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What is the exact meaning of “It’s better to be lucky than good”? How popular is this adage?

Today’s (October 29) New York Times carries the article written by Jim Collins and Morten Hansen under the title “What’s luck go to do with it,” It deals with a nine-year research study of some of the most extreme business successes of modern times that they call “10Xers,” that they recently completed.

The article begins with the following line.

Better to be lucky than good, the adage goes. And maybe that’s true — if you just want to be merely good, not much better than average. But what if you want to build or do something great? And what if you want to do so in today’s unstable and unpredictable world?”

I guess “Better to be lucky than good “means “to be gifted with good fortune is better than being simply good (at what remains as a question though),” but I’m not sure of its exact meaning.

Although the authors say it’s an adage that I understand should be well-established, popular form of expression, I don’t find this phrase in neither Cambridge nor Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Google Ngram either doesn’t register this phrase.

As a plausible origin of this expression, flightjournal.com says:

“By: Thomas McKelvey Cleaver. “It’s better to be lucky than good,” says Lamar Gillett, the only P-35 pilot in. World War II to shoot down a Japanese Zero fighter. “I was lucky I was behind the Zero instead of in front of him. I was lucky when I landed back . ”

What is the exact meaning of “It’s better to be lucky than good,”? What does “good” mean here? Is it really qualified as an adage as the authors claim it?

What is the exact meaning of “It’s better to be lucky than good”? How popular is this adage? Today’s (October 29) New York Times carries the article written by Jim Collins and Morten Hansen under

Ask an Expert: Better to be lucky or good?

In business, is it better to be lucky or good? (Photo: Thinkstock)

Story Highlights

  • In general it is not dumb luck that puts someone ahead
  • Preparation and hard work allow you to make luck work for you when it appears

Q: It seems to me that there are just some things that are out of our control in business. A client may leave for no reason, or a good reason, and I would never know it either way. So, as the old saying goes, I would rather be lucky than good. Wouldn’t you? — Sheldon

A: Hmmm. Let’s answer it this way, by considering one of my favorite business stories:

During World War II, there was a rubber shortage in this country because we used to get most of our rubber from Asia and, there was a war going on there at that time. So the U.S. War Productions Board put out a call for American companies to try and create a synthetic rubber for use in gas masks, tires, bumpers, etc.

As a result, a scientist at GE ended up inventing a rubber-like substance that almost fit the bill, except not. It stretched, pulled, bounced and even snapped in half when pulled too hard. Unable to turn the stuff into tires and such, GE sent it around the world to different people to see if someone could come up with a use for the strange substance they dubbed, “gupp.” No one could.

Four years later, a professor at Harvard decided to bring his sample of gupp out as a curiosity to share at a party he was having. It was there that an out of work adman named Peter Hodgson saw all of the adults playing with the substance, and he decided it would make a great . toy. Hodgson borrowed $147, bought the rights to gupp from GE, put it in little plastic eggs and renamed it Silly Putty. Hodgson was sure he had a hit and was even able to get his putty into a few stores. He sat back and waited. And waited. And waited.

Silly Putty was a total flop.

That is, until a few months later when a writer for the New Yorker stumbled upon it at the Doubleday Book Store in New York City, bought, loved and wrote about it in the magazine. Hodgson’s worries were over. He received over 100,000 orders in the next few days, and when he passed away decades later, the once destitute Peter Hodgson left an estate worth more than $140 million.

So was Peter Hodgson lucky, or good?

Well, it was both, wasn’t it? He was smart and savvy enough to see a product where no one else did, but it was luck that the right person bought the putty and could and did write about it.

So, was it just luck?

The fact is, Hodgson put himself in a position to be “lucky.” Yes, the article about his toy got him over the finish line, but it was his hard work and ingenuity that got him close enough to the end zone that he was able to take advantage of his break when he got it.

So let me suggest that it is not just dumb luck that gets someone ahead. Sure, sometimes it is, or at least it seems like it is, but more often I think the answer lies in this quote attributed to Roman philosopher Seneca:

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

I know that I personally have been very fortunate in business. Is it luck? Yes, to a degree, but it is also true that I never tire of throwing ideas against the wall to see which ones will stick. Far, far more don’t stick than do. If an outsider happened to be looking when one of my ideas hits, they would say I am lucky. Yet someone else, looking at a different moment, might conclude I am unlucky, given the number of ideas that don’t fly. And someone else might conclude, rightly I think, that I am simply persistent.

So yes, it is better to be lucky than good, but let’s keep in mind the wise words of Thomas Jefferson:

“I’m a greater believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.”

Today’s tip: According to the Manta Small Business Wellness Index, the three most important factors for getting shoppers this holiday season are

Preparation and hard work allow you to make luck work for you when it appears. ]]>