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Creativity and the Role of Luck

luck, creativity, chance

The concept, or even the existence, of luck is controversial. By its definition, luck would seem to be a chance occurrence—one that brings good or bad fortune to an individual. Is luck really the metaphorically accidental occurrence that favors some but has no assignable cause?

Luck is a part of many stories about creative outcomes. Alexander Fleming reportedly went on vacation and returned to discover mold growing in his Petrie dish. Examination of the mold in the cast-off dish led to the development of penicillin.

Goodyear’s discovery of vulcanized rubber also has elements of luck involved. When Goodyear accidently spilled India rubber and sulfur on to a hot stove, he discovered that the rubber became more durable and could be of practical use in various products. He called his process vulcanization.

The development of Post-it Notes also involved some chance—actually, two aspects of what might be called luck. Spencer Silver, who was working for the 3M research laboratories, inadvertently developed the adhesive. He was looking for a strong bonding agent, but finding only a weak adhesive, he put the project aside. However, 4 years later, another researcher from the same lab, Arthur Fry, discovered a need for Silver’s weak adhesive. He wanted to mark several pages in his choir hymnal. When individual pieces of paper kept falling out of the book, he recalled Silver’s work and recognized that the weak adhesive could solve his problem. Ten years after the original discovery of the weak adhesive, 3M started marketing Post-it Notes. Was luck involved here?

In his bestselling book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman contends that luck is an important aspect of every success story.[1] He points out that there is almost always an element of luck that changes a mediocre outcome into a notable triumph. Additionally, if luck is a determinant of creativity, Kahneman suggests that there is a question of how much credit one can take for any outcome.

Louis Pasteur (chemist, scientist, and inventor) speaks of “chance as favoring the prepared mind.”[2] This famous quote suggests that luck plays a role in creative outcomes, but also acknowledges that the creator must have a mind prepared to discover something new. Studying and analyzing a field is the best way to prepare the mind for the development of creative outcomes.

Brian Tracy (motivational speaker and author; born 1944) agrees with Pasteur’s approach. However, he goes a step further, proposing that luck is quite predictable and requires an individual to be open to possibility. “If you want more luck, take more chances. Be more active. Show up more often.”[3]

So who explains the concept of luck most accurately: Kahneman, Pasteur, or Tracy? How does luck relate to creativity? Perhaps it doesn’t really matter as long as individuals are able to recognize the dynamic aspects of a situation that chance places before them as they seek creative outcomes.

[1] D. Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow (New York, NY: Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 2011).

[2] L. Pasteur and J. Lister, Collected Writings (New York, NY: Kaplan, 2008), v.

[3] B. Tracy, No Excuses!: The Power of Self-Discipline for Success in Your Life (Boston, MA: DeCapo Press, 2014).

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