Luck is the echo of effort

Luck is the echo of effort

May 06, 2024

🌿 Sprout

When you drive towards the coast of Karnataka, a southern state in India, and the highway gives way to narrower roads winding through paddy and crop fields, you will start to see coconut trees with upside-down hats. These hats are sturdy nets designed to save passersby from coconuts falling on top of their heads, but also to catch those coconuts before they fall to the ground and rot.

Every time I pass by these trees, I think about luck.

Luck is often seen as undeserved, a caprice of the gods that drops golden opportunities into some people’s laps more often than others. In a way, it is just that: whimsical and slippery. This lends to the general notion that luck is binary; you either have it or you don’t. In my experience, it can be a comforting notion to think that we have no control over the roll of the dice. It feels like being absolved from the burdens of choice and self-assessment. If someone else—something else—is calling the shots, then we have no choice but to follow along.

But what if what we perceive as luck is actually the echo of effort?

I don’t think we can create luck — that’s like trying to pin down a cloud. But recently, in the past year or so, I’ve discovered that the world does tilt a little towards those who arrange their lives and minds to welcome the unexpected. It’s not so much manufacturing luck as creating the conditions that coax it closer and closer still. It’s putting up the net that catches the coconuts no matter how unpredictable their descent.

Admittedly, it’s a tall order. When I first began thinking about how luck works, I was stuck and unmotivated, trapped in quicksand. Everything I did—making friends, finding new work opportunities, building something of my own—felt like it either wasn’t enough or was an effort aimed in the wrong direction: At the same time, I was never someone who considered myself “unlucky”, and so I knew there was a way out if I poked around long enough. I didn’t know it back then, but that mindset made a huge difference. 

Soon enough, I realised the process of changing things for myself wasn’t any less painful. To become luckier, I had to be prepared but flexible, and opportunistic without being attached to outcomes. I had to make the right moves consistently over time, because luck is only repeatable when effort is allowed to compound.

With persistence (and the occasional hand-wringing I allowed myself), I think I managed to make myself luckier—consistently luckier—than I’ve been in the past. There’s two parts to this: I have had many more opportunities fall into my lap, but that only kicked into overdrive when I started seeing opportunities for what they were, as opposed to just instances that happened to me, NPC-style. 

That’s my first note: Luck, as with a lot of other things, starts with what we pay attention to. When my vision is tunnelling, it’s infinitely harder to spot something serendipitously. Being physically or emotionally closed off to the world around me also means being closed off to chance opportunities.  And what I don’t notice, I can’t contend with. If I want to flag down luck, I first need to be aware enough to recognise it as it unfolds at the edges of the present moment. 

“Until you make the unconscious conscious it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
— Carl Jung

Some opportunities are more overt than others. A 20-dollar bill on the sidewalk is an obvious manifestation of luck, just there for the taking. Other opportunities aren’t as obvious, and you might spend more time and effort on them before they show you results. But they will likely have more life-changing potential than a stray note out in public. To recognise those opportunities—and capitalise on them before the universe retracts its cosmic help—you need a keen, well-prepared mind that knows what it’s looking for regardless of the form it might take. 

My favourite example of this is Alexander Fleming, working in the chaotic confines of a 1928 London laboratory. He returns from a holiday one day to find something very unusual among his scattered equipment. A petri dish left carelessly on a workbench had become contaminated by a mould actively dissolving the bacteria around it. On any other day, it might have been discarded with little thought. Instead, that mouldy dish led Fleming to discover penicillin, the first true antibiotic which ended up saving millions of lives.

I imagine people would’ve scoffed at this discovery. Mere luck, they would have said. A happy fluke, a case of being in the right place at the right time. And yet, we forget that Fleming himself had been primed by years of meticulous study and previous observations; his mind was a cultivated field, ready to nourish the seeds that fell onto it by chance. 

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”
— Seneca

Luck doesn’t exist in isolation. It reacts, it responds, it is influenced by desire made visible, flares sent into the atmosphere. Codus Operandi’s Jason Roberts describes this as “increasing the Luck Surface area”: deliberately compounding the value of your work by letting people see and recognise it. It means being more vocal about what you do, as you do it, and in front of the right people.

Luck = Doing x Telling

As a writer, the lowest hanging fruit was writing and speaking about my work in public. I had to go beyond sharing links on Twitter and calling it a day, because that was as good as shouting into a void. To really expand my luck surface area, I DMed links to people personally and actively sought feedback. I interacted with other writers on Substack and often linked back to my writing where it felt organic. I found the “nexus” of an interesting group of people, and charmed my way into being intro’ed to others. 

This sort of deliberate exposure was terrifying, a kind of high-wire act performed without a net. The doing is harder than the being. But when it worked, it worked. Sharing my writing on the internet made me more visible in my industry, and I started getting job referrals to companies that perfectly—scarily—matched my values. Talking to an interesting stranger led me to a long-lost group of friends, who have now become some of my favourite people to hang out with. 

These moments of serendipity and synchronicity are shocking because they reveal the gambles people are willing to take on you purely off of the little evidence of goodness or interestingness they’ve come across. For both parties, it’s a leap of faith — but one with much more chances of working out.

With effort, luck becomes less about random chance and more about crafted consequence. Oh, and: human faith is incredibly potent. 

As I write this, I notice that there’s one thread running through all the notes I have on luck so far: people. Who you’re telling your stories to is arguably as important as how much effort you’re putting in. Your milieu matters. 

There was a time when our milieu was determined by where we were born and to whom. Now, those bindings are less constrictive. We can sculpt our circles through chosen friendships, careers, identities, and digital interactions. It’s why people tell you to find mentors older and wiser, make a variety of friends, and do things outside your comfort zone.

An elastic milieu is really a golden ticket because we’re always absorbing the culture around us and inhabiting our unique cultural intersections. To be able to choose who influences that is both a privilege and a responsibility. By actively curating what touches upon your senses, you can invite opportunities that you wouldn’t have otherwise. When you surround yourself with the right milieu, wondrous things happen — you get opportunities and they each feel like they’ve been singularly crafted keeping you in mind. 

Ultimately, I think the key to cultivating more luck lies in being more purposeful about the life you want to live. It’ll still involve some whimsy, but at least we can tilt its hand in our favour.

Backlinks to this note

Backlinks to this note

Levers of the soul
Or, breaking away from being a train running on tracks laid down by someone else.