Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
February 5, 201411:28 PM

It's All Just Dumb Luck

Selling a lot of books is very hard. Making a video go viral is very hard. Creating a billion dollar company is very hard.

It's a story that I will never forget. Back in 2008, I was prepping the release of my first business book (Six Pixels of Separation). I was very excited because the book was going to be the lead business title for Grand Central Publishing - which is a part of the largest book publishing company in the world (Hachette Book Group) - and the senior-most executive at the publishing house wanted to meet with me. I was excited. I was nervous. If you could close your eyes and imagine what the head editor of the largest book publisher in the world might look like, you would have the right visual of this powerful, smart and compelling individual. A beautiful corner office with a view, that is decorated with awards, celebrity author paraphernalia, photos of this individual with Presidents, royalty and more. As we sat down on the couch for a coffee, they leaned in and quietly said, "Mitch... I love your book. We all love your book. It's a fascinating space and you have captured it perfectly. We are thrilled that we're publishing it and look forward to its success..." and then there was a long pause. They finished the sentence with: "now, all we need is lightning in a bottle."

Wait. What?  

Write a book that one of the world's most esteemed editors loves, get signed to a global deal by one of the largest book publishers in the world, get to be the lead title for their back to school season, and it's all going to be dependant on how lucky we get? It's a situation that I have known and dealt with for decades. Back in my music industry days, I would face this story on a weekly basis. A band would release an amazing album on one of the major record labels, that was supported with a ton of marketing, featured a great producer, with an amazing tour to come, and it would be crickets and tumbleweeds in terms of record sales, seats sold and general media interest. I could rattle off hundreds of bands who should have been huge from the eighties and nineties while others (some might even argue less-qualified) got the accolades, attention, fame, sex, drugs and well, you know.

In the end, is it all about luck?

I am thinking about luck a lot lately. I'm not the only one. Just yesterday, I saw two really interesting articles on Mashable about Facebook (titled: 'It Was Just the Dumbest Luck' -- Facebook's First Employees Look Back) and the meteoric rise of the most frustrating game, Flappy Bird (titled: How 'Flappy Bird' Went From Obscurity to No. 1 App).

Check out these quotes...

  1. Ezra Callahan was Facebook's sixth employee. Here's what he says about it: "It's humbling to know I was part of something that became such a phenomenon around the world. Every day, I recognize how it was just the dumbest luck in the world to have been in the right place at the right time." 
  2. Doug Nguyen is the indie developer who created Flappy Bird. He never did any type of marketing or advertising for the game and simply said, "The Popularity could be my luck."

Is it just all dumb luck?

You can imagine how many articles, blog posts and book have been written on the subject of luck. I've often referred to this "secret sauce" that seems to have no known recipe in the success of things of other stuff. We would like to think that true success happens when someone can match passion, intellect, dedication and effort against a cause. We would like to think that if you just put your nose against the grindstone, something is going to give. We don't want to believe in something "other" (and no, I'm not talking about any religious figures here). Still, when you speak to those we would consider the best of the best, they often default to some type of comment about just how lucky they got. Sure, go ahead and dump all of the catchy quotes below about how a lot of hard work makes people lucky, I still find it fascinating how there are always these random forces at play. The things that make one video go viral and another, equally compelling piece, be a dud. It feels like luck usually does have something to do with it, regardless of what the data jocks tell us and the puritan hard workers. 

So, do you feel lucky, punk? Well, do you?

By Mitch Joel


Comments Comments Feed
  • Posted by Bill Laidlaw
    Mitch Joel

    If you or your product are/is good it simply increases the chance of success but does not guarantee it. So yes the hard workers and smart people do better when you take a large enough sample.
    If you prefer to think that you were lucky with the success of Six Pixels I am ok with that;)

  • Posted by Joey Gedgaud
    Mitch Joel

    I think it has to do with being a numbers game and the statistics involved. You can improve your odds by making it better but I guess this does equate to luck in the end. There are variables that you can play with and a bit of knowledge can help, but most things will fail in this day and age. Books and videos have very little success like you mentioned, you can call this luck I suppose. I do wish I had a little more of that secret sauce though...great book too!

  • Posted by Mark W Schaefer
    Mitch Joel

    I love this piece Mitch because the idea of "luck" is so overlooked. We like to think that we are all on equal footing and can strategize and work our way to success but that is not always the case. As Malcolm Gladwell so elegantly stated in his book Outliers, it is almost ALL about luck!

  • Posted by Lisa Stockwell
    Mitch Joel

    Good piece, which took me to a different place of thinking about luck and success. I've had a long career that has never put me on any top 10 list or gotten me the attention of anyone in a position of real influence. But looking back, I feel like I've been one of the lucky ones who has been able to create a career doing what I love—writing. I've worked for some wonderful clients, published and edited my own magazine for 5 years, written a bunch of published books (on home remodeling) and have enjoyed being involved in the greatest revolution in communications since Gutenberg's printing press. Fame and money are one way to define success, but in the end they may not provide the same happiness as you get from the satisfaction of doing work you love. In fact the success that brings fame can be an unlucky thing if you're not ready to handle it.
    My question would be, is it luck or tenacity that allows us to wake up each morning excited to have another day to do the work we love doing?

  • Mitch Joel

    Great article Mitch. I think it's one part, "chance favors the prepared mind" and one part luck in catching the Zeitgeist. Both you and the world need to be ready at the same time.

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