“The harder I work, the luckier I get.” – Victor Krulak

Toward the end of my first duty assignment in the Army, I was serving as a battalion logistics officer and closing out what had been four of the most formative years of my young life. On one particularly swarthy Kentucky day, I was reviewing the results of a change of command inventory with someone I had known and worked with most of the past two years. Our conversation that day ranged from the adequacy of tool layouts to the competence of his supply sergeant, from the state of vehicle maintenance in his new company to the leadership team he was inheriting. I had an agenda of my own that day: I wanted to ask him about a friend of his who always seemed hell bent on antagonizing me.

Luck Brings Out the Haters

“Antagonizing” is probably too polite a term, actually. The captain in question was the stereotypical “Blue Falcon.” For the previous two years, he had made it a mission to make me look bad. If he thought I had bent the rules to accomplish a task, he was the first one in the battalion commander’s office demanding I be punished. When I was selected for a job that he thought he deserved, he complained to the inspector general. When things went my way, he fumed. He pouted. He plotted. On more than one occasion, we’d come close to blows. His hatred for me was public knowledge in the battalion.

“Alex, what’s Roy’s problem with me?” I asked.

“He hates you, man,” he replied, without so much a moment’s hesitation.

“Yeah, I get that. But, why? What did I ever do to him?”

Alex smirked. “He hates you because you could step in a pile of shit and come out smelling like a rose.”

“What?” 

“You’re lucky. He’s not. He hates you because you’re so lucky.”

Luck or Extra Hours?

We sat there in silence as the thought sank in. I had always believed in luck, although I’d never considered myself lucky. I had made my share of mistakes, worked hard to overcome them, and learned from them in the process. My work ethic – something I learned from my father – allowed me to make up for other shortfalls in my development. I also didn’t like to be told what to do, so I put in a lot of extra hours doing what needed to be done before I was told. That quirk in my personality served me well more often than not. I didn’t see myself as lucky, but I could understand how others might.

The Lucky Balance

Luck, however, can be fickle. It can be unpredictable. It has a distinctive “right time, right place” element to it. Rely on it too much, and you can find yourself in an endless Sisyphean professional struggle. Ignore it altogether and you could end up like Roy – bitter and hate-filled, wondering why opportunity never knocks. But, carefully cultivated and crafted to perfection, luck can put you on a winning path and keep you there. 

Lucky or Not, Here you Come with These 10 Steps

1. Put in the work.

Nothing creates luck like hard work and commitment. If you’re willing to put forth the time and effort to see things through, people take notice. The right people. That leads to opportunities that might not otherwise come your way. People appreciate hard work and tend to reward it.

2. Have a plan.

If you have goals, then you need a plan. Without one, you’re essentially banking on the hope that a leprechaun is going to come along and change your life. Visualize in detail what you need to do to achieve your goals, set milestones to measure your progress against, and, well… put in the work. Luck will find you.  

3. Be bold.

There are two key components to boldness: decisiveness and risk. Take a chance. Break out of your comfort zone. Embrace risk. Find out just how far you can push your abilities. When an opportunity presents itself, be decisive. Reach for the brass ring. Creating your own luck doesn’t happen by accident. You create your own luck by following the advice of Napoleon: “L’audace, l’audace, toujours l’audace.”

4. Lend a helping hand.

The adage, “what goes around comes around”, comes to mind. When people need help, offer it. When someone needs advice, be there for them. When a friend needs a boost, lift them up. When you consistently help others, two things happen. One, you build a surplus of good will. Two, you have people who are looking out for your best interests. Being a good Samaritan creates a reservoir of good luck.

5. Build a network.

Expanding your social circle is a great way to meet new people and forge new friendships. Building your professional network works the same way and reveals new opportunities. The more people you network with, the broader your connections and the greater those opportunities become. But those bonds are only as strong as you make them – don’t simply “manage relationships” when it’s convenient for you. Make a sincere effort to invest as much in those connections as you ask of them.

6. Be positive.

Optimism is a powerful habit that takes time to develop. It requires more than Daily Affirmations with Stuart Smalley. It takes focus. It takes faith. It takes a firm commitment to a positive mindset and the mental toughness to persevere through hard times. Sometimes, believing that opportunity will come your way is what carries you through until it finally does.

7. Accept setbacks.

When preparing for his 1996 bout with Evander Holyfield, boxer Mike Tyson noted during a pre-fight interview, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” That quote has since grown into an oft-cited piece of business wisdom, a reminder that things aren’t always going to go your way. There are going to be times that you end up face down on the mat. You just have to accept that, pick yourself up, and get back in the ring.

8. Trust fate.

There’s a certain randomness to life. A significant part of creating your own luck is allowing life to come to you. The harder you work toward a goal, the more likely that the randomness of life will present you with an unforeseen opportunity. You want to create luck? Then don’t obsess over it. Put yourself out there in the midst of life and let it come to you.

9. Keep your eyes peeled.

No one had a clearer perspective on opportunity than Ferris Bueller: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Sometimes, opportunity presents itself when you least expect it. Don’t stumble past it. Keep your eyes up and your head on a swivel. 

10. Live for today.

Whether you embrace the words of Reinhold Neibuhr’s Serenity Prayer or the stoic wisdom of Epicurus, keep yourself steadfastly rooted in the here and now. Don’t worry about the luck that might come tomorrow. Focus on what you can control, let go of the things you can’t, and keep your feet firmly planted in today. Your time will come.

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.