Don’t Take a Chance on Luck

Luck seems to have a peculiar attachment to work. I’m sure that you have heard the Dave Thomas quote: “It seems the harder I work, the luckier I get.”

I would tend to agree with that statement, but I think there are a few other conditions that affect your “luck” — things like instinct, timing, market conditions, and public opinion, to name a few. I know plenty of folks that have worked their heads and hearts off, but for some reason or another, they just aren’t successful in what they accomplish.

On the other hand, I have witnessed others who seem to have fallen into a bed of roses — businesswise or financially. Predictably, most of their friends are totally amazed and can’t figure out how or why this person made it. Pure luck? Probably not. More likely, they were in the right business at the right time. Oh, we should all be so “lucky.”

Call it whatever you like, but I prefer not to rely on luck when it comes to business. I leave that for Las Vegas.

I’ll admit, I’ve been “lucky” on many occasions, such as the time I was in London many years ago and was late for a play. I started to step off the curb without looking to my right. I pulled back for a reason I still can’t explain. Being in London, where they drive on the “wrong” side of the road, a big bus almost wiped me out. Go figure it! Had I taken that step, I would have been dead within a nanosecond. I would bet that most of us could tell a similar story.

What is the correlation between luck and success? Frankly, I think Dave Thomas, who founded the Wendy’s chain, had it right. As for my business life, I prefer to do everything in my power to make my own “luck” — long hours, clear goals, calculated risks, good hires, expert advice, and a reasonable amount of fear have guided me.

I’ve had plenty of incentive too, like putting my name on my product. Nothing makes you try harder than putting your identity on the line.

Was it luck that led to the creation of so many well-known products? I think not. Rather, it was creativity and the courage to redevelop already invented products. For example, Coca-Cola started out as a headache medicine. Post-it Notes originated when a 3M inventor created bookmarks for his prayer/song book. Levi jeans — with rivets instead of buttons — were made out of leftover tent canvas when miners needed pants.

Speaking of leftovers, that’s how the Swanson TV dinner was created. It was Thanksgiving 1952 and the Swanson Company had 260 tons of leftover turkeys. The company filled 10 refrigerated boxcars and let the frozen turkeys ride around the country until they figured out what to do with their fowl problem. A salesman developed a three-compartment tray for the frozen turkey and two side dishes because he remembered from his Army days how he hated when his food ran together. Management gobbled up the idea. So did Swanson’s customers.

Ice cream sodas were invented not so much by luck as by necessity. In 1874, 16 years after the first soda fountain opened, Robert M. Green was mixing his popular drink, consisting of sweet cream, syrup, and carbonated water. When he ran out of sweet cream and there was no way to get more that day, he started substituting vanilla ice cream, hoping no one would notice. Everyone noticed — and he went from grossing $6 a day to $600.

Yo-yos were used as weapons in the ancient Far East. Sixteenth century hunters in the Philippine Islands tied wooden disks together with a long piece of rope or twine. They would sit in trees and fling the weapon at prey. If it missed, they would pull it back quickly and try again. Donald Duncan saw the yo-yo in action in the early 1920s, changed the design, and created a child’s toy, my grandson’s favorite possession.

Even Avon Cosmetics got its start when a door-to-door book salesman named David H. McConnell decided to offer a small sample of perfume to women. Soon the perfume became more popular than the books and McConnell established the California Perfume Company, which changed its name to Avon Products in 1939.

Lucky? No. Good business. Taking risks, being creative, and reading and reacting to markets will trump luck every day. You can bet on that.

Mackay’s Moral: Good luck usually depends on good judgment.

[Ed. Note: Harvey Mackay has written five New York Times bestselling books, two of which were named among the top 15 inspirational business books of all time — Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive and Beware the Naked Man Who Offers You His Shirt. His latest book, Use Your Head to Get Your Foot in the Door: Job Search Secrets No One Else Will Tell You, was released Feb. 18. Harvey is a nationally syndicated columnist and has been named one of the top five speakers in the world by Toastmasters International. He is also chairman of the $100 million MackayMitchell Envelope Company, a company he started in 1960.]