Be Surprised if You Win the Lottery—But Not by Your Success

If your success comes as a surprise to you, it means you were lucky, not good.

Success is the anticipated reward for hard work and commitment to achieving an objective, but many are convinced – or at least want to be – that success is the result of chance rather than choice. Those who fail to achieve success often account for their failure by rationalizing that the success of others is due to a “lucky break.” They equate the random luck of winning the lottery with how Winning-the-Lotterymost people win success. In their mind, failure to be successful is not their fault; they just were not as lucky as those who are successful.

Likewise, there is an intriguing reaction to success that comes from some of those who achieve it. Some see success as if it is the end of the road, when it is really only a sign that they are on the right road. Others reach a certain level of success and then begin to concentrate on enjoying the material rewards. They don’t understand that real success is determined by what is achieved, not what is received. And then there are those who, once they attain success, forget what it took to get there, and begin to act as if its continuance is preordained.

These attitudes about success contribute to the reality that more people rebound from failure than survive success. What many fail to grasp is that, as difficult as it may be to attain success, it is even more challenging to retain it. That’s because success has a way of cooling the passion and blunting the drive to achieve it.

Some Are Consistently More “Lucky” Than Others

Folklore supports the “lucky break” justification for failure by often highlighting the “overnight success” that is seemingly arbitrarily bestowed on the chosen few; it’s as if they had no part in the success —they just got lucky. Yet, when you go behind the scenes, you discover there is much more to the achievement. While there may have been a dollop of luck to be in the right place at the right time, the truth is that these individuals had toiled for years learning their craft and preparing themselves to be in the right place at the right time to achieve success. That instant success may be a surprise to others, but not to them.

In 1942, a middle-aged colonel, who had spent 27 years in the Army, but not one minute in battle, was selected over nearly 400 senior officers to lead U.S. forces in the war against Germany. (His immediate promotion to four-star general was the single biggest jump in rank in the history of the Army.) To say there was an army of naysayers carping about this decision would be an understatement. Those officers who were passed over and did not get the job claimed he was just lucky to have caught the eye of the Army and political leaders in Washington. The reality is that this obscure colonel had spent 27 years in the Army developing an intimate knowledge of military strategy and honing a remarkable talent for organizational ability and consensus-building. This “lucky guy” went on to serve as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe and after the war was elected to serve two terms as President of the United States.

When Dwight Eisenhower was once asked how he was able to emerge from almost 30 years Eisenhowerof obscurity in the Army to, almost instantly, become one of the towering figures of the 20th century, he remarked, “I knew that eventually opportunity would come my way and worked hard to be prepared when it did.” Eisenhower was probably the least surprised by his success, because he made himself the most prepared to be successful.

And that’s the point. If we win the lottery, we should be surprised, because we had no control over the outcome. Winning a lottery is a random happening that is not likely to be repeated. But we should never be surprised by our success, because we can plan and control the outcome. If we are surprised by our success, it means we did not plan for it. And if that’s the case, the chances are that our success will be a random event that is not likely to be sustained. If Eisenhower had not been prepared when opportunity came his way, no amount of luck would have allowed him to be successful.

It is certainly not on the level of an Eisenhower, but in my own career I have experienced firsthand the “just lucky” attitude about success.

When the company I helped found – Life USA – overcame high odds and the multitudes of skeptics to become the success story of the life insurance industry, I lost count of the number of people who came up to me and asked, “Aren’t you surprised by the success of LifeUSA?” My answer was always the same, “No! My only surprise is that it did not happen sooner.”

For many, my response may have seemed arrogant, but only because most people are surprised when they see others become successful. That’s because they see success as a random happenstance and that others were lucky to be in the way when it came by. The doubters assume that those who attain success must be surprised by it, because they certainly would be.

And yet, isn’t it interesting that these same individuals are not surprised – and maybe in a perverse way are happy – when they see failure? The failure of others gives many a place to hide from their own failure. The point is that when you prepare to be successful – rather than just hope for it – you are more likely to achieve it. And when you do achieve it, you are not surprised; nor should you be.

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