Napoleon Bonaparte is widely recognised as a military genius but in recent years, he has become a role model for people who are intent on getting rich and building corporate empires. To authors of business self-help books, Napoleon offers plenty of material: he was a tactical mastermind; he was determined and rarely lost a battle. However, Napoleon also understood an uncomfortable fact of life that authors are somewhat reluctant to acknowledge.

Despite his supreme abilities, the great man knew that it wasn’t skill, training or intellect that swung battles in his favour. At times, Bonaparte struggled to isolate the reason he won or lost and eventually, by a process of elimination, he decided that chance was the key difference.

‘Give me lucky generals,’ said Napoleon. Although this is a catchy and pithy motto, this line of thought clashes horribly with the widely-held belief that we are masters of our own destiny.

The self-help books tell you that if you believe in yourself; work hard; network enthusiastically; never give up and explore every potential opportunity, success will inevitably follow. While there is plenty of merit in this advice, achieving your goals this way is far from guaranteed because – as Napoleon understood better than most – events and decisions totally beyond your control can scupper your aspirations.

Whichever word you prefer - luck, chance or fate – it’s important to stress that Napoleon did not believe that this single factor is all you need. To be successful, creative professionals also need to be skilled, focused and reliable. Fate will not miraculously deliver clients and fortune to your door, so you have to do some self-promotion. However, it’s equally important to acknowledge that circumstances outside your influence can have a dramatic impact on your future.

This can work in either direction, of course. An actor, for example, may have flown through the auditions and be within a hair’s breadth of securing the lead in a six-part TV drama. And then, without warning, the casting director is fired and the replacement chooses another lead. Conversely, a struggling freelance journalist might receive a phone call out of the blue from a long-forgotten university friend who has just been appointed editor of a Sunday supplement and urgently needs someone with his old buddy’s talents.

However you define luck, it is highly debatable whether it affects some people more than others. Napoleon wanted lucky generals but in the long run, all of his senior officers probably had their fare share of good and bad fortune. The same is true of poker players, sports people and creative freelances. What is less contentious, however, is encapsulated in a common aphorism: you make your own luck.

There is certainly some truth in this maxim and this is best illustrated by comparing a creative freelance to a fisherman. If the fisherman believed entirely in luck, he would stay in bed all day and wait for a monster salmon to fall from the sky. Of course this strategy would deliver nothing more than disappointment, so the fisherman will head for the river. He might choose a spot where he’d had success in the past. He might also have picked up tips from angling magazines about the best bait for a particular type of fish. He may have read a book about the influence of weather and time of day on piscine feeding habits. Armed with knowledge, experience and technique, the fisherman finally casts his line into the river and hopes for the best.

Compared to an opportunistic angler who casually drops his hook into a random section of the river, the methodical fisherman is clearly improving his chances of catching a fish. The opportunist might get lucky, but probability obviously favours those who put their efforts into planning, preparation and focus.

While there are many factors that we can’t control, we can take steps that are more likely to bring success than just sitting back and hoping for the best. There is no sure-fire way of maximising good luck but as any experienced freelance will testify, pivotal moments can occur when you put yourself in the right place at the right time and kick start positive momentum that can keep you going when you least expect it.

I’ll discuss this more in the next blog.

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