It’s a Lot More Than Luck

It’s a Lot More Than Luck

I spend a lot of time talking about the intersection of preparation, opportunity, and luck in my book The Compass Solution: A Guide to Winning Your Career.


Amazing how often seemingly minor events can change our lives. Sometimes they even change the world.


The next time you question how the mix of preparation and opportunity might really shape things – consider these historic examples.




The landmark August 28th, 1963 Martin Luther King speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial and some 250,000 people almost never unfolded –at least not in the way that made it arguably the most memorable address of the 20th century. King, it’s said, struggled with the words he wanted to convey that eventful day – even during the speech – until gospel singer Mahalia Jackson shouted to her friend from just offstage, “Tell them about the dream, Martin….tell them about the dream!”   The story goes that King paused before gazing out at the sweltering throng, and then he uttered the words that remain forever etched in the psyche of this country…..


”I have a dream.”  


Perhaps it was simply an odd combination of good fortune and the timely advice of a well meaning friend – but some would say it was much more – a transcendent moment for a visionary searching for the words that would summon a nation to action.




The turning point of the Civil War was the Battle of Antietam – the watershed conflict in which General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Virginia commenced a long, slow decline into defeat.


What isn’t known – the long forgotten Union soldiers who happened upon the box of cigars left behind by Confederate troops in the days before that pivotal conflict – propped there against a tree. Or the papers in which the cigars were wrapped – which were copies of Lee’s Special Order 191 – outlining all the Confederate movements to come.


It seems that Major General D.H. Hill enjoyed his evening smoke a little too much – or perhaps he simply didn’t take the time to pick up after himself. Lee’s orders were known before the first shots were fired. The fall of the confederacy was three years away – but the bell had already begun to toll.


Time has long forgotten those opportunistic Union enlisted men – but it’s possible our United States might not have survived had it not been for a few cigars and wrapping paper.




The date of Sept. 26th, 1983 won’t be found in many history books – but an argument could be made that it should be. The world as we know it almost ended that day – had it not been for the actions of a man most of us have never heard of.


Stanislav Petrov is not necessarily a household name – likely not even in the small town in Russia from which he hails. But on that fateful day in the fall of 1983 Stanislav was thrust into the annals of human history when, in his job in the Russian early nuclear warning defense system, multiple sensors suddenly went off – indicating a United States missile strike had commenced. In that split second Stanislav’s duties demanded he quickly communicate the alert to his superiors – and commence the Soviet Union countermeasures – a full missile attack on America.


But Stanislav hesitated – he somehow sensed the systems were in error – and so he delayed.


Many experts agree that, had he followed protocol, World War III might have begun. The trigger for Russian response did not allow for multiple sensor errors. But in that moment Stanislav somehow found the courage to hesitate – and Armageddon was avoided.


Perhaps it was simply astonishment that held his hand that day – or maybe it was that strange combination of luck, opportunity, and preparation.


Stanislav Petrov is forgotten now – but it could be argued that he saved more people in the space of a few minutes than anyone else in human history – by deciding what NOT to do.


Split second events – with players who somehow find themselves in the cross-hairs of history.


All moments are NOT created equally – in our lives or our careers.


We fully control our preparation – we seek the opportunities – and we hope for the luck.


Draw your own conclusions.




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