August 24, 2022

Your surface area of luck

The semester is starting again, and as my college seniors begin to filter in to school over the next few days, I'm always reminded that it's the beginning of the end (of the beginning) for these students. Come graduation, the automatic escalator of advancing school years abruptly stops.

When I was in the last few days of fifth grade, about to head off to the big bad world of middle school, my teacher sat us down and read us the graduation-season staple, Dr. Suess’s “Oh, the Places You’ll Go.” You’ve probably read it at some point too, the whole thing is lovely and gives off the same warm fuzzies as Vitamin C’s “Graduation Song” (which coincidentally came out that same year).

While most of the joyfully-illustrated book is cheery and colorfully optimistic, my favorite part is actually the work’s darkest spread, a few ominous pages about the “waiting place.”

You can get so confused
that you'll start in to race
down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace
and grind on for miles cross weirdish wild space,
headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.
The Waiting Place...

...for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go,
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or the waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.

Waiting for the fish to bite
or waiting for the wind to fly a kite
or waiting around for Friday night
or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake
or a pot to boil, or a Better Break
or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants
or a wig with curls, or Another Chance.
Everyone is just waiting.

That place sounds dreadful. But it’s where too many of us end up – waiting for something to happen to us, instead of us to happen to something.

Now this would be just about where an essay like this would normally veer off into the virtues of hard work and hustle and all that stuff. And while there are certainly a lot of merits to those values, I think that we too often overweight them and discount the incredible role that luck plays in our lives.

There’s luck that I can’t control. I was lucky to be born in one of the most prosperous times and places to have ever existed on the planet. I’m lucky to be physically and mentally healthy, and frankly I’m a beneficiary of quite a bit of luck and privilege based off of how I look and move about in a world that far too often doesn’t give the same grace and fortune to others.

But then there’s luck we can control. The best way I like to think about doing so is by increasing our “surface area” of luck. The bigger our surface area, the wider our net, the more luck we catch as it flows around us – in all parts of our lives.

Having a large surface area means meeting new people, being in close proximity to the “action,” learning new things, sharing your voice with the world, traveling to new places, attending events, being a part of an organization, or anything else that embraces all the richness of the world around us.

Having a small surface area means staying at home, staying in your usual media bubble, retreating into the comfort of familiar groups or destinations, or otherwise spending time in that “waiting place.”

Sitting at home watching Netflix is a low surface area activity. Unless the Kool-Aid man bursts through your wall, you’re not really meeting new people or being exposed to new experiences.

Waiting to be asked out on date or waiting for a new client to email you does not expand your surface area. But joining a dating app or hiking group means you are buying more metaphorical lottery tickets that could land you a new partner, and attending conferences or submitting your work to industry awards means more prospects know you exist (and might want to work with you).

Writing blog posts, organizing events, or posting videos on TikTok or YouTube gives you a bigger sail to catch the winds of fortune. If you make sure to seek out new ideas or stories, consuming content can do so as well – reading books beyond the airport-newsstand-best-sellers, watching movies beyond the latest big franchise sequel, or listening to music or podcasts beyond the perennial chart-toppers.

People are busy and distracted, and they aren’t going to be beating a path to your door. You have to be present in the world, give yourself more rolls of the dice, to increase your quantity of luck.

Two quotes come to mind to finish this off. The first, by author Coleman Cox:

I am a great believer in luck. The harder I work, the more of it I seem to have.

The harder you work, the luckier you are. The more you expose yourself to opportunity, the more lottery tickets, rolls of the dice, at-bats, or whatever other metaphor you pick, the more you have a chance at success.

The other, by author John A. Shedd, is my absolute favorite:

A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.

The comfortable is comfortable for a reason. Hulu can be great after a long day, and ordering you Seamless usual can hit the spot like nothing else. You’re safe avoiding what’s new and unknown. But that’s not what you’re built for.

About the Author

Ben Guttmann ran a marketing agency for a long time, now he teaches digital marketing at Baruch College, just released his first book – Simply Put, and works with some cool folks on other projects in-between all of that. He writes about how we experience a world shaped by technology and humanity – and how we can build a better one.

Get my new book, it just came out.

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