Science has discovered the formula to having good luck

Worrying about other people's stuff is a trap in life worth avoiding. That doesn't mean I haven't sat at the lights in my 1999 Daihatshitbox Elcrappo, wondering how the sparkly young bloke beside me in the Bentley could afford such a splendid machine at a stage of such repulsive youth?

"Drugs," I scoff, as he rumbles off to a better life. "Mummy's car … okay, maybe he's a trader … or a flipper … or a bitcoin kid … or sold an app … OK, maybe it's his car ... maybe he's just lucky."

The elusive pot of gold

And there we have it. Luck. He was born into it. If he had to fight in the real world he'd be pulling beers if he was … lucky.

Jealousy can evoke such unpleasant thoughts.

We look around us each day, at people with cool businesses and lifestyles propped up by family money, and shake our heads. Damned good luck.

Let's define success in a narrow way here. I'm talking people who have achieved wealth and power, those lucky with a buck, their snouts greasy with filthy lucre.

(Happiness being the real success is a different conversation. And, for the record, it is).

The science of luck

The good news is that not achieving a bulging bank account or high-status job is hardly linked to our effort at all. There is a scientifically proven luck component.

It's true the homeless are as intelligent, as creative, as emotionally sensitive, and as capable, as any of us. It could be you, or me, shoved out onto the cold dark street by bastard bad luck.


It's reassuring to know, then, that we can maximise our chances of getting lucky.

The luck skill set

In the Scientific American this year psychological science writer and speaker, Scott Barry Kaufman, wrote there is a set of characteristics – "skill, mental toughness, hard work, tenacity, optimism," a growth mindset and emotional intelligence – that can help us see an opportunity, and have the foresight and ability to grab it by the neck.

Those things are what we see as "talent". While it may help, there's a whole lot of variance, studies show, left creepily unexplained.

The Pareto Principle tells us, that about 80 per cent of effects come from 20 per cent of causes. Put another way, 80 per cent of our effort results in absolutely nothing. That's drifting scarily close to a notion I personally abhor, "whatever will be, will be."

The 80:20 rule

It exists in nature and business. Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto showed that 80 per cent of Italy's land was owned by 20 per cent of its population. Eighty percent of revenue comes from 20 per cent of clients. Twenty per cent of computer code has eighty per cent of errors. The world's richest 20 per cent of people hold eighty per cent of its wealth. Food and diet for weight loss? 80-20.

Studies show the 80-20 rule will establish itself in models again and again. In our society, 20 percent of us are going to have 80 percent of the good stuff and there doesn't seem to be much we can do about it.

Maybe they're worth it?

It's a truth that a majority of my personal activity results in absolutely no productivity. Indeed, I often make things worse.

Now wrap your brains around this. If success is just blind luck, then do the rich deserve their spoils? Is there a "naïve meritocracy", where people aren't given the recognition they deserve because everyone underestimates the role of the random in winning?

Is this why so many "successful" people on reality TV shows are so unrelentingly awful? It's not good people, but good luck, their sense of entitlement unearned.

DIY luck

Luckily, the idea of "making your own luck" is an achievable feat. Talent, as we've seen, is simply having the skills to spot and maximise an opportunity. You can increase your knowledge and understanding of the world. You can learn to become flexible and open and brave enough to put yourself and your skills on the line at the right time.

You might be born with a shit sandwich instead of a silver spoon in your mouth, but you are more than welcome to spit it out.

Those with greater "talent" have a higher probability of achieving success because they're best at opening the door when opportunity is fiddling with the front gate.

10,000 hours

"Talent" is a set of skills you can give yourself. Opportunism, positivity, communication, and a work ethic can be learned.

The writer Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers: The Story of Success, argues that the 10,000-hour rule is the secret to success. Those who have practiced a skill for 10,000 hours, from The Beatles to Bill Gates to ice hockey players born early in the year (they're bigger, get more game time and it becomes a self-perpetuating loop), become "experts."

So, get out there and work to create your own luck. It's in the science.

With more than 25 years in Australian media, Phil Barker has edited NW and Woman's Day magazines, and published such titles as Vogue, GQ, Delicious, InsideOut and Donna Hay. He is a consultant creative director and communications specialist, currently writing a book on "man stuff" for publisher Allen & Unwin. He is a regular commentator on the lives and style of Australian men.

Follow Phil Barker on Twitter

Are you luckier than others? Share how you got your windfalls in the comment section below.