Words & Sports

Why Taking Advantage of Luck Matters Most

in sports and in business


We are at a point in the football season where people like to say this or that team got lucky—that So-and-So wouldn’t have won the game if not for this and that. Sometimes it’s an insult, a way to dismiss somebody’s achievement. Sometimes it’s just a way to have something to say about a game. But it’s never actually framed as a good thing. Nobody says “that player’s really lucky,” the way we might say a player is fast or talented.

Why not? What’s so bad about luck?

It’s as if luck were almost like cheating, a thing that gives you success you did not earn. But is that really a fair assessment? As luck would have it, while I was thinking about these things, I happened to read a book by Jim Collins titled “Great by Choice.” In the last chapter, Collins discusses his research on luck and his reasons for believing that luck, good or bad (yes, there is bad luck, too) is what you make of it.

Collins gives many examples of companies that found themselves in the right place at the right time only to squander the opportunity. Then he discusses companies that found themselves in a similarly enviable position but took advantage of it. Steve Jobs, for example, may have been born with an incredible mind—a huge stroke of luck—but he took advantage of it. Bill Gates may have had the luxury of an upper-class education and access to an early computer, but he took advantage of that good luck, too.

Luck is real. Random events or accidents make things easier or harder for people all the time, in business or in sports. But the “luck” narrative in sports makes it sound as though nothing else is involved in winning, as though without that penalty, the opposition wouldn’t have won. As if the game was only that one play and there were no other opportunities at all in the game to win.

Don’t get me wrong, I know there have been games that completely turned on a single fumble or a single missed call. There are days I hate refs! But I also know that, more often than not, those lucky teams win because they did what they had to so they could make the most of the luck they got.

For example, take the Dallas Cowboys vs New York Giants game played at Met Life Stadium from late in the 2016 season. The Cowboys were favored to win, but the weather turned bad. Playing in the cold isn’t easy for anybody, but it does get easier when you live in it and practice in it. The Giants had had plenty of practice in the bad weather, but the Cowboys, whose home stadium is indoors, did not. The Giants won.

Now, you could call it luck that the Giants got the kind of weather they needed to help them win—but that luck doesn’t mean that the Giants won without working for it. In fact, they worked very hard, practicing and playing in difficult weather conditions regularly. Had they not worked hard to make the most of their situation, the bad weather on Sunday would simply have made things equally difficult for both teams.

The rhetoric around luck is frustrating at times. If the other team wins, or if somebody else closes the big deal, it might be luck, but it’s not just luck—why were they ready to take advantage of that luck and others weren’t? People can do themselves a favor by taking a look in the mirror—and give credit where it’s due.

From my vantage point, it’s what a person does with their luck that makes all the difference.


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