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How luck matters in your career advancement, and what you can do about it

You’re talented and smart, you work harder than anyone around you, and you have great emotional intelligence. These characteristics should guarantee you promotions and a fast rise to the top of any organization, right?

Not so fast.

Here are a few observations that may squelch the “hard-work-and-smarts” notion:

Your name and birth month can influence your chance of becoming a CEO.

Being born in June or July may lower your chances to be a CEO.

Using middle initials increases positive evaluations of an individual’s intellectual power.

People with easy-to-pronounce names are judged more positively than those with hard-to-pronounce names.

Women with masculine sounding names tend to fare better in legal careers.

What’s going on here?

Nancy Napier.jpg
Nancy Napier

In an article in Scientific American last year, Scott Barry Kaufman reported on a series of studies that suggest luck and serendipity might play a role in your job and career advancement.

Kaufman reported on a group of Italian physicists who sought to quantify the role of luck and talent in a mathematical model simulating careers of people over a 40-year time span. Their results may frustrate the hard workers of the world:

“In general, mediocre-but-lucky people were much more successful than more-talented-but-unlucky individuals.”

Further, luck begets luck. In other words, those who are lucky keep getting more opportunities because they are in the right place, time and situation. The takeaway then becomes: Find ways to make yourself lucky.

How do you do that? According to Kaufman:

1. Be in a stimulating environment that has lots of opportunities. Living in an industrialized country is a start.

2. Get a good education and training but don’t count on that being the only ticket.

3. Learn to take advantage of opportunities that come your way. And maybe, in the future, you’ll be able to make those opportunities instead of just waiting for them.

Nancy Napier is a distinguished professor at Boise State University. nnapier@boisestate.edu
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