Are you totally in control of your life? How much of your life resulted from serendipitous events, and how much is the result of deliberate action? How many of those details or interactions did you or could you have planned? Or, did life beautifully unfold to deliver these circumstances to you? Professionally, have you succeeded because of your skills, hard work and undeniable abilities? Or did some random experience or interaction in your network or with a meaningful teacher or mentor move you to where you stand today?
I recently watched the documentary Twenty Feet From Stardom which shares the stories of some of the best back-up singers you’ve never heard of. What was remarkable about the stories shared about their careers was how we really do take for granted the iconic contributions many of these singers made to some of the most timeless songs of the last 60 years. In many cases their singing literally ‘made’ the song, providing the key lyrical moment or song-defining vocals. Yet, these singers are so rarely, if ever talked about.
Many of these back-up singers tried to have solo singing careers, but despite being enormously talented (often more talented than the star they were backing up), their solo efforts inevitably failed. It was made clear in the documentary that luck, timing and happenstance separated the solo artists from the back-up singer.
Malcolm Gladwell pursues the role of happenstance in Outliers – a book which explores the reasons behind the extraordinary success of several well known individuals. Often, much of the driving reason for this extraordinary success of these individuals is being in the right place at the right time.
In a recent article in the Atlantic, Robert Frank also explores this subject. In Why Luck Matters More Than You Think, Frank makes a strong case for hard work, talent and chance all playing equivalent roles in success. He also suggests that our pride sometimes blinds us from acknowledging chance as a significant contribution to success as we prefer to celebrate the personal reasons we are directly responsible for success: through our own hard work and talent.
As Frank suggests, when we deny the role that luck plays in our lives, we deny the truth that led to successful circumstance and are often less generous with others who might be as talented or hard working but who have not enjoyed the same chance or good fortune.
We might wrongly believe that others would succeed if only they worked as hard as us, or were as skilled as we are even though much of our success might be attributed to factors well beyond our control.
Another way to explore happenstance is to consider the many inventions humans have developed which happened by accident or unintentionally. Think of Wilhelm Roentgen’s discovery of x-rays, Percy Spencer’s invention of the microwave, or Wilson Greatbatch’s accidental invention of pacemakers. These and many other inventions were the result of an attempt to invent something else. Essentially, they were mistakes or accidents that ended up having extraordinarily positive results.
While talent and hard work are essential ingredients for success, we must not forget that chance, happenstance and openness to seeing opportunity in failure are equally as important. In order to succeed, we must honour those spontaneous moments of serendipity, watch for the unanticipated opportunities in our lives and remain thankful for the unexpected openings and opportunities unfolding constantly around us. We must remember that we could just as easily be out of the spotlight and do our best to create opportunities for those who might be every bit as gifted or hard working, but who might lack our opportunities and good luck. Happenstance for all!