I had a moment recently that made me feel like the luckiest guy in the world — or at least the luckiest photographer.
I was driving through Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park just after sunrise, looking for a few good photo opportunities. Of course, every inch of that place is a good photo opportunity, but the region had been socked in with rain for my entire visit, and it had just started breaking up.
The flash of good weather was so promising that I delayed my return flight just so I could shoot some more — snagging a rental car and heading back into the park an hour before sunrise.
After several hours of shooting, I came around a lazy bend in a road and saw a view that stopped me in my tracks. I mean that literally — I skidded my rental Camry to a halt right in the middle of the road. In front of me was a beautiful scene of mountains, clouds, and trees lightly dusted with fresh snow, all bathed in a uniquely magical light.
It was clearly a very special moment, and a dynamic one, too, since the wind was hustling the clouds around quite briskly. I got out of my car as fast as I could and captured a scene that, when later shared by the Department of the Interior across its social media channels, became its most popular post of the year.
It’s a striking image that, in 1/1000th of a second, became one of my most exciting moments as a professional photographer. I’ll be able to sell the image for years to come, and potentially garner more work because of it.
But it made me wonder: How much credit do I actually deserve for that shot? Was it luck — right place, right time — or skill?
Every profession has moments like this, some very famous.
Franco Harris scoops up a tipped pass and runs for a touchdown as time expires, sending the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1972 AFC Championship Game. W.K. Kellogg tries to make granola, screws it up, and unwittingly invents Corn Flakes.
Alexander Fleming doesn’t bother to clean his lab equipment before leaving for summer vacation and discovers the penicillin mold upon his return.
In each case, luck or skill?
It’s hard to argue that luck wasn’t at least a part of the equation. And sure, chance does often affect outcomes in indisputable ways.
In fact, a 2014 MIT study found that the success of corporate CEOs can often be traced to factors outside their control, and in Robert Frank’s book Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy, the author points out that your birthplace and upbringing weighs heavily in future success.
But noted psychologist Richard Wiseman, author of The Luck Factor, has a slightly different take.
Wiseman has been studying the concept of luck for more than two decades. He doesn’t dispute the idea that factors outside of our control can sometimes propel us forward.
But, he argues, it takes skill to recognize a lucky break in the making.
Wiseman’s research has consistently found that lucky people set themselves up to take advantage of opportunity as it slings past them. In a revealing study, he asked two groups of people — all had self-identified themselves as generally lucky or unlucky — to count the number of photographs in a newspaper. Here’s the twist: he had inserted an ad that told subjects to stop counting, and it gave them the number of photos. The “lucky” people overwhelmingly noticed the ad, while the “unlucky” group usually missed it.
“Unlucky people are typically more anxious and less able to notice the unexpected,” Wiseman says. “So by extension, they’re unable to take advantage of these opportunities because they don’t see them in the first place.”
In other words, a less-skilled photographer likely wouldn’t have gotten the same lucky break I did.
I didn’t merely come around a bend, stumble upon a great scene, and snap a few pics. Experience and judgment informed every decision I made that morning — no matter how small — and put me in the right place at the right time.
- I knew an opportunity was at hand when I woke up and saw the clouds taking shape dramatically around the Tetons.
- I understood that the potential benefits of a successful risk would outweigh any inconvenience that arose from rescheduling my travel.
- I knew — based on thousands of missteps and mistakes in the past — which of my cameras to have ready, which settings to dial in before heading out, and which lens to use.
- While driving around, my instincts, vigilant for opportunity, led me to that spot, even if I didn’t know the extent of what I’d find.
- When I got out of the car, my ability to frame a shot well, stabilize my camera properly, and squeeze it off before the light would disappear — as it did, seconds later — most definitely made the day.
- After the shot, I carefully and precisely edited it in a way that few amateurs would even think to do, maximizing the impact of the image.
I’m intensely proud of the result, and the comments left on the various places it has been posted even beyond the Department of the Interior attest to its impact.
Success comes from being a professional — from having the presence of mind and the years of hard-won experience at the ready when opportunity appears around the corner.
To be frank, luck is an excuse for losers; skill and hard work always win the day.
So, want to be “luckier” in your own work and life? Wiseman has four rules you can follow.
Rule of luck #1: Maximize chance opportunities
“Lucky people can create, notice, and act on opportunities by networking, being open to new experiences, and being relaxed in their approach to life,” he says.
For me, that moment came when I decided to punt my return flight. Grand Teton is a magnificent park, and I knew being there at sunrise on a beautiful morning was worth throwing caution to the wind.
Rule of luck #2: Listen to your hunches
Learn to trust your gut, Wiseman says. You can enhance your ability to do so through meditation or other tactics to clear your mind.
When I was debating whether to stay or go, I had a moment of clarity, remembering one of my key guiding principles: I’ve never once regretted getting up early to go shoot, but many times I’ve regretted not doing so.
I asked myself whether I’d be really happy with my decision to get on that airplane at my original time. My answer was no, so I rebooked and stayed.
Rule of luck #3: Expect good things to happen
“Lucky people tend to think that their future will be full of good fortune,” Wiseman says. “This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because it shapes their interactions with others in positive ways.”
Rule of luck #4: Turn bad luck into good
Never dwell on bad fortune, says Wiseman. Instead, take control of the situation. In Wyoming, I had three days of bad luck but saw my opportunity to turn that around.
But the sweetest part of that story is that if I had had some luck during those first three days, I wouldn’t have been so inclined to extend my visit — and there’s no way I would have gotten that once-in-a-lifetime shot.
So maybe, the reality is, bad luck was on my side.