“Great By Choice” Uncertainty, Chaos, And Luck–Why Some Thrive Despite Them All


Good luck.  We talk about it. We wish for it.  We blame our failures on lack of it.  Malcolm Gladwell, one of my favorite authors, focuses on it as a significant factor in the success of individuals like Bill Gates in his book Outliers[1].  Gladwell’s insights have been valuable to me in understanding how and why individuals succeed.

Nothing in Great By Choice changes my belief that factors outside our control significantly influence our success.  However, Great By Choice is a reminder that luck alone does not control our destiny.  We are reminded, throughout the book, that we have significant control of our lives, our successes and our failures.

“Are you Amundsen or Scott?” is the question raised in Chapter 2.  In Oct. 1911, Rould Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott led similar expeditions to the South Pole.  Amundsen reached the Pole and returned safely home.  Scott and his team died in their unsuccessful quest.  What separated the two adventurers?  Both faced the same  1400 mile round trip journey to the South Pole in brutally cold weather, ice, snow and limited supplies.  What made the difference?  According to New York Times bestselling authors Jim Collins[2] and Professor Morten T. Hansen[3], the difference was planning, intensity of preparation, constant vigilance and remaining constantly focused on the goal.

They describe characteristics that enable us to maximize the benefits of our good luck while minimizing the impact of our bad luck.  The authors studied highly successful companies, called “10Xers” ie, companies that beat industry indexes by a minimum of 10 times over a 15 year period, including Microsoft, Progressive Insurance Company. They compare 10Xers to Amundsen, and for good reason.

The book is, fundamentally, about excellence, preparation, and discipline.  The research identifies attributes that 10Xers[4] share with each other (and with Amundsen) that are less likely to exist in less successful companies[5].  A fundamental premise is that luck, good and bad, happens to all of us, and that how we respond, and are impacted by our luck is dependent on preparation, discipline and determination.

By the authors’ definition, luck incorporates chaos and uncertainty, is described as involving events largely outside our control that are unpredictable and have potentially significant consequences.  Factors such as economic downturns, rising interest rates and other economic factors are factors which impact us all.  These are factors the others would incorporate in their definition of luck.  Fanatical discipline, mental independence, empirical creativity, and productive paranoia, are considered by the authors to be essential to success in a world of such economic (and non-economic) chaos and uncertainty.  Specifically, these attributes are considered essential to getting the most from good luck and being harmed the least by bad luck.

Great by Choice identified 3 core 10X behaviors:

1)   Fanatical discipline and mental independence;

2)   Empirical creativity, including reliance on empirical evidence, and direct observation

3)   Productive paranoia, including always planning, and preparing, for the worst case scenario.

1)   Fanatical discipline involves what they label “20 mile marches”.[6]  Differing in every way from frantic forward movement followed by complacency or sliding backward, the focus is on taking measured steps toward success.  It involves the expectation that goals will be clear, that consistent forward movement toward the accomplishment of those goals should be required and that the entity will not indulge in fads or overextend.  Consistent progress, rather than erratic gains and losses, is to be the goal.

2)   Empirical creativity involves individual research and hard date.  Much is made in the book about the importance of “shooting bullets and then cannons”.  The significance of this message is that in taking any risk, it is important to determine, through firing metaphorical bullets, the probability of success.  A bullet is considered low risk, low distraction, low-cost. When such a low risk experiment reaches the target, then it is time to throw significant resources at the target.  The initial example of the concept is based on the idea that if you are on a ship being approached by an enemy ship, you should shoot bullets at the ship until a bullet actually reaches the target ship.  Only then is it prudent to use the resources necessary to shoot a cannon at the ship to destroy it.

3)   Productive paranoia deals with the critical importance of anticipating disaster, i.e. bad luck. Disaster can come in any sources.  It can result from a fluke of nature, a massive recession, a competitor whose product development surpasses the product of another company.  By constant vigilance, preparation, protecting and saving resources an enterprise can maximize the likelihood of working through disaster and moving toward success.

But there is more.  In addition to the uncertainty around us, Great By Choice reminds us that we must always remain above the “death line”.  The death line is identified as an event  under the entity’s control that will destroy the endeavor.  Comparable to corporate death, these are described as risks that can severely injure a company; asymmetric risks (where the potential downside dwarfs the potential upside); and uncontrollable risks, (risks that cannot be controlled or managed.)  Examples of such risk include making financial gambles on products or processes that have not been determined to be likely to be financially successful.  By firing bullets rather than cannons, the authors believe an endeavor can minimize the chances of falling below the “death line” where it cannot survive.

Great By Choice repeatedly conveys to the reader the challenges (“bad luck”) faced by 10Xers and describes how these companies responded to what sometimes seemed to be impossible circumstances.  How they minimized the resulting damage or turned adversity into opportunity.

Whether you are a student, a professional, an entrepreneur or in any other field of endeavor,  spending the time to read books such as Great By Choice can be invaluable in understanding  your “luck” and how to use it (or avoid it!) to be great. 


[1] Among other factors, he argues effectively that the month and year an individual is born, his/her opportunity to have effective mentors, supportive parents, and (often) access to significant financial resources, technology and specialized training, significantly influence an individual’s likelihood of success

[2]  Formerly on the faculty at Stanford Graduate School of Business, author of Good to Great, as well as other notable books focused on business success (and failure), Collins consults with businesses and operates a management laboratory in Boulder, Colorado

[3] Management professor at the University of California, Berkeley, formerly a professor at Harvard Business School and author of Collaboration, Hanson also consults and speaks to and with companies worldwide.

[4] 10Xers studied included such companies as Southwest Airlines, Progressive Insurance and Microsoft

[5] Apple (during the period of time it was not under the leadership of Steve Jobs), Safeco Insurance, and PSA airlines

[6] From childhood I remember the adage “slow and steady wins the race”.