Did entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs achieve success because they were “lucky?” Or is there more to it than just luck?

Here’s a transcript of our conversation:

Emma: Hi, Brittany.

Brittany: Hi, Emma.

Emma: I thought that since the month of March is upon us, and everywhere you turn, you hear about luck. You see the little leprechauns and the pot of gold, and, and that seems to kind of be the theme. I think it comes mostly from St. Patrick’s Day, but it’s just become sort of part of our year now. I thought that maybe we could break that idea down a bit. The idea of luck is all over the place. It comes from superstition. Like if you’ve ever heard someone say, break a leg or knock on wood. Or even just the phrase, good luck, it’s super common to say those things. Like maybe your friend is taking a test or has a big presentation or a job interview or something like that. It’s super common to say these things. And while they’re generally recognized as just nice things to say, I don’t wanna poo poo on saying nice things to people. We don’t often think about what luck actually means. So the technical definition of luck is success or failure, apparently brought on by chance, rather than through one’s own actions. Which is an interesting thing given how much we talk about luck. So when we call people lucky, in reality, when you really know your words and the words that you’re saying, we’re not really complimenting them. We’re actually saying that they didn’t work to get the things that they have. So, you know, again, I don’t wanna say, we can never say good luck or anything like that. I still say that phrase, but it is a problem when you look at someone and say, oh, they’re really lucky that they have money, or they’re lucky that they have a successful business, or that they have that nice house. It’s really easy to fall into that. But in reality, people work pretty hard to get the things that they have. 99% of the time it’s not luck. So, Brittany, can you think of a few people that are often called lucky?

Brittany: Yeah. There’s a really a, I think it’s a disturbing meme that was going around a little bit ago that said like, I think it was Jeff Bezos, maybe Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. And it was like maybe Richard Branson, I can’t remember. That was basically like, these people, people think these people are successful entrepreneurs or like self-made men, but their dads gave them seed money or they had rich friends. And this is funny to me because even if you did, let’s say, you know, Jeff Bezos got a loan from his parents, and I think he did to start Amazon, that loan, the money itself does not equal success. Right? I can think of a bunch of rich people that tried to launch products that did not work, right? Like, yeah. It’s not just money. You don’t, it’s not just money that you need because you have to put in the work, you have to sit, you have to have a good, model, first of all. You have to create a product or a service that people actually want, and then you have to actually execute it, which to me is the hardest part. In fact. So I do performing, I’m trying to be a comedian. I, a lot of people, I always say there’s two kinds of dreamers, right? There’s just a dreamer who sits and talks about all the things they’re gonna do. And then there’s like a dreamer who’s a doer. So these people were not just dreamers, they weren’t just like, oh, I’m rich. I’m gonna use this to do this. They were like, you know what? I’m gonna actually do the work. Cuz a lot of people with great ideas are just ideas. People, they never put it into place. And it doesn’t matter how much money they have, it doesn’t matter, you know, who their parents are unless they put in the actual work, you are not going to get anything done. So I think that, like, that meme really makes me mad. Cause it’s like, okay, yeah, even startup companies, startup companies can get money. Anybody can actually raise money, especially with like crowdfunding and all this stuff and online places where you can do this. Kickstarter used to be a big thing. It was a website where, yeah, you wouldn’t make your product until you raised a certain amount of money and maybe the people who helped you pay for it would like get a shirt after you raised, you know, enough money. But this doesn’t mean your product’s gonna be a success. All that means is you have some, you know, foundation starter money to test your idea. Almost like the scientific method, like we talked about a couple of episodes ago. So I think that’s important to remember that these people didn’t get lucky. Getting lucky isn’t getting money, you know, lucky would be like, oh, we got success, but they put in the work to get the success that they got and they filled a lot of the way along the way.

Emma: Yeah, totally. And it’s an interesting thing to talking about how, you know, people will say, oh, his dad just gave him money in America especially, there’s a lot of upward mobility with wealth, meaning that a lot of people become wealthy here for the first time in their family’s history. Yes. But there’s also a lot of downward mobility where if you are born wealthy and you’re not good with your money or you have this lavish lifestyle and you’re not reinvesting that money into making more, it’s really easy to lose it. Especially with taxes and with all this stuff, there are a lot of people who are born basically second-generation wealthy, who have basically nothing to show for it by the end of their lives. And they haven’t produced anything. And that’s not me hating on the wealthy, but I’m saying it’s not just like you’re born rich and you just stay rich forever. You have to be very, very, very wealthy for that to happen. And even then it doesn’t always work. So the whole luck thing it’s not as big of a part of the equation as people think. And of course, sometimes people happen to have an idea from, you know, something that they’re working on and it gives them this great start to a business idea or something like that. But there really isn’t much luck involved in success. So here’s an example that I love is Jeff Bezos started Amazon out as a used book company from his garage. And the way that he did it was actually cool. He saw it was an era called the.com boom when all of these websites were growing and there was all of this stuff going on in Silicon Valley with these businesses that started to use the internet to grow. And he looked at, you know, he tried to make a list of 10 different products that could be easily sold online and he narrowed it down to five. And one of them was used books, and I think the others were like computer software and a couple of others that he didn’t end up doing as much of. He really focused on books and started out in his garage. There were a lot of people that told him he was crazy. It was never gonna take off. Don’t people just have libraries and that sort of thing, but what do you know? It really took off. But it took a lot of hard work and time for that to happen. So it took years before he had anything to show for his idea and he had to keep showing up and keep working hard. And I think that’s such a cool lesson that this small idea, he focused on selling books, which is a simple enough thing, but his business kept growing and he kept looking for new creative ways to make money and to serve customers and to meet people’s needs. And now Amazon is doing all sorts of stuff. They have a whole company that just makes movies and TV shows and they do streaming and you can buy pretty much anything that you would ever want from Amazon. So that’s not to say that, you know, I always agree with everything that the company does or everything that Jeff Bezos does, but that man has identified a lot of opportunity in his life and acted on it and used his capital to make it happen. And that is so much more than just being lucky. So Brittany, do you have any other examples that come to mind for you?

Brittany: Yeah, let’s talk about, you know, Steve Jobs and he was a similar person. I can’t remember if they said he got seed money or not. Seed money means like, think of like a seed to plant something. I can’t remember if he was on that meme or not, but either way. So he dropped outta college, which you hear a lot with actually with a lot of these people. Yeah. They dropped out a college, he went to like live on a commune, went through like a hippie phase, right? But then he figured out what he wanted to do and he dedicated himself to learning about computers and business. And he put in a lot of time, like people who do these things, they don’t have spare time. They aren’t like living their lives up doing, you know, doing all the stuff. They’re putting their, all their effort into figuring out how to be a success. So, you know, to say someone like Steve Jobs created Apple and it was just like a fluke and it was like, oh, he got lucky. That’s so silly to me because of the work you have to put into being, you know, to developing software. I mean, look how complex the iPhone is. I couldn’t make an iPhone. Of course. Just like the pencil. Not one person can make an iPhone, takes lots of people, but you really have to put in the work to become really educated in whatever it is you’re trying to do. You know, you said Jeff Bezos put in the time to figure out what product was he was gonna center his whole operation around. So that’s really important. It’s so funny to be people like, oh, he got lucky. And that’s not to say some people don’t, there are like, especially with performers, they’re like people who one night they’re performing like in a club and someone famous sees them and they, you know, and they make it big.

Emma: The big break.

Brittany: But that’s not the norm, the big break. But that’s not the norm. Right. That is not usually how it happens. And you know what, even people who do get lucky, that’s not really a reason to hate them. It’s a sun to me.

Emma: Exactly. Yeah.

Brittany: Because if that happened to you, you’d want people to be like, oh my goodness, that’s so cool that you were able to do that. Right? Like, so that’s really important I think.

Emma: Totally. And even just putting yourself out there and going and performing, you have to prepare for that. You have to put in work, you have to get a set ready, whether it’s comedy or whether it’s music. Yeah. And, you have to put yourself out there and be doing things to even get your quote-unquote big break. The band that comes to mind that did that in music is The Beatles, we all know about the Beatles. And, they were one of the most popular, if not the most popular band of all time. And they played for years, I wanna say it was maybe even more than 10 years in these bars. And you know, nowhere, middle of nowhere, Germany all over the place just playing music for people that didn’t really care about them for a really, really long time. And until they got really good and then they were eventually discovered and grew very quickly after that. But it was a very slow grind for them. They had to really work hard and perfect their craft. And that kind of reminds me of this concept that Malcolm Gladwell has talked about, of 10,000 hours and putting in the time that it takes to become really excellent at something. He has this idea that if you could do something for 10,000 hours, you will be very good at it. And that’s what the Beatles did. They, I would bet money that they put way more than 10,000 hours in before they were ever really popular. And there’s one more example that I’ll talk about before we move into a little bit of a different part of this topic is Phil Knight. And Phil Knight is the founder of Nike. He lives in Oregon, right around where I grew up actually. I grew up with lots of Nike people around cuz their main campus was a few miles away from where I lived. And funny enough, I actually have a personal story about Nike. So my, oh gosh, would it be, he’s kind of like a great uncle, I guess to me. A distant family member went to college with Phil Knight before Nike ever existed. And Phil Knight was a Trek athlete and he knew all of these people who were running and back then tennis shoes were basically just like Converse. They were very flat, they didn’t have a lot of support and they were really basic and your feet would kind of take a beating if you ran a lot in them. And he came up with this idea to pour shoe rubber into a waffle iron and basically cut it into the shape of a shoe sole and sew it onto a shoe. And he said I’m gonna change the world with these shoes. They’re, awesome. This is a great idea. And he asked this family member of mine for a loan of a thousand dollars, he said, can I borrow a thousand dollars from you to buy some equipment and make more of these waffle, iron rubber shoes? And my uncle told him he was crazy and said, Nope, I’m not giving you that money. I don’t think this is ever gonna happen. And he, he pushed through that. He, he didn’t say, okay, well I’m never gonna be successful. I’m quitting cuz this guy told me no, he pushed through and he created Nike, which is the biggest sportswear company. Yeah. In the world now. So, talk about luck. My uncle could very easily say he was unlucky, but actually, he just made a poor decision. He didn’t, you know, look into everything and do his market research and all of that so he could have been Nike’s first investor. Oh wow. But it’s a crazy story about how luck is not just this happenstance thing. You have to work hard and push through circumstances and people telling you no. But one thing that I do wanna talk about here because we’re talking about these big companies like Amazon and Apple and Nike, and a lot of these companies get special, basically special breaks from the government on taxes and on, you know, regulation and all of these things where only the really big businesses get these things. And that’s what’s wrong with them. I think Brittany and I would both agree that when it comes to government intervention, Les is always better. We don’t like when the government has regulations. We don’t like when the government taxes businesses, but there’s something really unfair that happens a lot of the time where the biggest companies get really special treatment from the government. And that’s almost like a weird artificial form of luck where the government is picking and choosing which companies are gonna be successful and which ones aren’t. And we always talk about the free market and talk about innovation on this podcast and how freedom allows competitors to come up and serve customers. And it keeps prices low, but it’s really difficult for that to happen when the government is interfering in the market. So, Brittany, I don’t know if you have any thoughts on subsidies and, and how all of that stuff works, but I know that you’ve researched that a lot for your writing that you’ve done with Fee and some of those other places. You’ve done some really great work on government subsidy stuff.

Brittany: Yeah, And I think you, you covered a lot of it where it’s just this is the government picking winners and losers by, you know, offering them tax breaks or money. But I think there’s another part of this too, and that is during the pandemic with the government’s deciding who could, what businesses could stay open and which couldn’t. So they were actually saying, especially with small restaurants where that’s very entrepreneurial, they were literally saying like, Nope, you don’t get to because we said you can’t because like sometimes in bars, if you didn’t serve like chicken wings, this is a real thing. Yeah. Then you couldn’t, you couldn’t stay open. But if you were a bar that served chicken wings, you could. So I think it’s a similar thing with Subies where it’s basically saying like, we’re gonna determine your success with these, you know, silly arbitrary laws.

Emma: Yeah. That’s a great way to sum it up. we’ll wrap it up here today guys, but my challenge to you would be next time you wanna say, oh, that person is so lucky, think about it a little more and think about the work that they put in to get there. So that’s where we’ll leave you today guys. Thank you so much for hanging out with us and we will talk to you all again soon.

Brittany: Talk to you soon.