Why Bill Gates is the Luckiest Man in the World

Amazing things happen when preparation meets opportunity.

Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.

I forget when I first heard that. It’s attributed to the Roman philosopher Seneca, the guy who is also credited with errare humanum est — “to err is human”. (Though not the longer “to err is human, to forgive, divine”; that was Alexander Pope, the 18th-century English poet.)

It’s an apt description. Chance presents us with an opportunity. If we are prepared to recognize and act on the opportunity, then we consider ourselves lucky. If we aren’t in a position to act on the opportunity, then we feel frustrated. We may even complain about how life isn’t fair. Opportunity passes us by, but only because we weren’t prepared to answer when it knocked.

Consider Bill Gates. He’s the luckiest man in the world.

Photo courtesy of ©iStockPhoto/AMD8

I just finished reading Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcom Gladwell. I picked it up because I had heard several people refer to it when talking about the 10,000-hour rule. In putting success in context, he talks about why the best Canadian hockey players are born at the beginning of the year, why there were so many feuds among the Appalachian settlers, and how Koren Air went from being one of the worst airlines to one of the best.

Throughout the book, he keeps returning to a central premise, that success can’t be studied in isolation and has to be considered in context:

These are stories … about people who were given a special opportunity to work really hard and seized it, and who happened to come of age at a time when that extraordinary effort was rewarded by the rest of society. Their success was not just of their own making. It was a product of the world in which they grew up.

It would be easy to read Gladwell’s work and think he’s dismissing great success as being a matter of chance. That there wasn’t anything special about Bill Gates—he was just in the right place at the right time and Microsoft just fell into his lap. It’s true that when (and where) we are born are something of chance, but what we do afterwards is surprisingly within our control.

Gladwell lists a series of opportunities that came to Gates. He got ample time on the computers at Lakeside School, then through C-Cubed. He lived close enough to the University of Washington that he could take advantage of free computer time from 3:00–6:00 AM. He got to work on Information Sciences Inc.’s payroll software. He worked on the control system at the Bonneville power station. This is all before graduating high school.

The first of those opportunities to come along were pretty much outside of Gates’ control. Lakeside was his high school. Working on the UW computers at 4:00 a.m.? He chose to take advantage of that. Each step of the way, he did everything he could to get those most out of the opportunities available to him, and that, in turn, started to open doors and create new opportunities. The gig working on the Bonneville station was referred to him because he had established himself as a talented programmer.

Notice here that you can make your own luck. By recognizing and acting on small opportunities, you prepare for greater opportunities to come. Others will know you’re prepared and start to bring you big, wonderful opportunities.

Gates took a proactive approach to his career, though I doubt he thought of it like that at the time—he was just having fun. Proactive people don’t wait for life to happen to them. They actively seek out opportunities to prepare themselves, to grow, and to sharpen the saw. They do things that others only dream of.

You really can make your own luck. Always be learning. Always have a goal you’re working towards, even if how it relates to your lifelong ambitions isn’t exactly clear. Find the positive in every situation. Learn to see problems as opportunities, and you’ll start building momentum. You’ll see more opportunities as they arise, and when they come, you’ll be ready.

Question: What are you doing to prepare yourself for when opportunity strikes? Share your thoughts in the comments, or on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.

About

Colter writes software and blogs about personal growth and productivity. He lives in Silicon Valley (California) with his wife and children, recently took up golf, and watches mostly British TV shows.

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