck. And they do it by embracing the chaos of the real world.

The natural world always tends toward increasing randomness. That’s just basic physics. Biological organisms attempt to fight the chaos of the physical world by organizing themselves into cells and more complex organisms. The creation of businesses is actually the same process at work.

So think of organisms and businesses as being "anti-chaotic." By definition, that means they favor the status quo. To create positive change and move things forward, however, you need a little disruption. If you want to make your own luck, you have to be open to where life might take you, trust your instincts, and go for it. In short, you have to embrace the chaos of the real world.

While many everyday things are within your control, "inflection points," or the big make-or-break events that change your life, are not, at least not completely. They usually involve letting go, giving up the illusion of control, and accepting the chaos. Anyone involved with startups and how products go viral will tell you that.

It’s easy to look back at innovations like TiVo, Uber, and FedEx and think of their breakout success as foregone conclusions, but that’s simply not the case. While their creators certainly had vision, they had no idea their products would change the way so many people live and work. And yet they had the guts to throw themselves into their ideas with abandon.

One of the biggest problems I see in the entrepreneurial community is that people are trying to be too controlling. They’re distracting themselves with minutiae, losing sight of the big picture, and potentially missing out on what’s important—namely, those inflection points. Consider our culture’s crazy obsession with personal development. Spending your time in a relentless pursuit of self-improvement is the best way I know of to miss out on all life’s big make-or-break moments.

If Richard Branson had been concerned with personal development, there would be no Virgin Group. Does a guy who starts out selling records and then rolls the dice—getting into everything from airlines and aerospace to mobile phones and soft drinks—seem like he’s trying to better himself? Don’t be ridiculous. Branson doesn’t play small ball; he swings for the fences.

Besides, those focused on improving themselves don’t work 100- hour weeks developing SpaceX rockets and Tesla electric cars like Elon Musk, who’s actually chief executive of both companies. They don’t disrupt the global taxi industry, as Uber founding CEO Travis Kalanick did. And they don’t come up with crazy notions like same-day delivery -- and actually make it happen -- as Fred Smith did when he founded FedEx.

Wasting your time looking for ways to improve yourself will only accomplish one thing: keeping you occupied with silly details while real opportunities pass you by. That’s not the way to find your passion in life, come up with breakthrough ideas, or experience life-changing events. It’s certainly not the way to become a successful entrepreneur.

I’m not saying it’s all about luck or that any of this is easy. You still have to connect the dots and make smart choices or all the opportunities in the world won’t amount to beans. And there absolutely are things you can do to improve your odds of being in the right place at the right time.

Spend your time on things that matter -- focus on the big picture and the long run instead of giving in to instant gratification. Step outside your comfort zone and face your darkest fears. Put your butt on the line and take big risks instead of following the path of least resistance and falling into a safety net.

Most of all, have the courage to carve your own path instead of giving in to the status quo or popular groupthink. That’s how real entrepreneurs make their own luck.