How to Create the Luck Required for a Successful Career
You don’t have to start your design career from scratch.
Getting “Lucky” in Your Career
When you see someone land a job right out of UX bootcamp or get a rapid promotion a year into their career, you might think “damn, they’re so lucky”.
I want to elaborate more on the concept of luck, as it relates to your design career. Most people believe in binary luck; you're either lucky or you're not. I disagree, I believe you can create your own luck.
"Great men, become great because they have been able to master luck. What the vulgar call luck is a characteristic of genius”.
Of course, there's an inherent luck factor in regards to your starting point. You’ll probably have an edge if you can work in the US, if your English is good (most educational resources are in English), or if you happen to be connected to people in prominent tech positions (unfortunately nepotism is a thing).
The kind of “self-created” luck I believe in is closely related to Jason Robert's concept of "luck surface area.” It’s the idea that although luck is randomly occurring, you can do certain things to position yourself in a way that captures more of it. In order to create the largest luck surface area possible, we need to understand the four different kinds of luck.
The classic form of binary luck people believe in is called "accidental luck." Your career eventually progresses when you wait long enough due to random chance. Unfortunately in real life, you’ll never be like Big Head from the show, Silicon Valley.
The metaphor for accidental luck I like to use is a seedling. A seedling has no control over where it lands, which determines how much water and sunlight it gets. The seedling just remains in one spot, hoping to grow into a big tree. We don’t aspire to be a seedling passively waiting for good things to happen to us, so let’s move on.
“I have never heard of anyone stumbling on something sitting down."
Active luck is the result of always moving around with no particular direction in mind. Just by doing this, you increase the chance of "random luck encounters". As Shawn Wang puts it, "you're more likely to roll a six if you roll more dice."
A business concept often used to describe market competitiveness is “Red Ocean-Blue Ocean”, but I think it applies here as well. Red ocean strategy competes in the existing market for a limited amount of demand and relies on you beating out competitors. When you send out thousands of job applications, have ten coffee chats a week, and go to every networking event you’re competing in a red ocean using active luck. Every other designer is also doing this, so competition is fierce, and it's hard to stand out. Conversely, blue ocean strategy is to operate in an uncontested market, where there are fewer competitors. To create a blue ocean strategy for your career, you’ll need to focus on prepared luck and magnetic luck.
Prepared luck occurs when you’re able to excavate a lucky opportunity that others cannot. Seneca, a Roman philosopher, once said, "luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” This means you need to have the right skills, knowledge, and context to act on lucky opportunities. If you aren't prepared, this luck will just flow to the next person who's ready to act on it.
In the movie, Pursuit of Happiness, Chris was able to get his “lucky opportunity” by having the right skills to act on a chance encounter. If anyone without those skills was in his position, they simply would not be lucky.
Genius is often the result of prepared luck. When you have the skills and context for a particular problem, you’re able to connect new ideas in ways that others would never consider.
“One sometimes finds what one is not looking for. When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn't plan to discover the world's first antibiotic or bacteria killer. But I suppose that was exactly what I did.”
— Alexander Fleming
Alexander Fleming's discovery of Penicillin was due to prepared luck. Fleming just happened to see some mold fall into a particular petri dish. If anyone else saw this happen, it would be a non-event. However, Fleming connected the dots due to the skills and context he had, leading to this revolutionary breakthrough.
Like Fleming, opportunities are meaningless if we don’t have the skills to act on them. A varied skill set will allow you to act on opportunities. It's always a good idea to keep a pulse on new markets and technologies. Take a shot at predicting what future trends might occur creating a giant demand in the market for a specific kind of designer.
Many designers I know are currently investing in voice, VR, and AR in anticipation of a future boom in demand. Who knows, you might have a life-changing encounter with someone who will need a particular set of skills one day. You should do whatever you can to prepare for that encounter in advance.
According to blue ocean strategy, this would be waiting for a blue ocean market to be created around you, while everyone else is fixated on the red ocean. Prepared luck might be a good approach for designers already in established roles. However, if you’re more ambitious, magnetic luck is the way to go.
Magnetic luck is a more active version of prepared luck. It's when good things and valuable opportunities come to you, unsought. A designer with magnetic luck means they’ll never need to interview for a job ever again. For instance, if you were to build top-tier VR design skills while being a VR evangelist and actively hanging around VR communities, then you could become part of the limited supply in a new blue ocean market. As a result, you’ll find the demand (CEOs and hiring managers) shoving opportunities into your lap.
I often advocate for my mentees to find a niche and claim a domain to stand out as a junior designer. Being passionate about something will drive you to connect new ideas you come across to problems within your chosen domain. With enough diligence, you will have developed a unique and valuable skill set that makes you the best at solving problems within that domain. Being a 99th percentile designer in a niche is much easier than you think. Magnetic luck affords us an evergreen career with absolute job security in a domain we’re passionate about.
How to Cultivate Luck
If you want a successful design career accidental luck won’t cut; active won’t either. The best way to prepare for lucky encounters and attract luck to you is through a process known as “exploring and prospecting.”
As a new designer, you aren’t going to know what domains are interesting and valuable to you. This is where exploring comes in. Explore how design can be used in different contexts. Do some research on how design is (or could be) used in emerging technologies, across different consumer markets, and even in different cultures. Focus on breath, and try to get a sense of what’s exciting to you. If you need to force yourself to do research in a particular domain, I wouldn’t consider it, no matter how lucrative it might be.
Once you’ve narrowed down at least one domain you might be interested in, go deeper. Look for problems and opportunities to create value for businesses within that domain. Mature businesses and corporations tend to value profit and saving costs. On the other hand, Startups tend to value customer acquisition and retention. Come up with ideas on how to solve problems and act on opportunities within the domain that you’re passionate about. As you do this, form hypotheses that you can test. You’ll likely need to pick up on a few new skills to validate your ideas, but this is the best way to learn and develop a unique high-value skill set. This is the path to becoming a 99th percentile designer within a specific domain. This is how to create magnetic luck.
What I Did
Early on in my career, my process of exploring was to go to a hackathon every single weekend and to take on every single project that came my way. After designing hundreds of different products, I discovered my passion was within consumer growth and retention. You know you’ve found your passion when you’re relentlessly curious about something, and that curiosity propels you into action.
That’s when I started prospecting. I experimented with new ideas I had on how to drive customer growth and retention in the product spaces I was interested in. The subdomains I delved deeper into included product-market fit, onboarding, gamification, and creating engagement loops. The specific skills I developed were in branding, content writing, marketing, SEO, and data. This happened organically due to the nature of the domain I was interested in. Nobody else could have pointed me in this direction, I had to get there on my own.
In the following newsletters, I will teach you how to do this yourself and develop the required technical skills along the way. We’ll talk about how to explore and prospect domains to focus on. Let’s work towards creating magnetic luck for your career.
Don’t forget to subscribe to get all the updates!
These emails might end up in your spam or promotions tab. To fix this drag the emails back to the inbox or add email@example.com to your contact list or send a reply.
P.S if you’re interested in the concept of luck I’d recommend reading “Chase, Chance, and Creativity” by Dr. James Austin.