When was the last time anything you set out to do went exactly according to plan?
If you’re like me, nothing comes to mind. That’s because chance has the ability to show up every minute of every day and take us in a direction we weren’t expecting. With 1,440 minutes in a day, there’s no denying we experience chance in ways large and small every day.
And though I refer to her as “chance,” you may know her by other names: fate, good fortune, luck, opportunity, a blessing in disguise, or even disaster. Whatever name you prefer, if you spend all your time focused on efficiency and making sure everything goes just right (even though we know it never does), you won’t notice chance when she shows up.
In this eager desire for perfection, you will fail to give chance… a chance.
“Chance favors only the prepared mind.”Louis Pasteur
The late Dr. Randy Pausch, who wrote the book The Last Lecture, made famous the phrase, “Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.” French biologist Louis Pasteur once said, “Chance favors only the prepared mind.” What both of these gentlemen were saying is that we have the ability to capitalize on chance when it comes along—but only if we are prepared to do so. Let’s look at the different forms chance can take, then see how we can prepare to act when she shows up.
I’ve found that chance tends to show up through people, events, disasters, places, and crisis. Let’s walk through a few great stories to see examples of how chance likes to operate.
Your dream is to use your gifts and abilities to move people through music, but life doesn’t play out the way you’d hoped or planned. At one point, you’re so down on your luck that you reach into a trash can to grab a half-eaten sandwich someone has thrown away.
That’s when a total stranger runs up to you, slaps the sandwich out of your hand and says, “You are better than this.” You’ve never seen this person before, but their words deeply impact you. That’s what happened to Alex Boyé, a world-famous musician, singer, and performance artist based in Utah. Alex’s life changed forever after this fateful encounter. Today, the world knows his music, as his YouTube videos have been viewed over half a billion times collectively.
Imagine you’re a young woman from North Carolina who grew up dirt poor. You’re trying to find your place in the world, so what do you do? You try to enlist in the military, but you get rejected. As a backup plan, you join a US base in Iraq as an independent civilian laundry attendant.
One day, your whole life changes. The base is hit with a violent mortar attack, and as bombs explode on all sides, you begin to reflect on the decisions you’ve made up to this point in your life and the decisions that you must make going forward to be a different type of person.
This is the story of Christmas Abbott, a world famous CrossFit trainer, the creator of the Badass Body Diet, a multimillionaire entrepreneur, and the first female NASCAR pit crew member.
You are a well-respected explorer, one of the best at what you do. People believe in you so much that they’ll buy the rights to your story before you embark on your next adventure. That’s how much they believe in you and how confident they are your journey will be successful.
Now imagine that your newest adventure takes an unexpected turn because of disaster. You’re left in a bewildering situation with crushed dreams and an incredible sense of responsibility.
This is the story of Ernest Shackleton, who was already well-known but became world famous after his ship, Endurance, was crushed by the ice in Antarctica in 1915 during an expedition to map the continent. He and his twenty-seven crew members would move from one ice floe to the next in order to survive. They were all rescued nine months later, in August 1916.
You’re standing alone in a crowded room, waiting for someone to show up. When they do, you greet each other and talk briefly. As the conversation begins to wind down and it appears you might part ways, you desperately scan the room looking for a place to sit and continue the conversation. There, across the room, a young couple stands up, offering you the loveseat they were sitting in. You and the other person sit and continue talking for the rest of the night.
Two years later, the person you were talking to that night becomes your wife.
That’s the story of how I reconnected with my wife, Lisa. We were at the Bubble Lounge in San Francisco for my sister’s 25th birthday party. Originally, I didn’t want to go hang out with my sister and her friends, but when she told me that Lisa was coming, I decided to attend.
When I got there, it was standing room only. All the couches were taken. It was a cold night in December, and when Lisa opened the door, I felt this cold rush of air go across my shoulder. I turned and there she was. I was head over heels right away, but it didn’t look like we’d have a chance to really connect because of the crowd. That’s when chance intervened and the couple that left offered us their seat. That loveseat is where we truly began to fall in love.
You’re a husband, father, and businessman whom everybody looks to as the decision-maker. For a while, everything is great and you are wildly successful. Then, in the course of a couple years, all of your success, financial and otherwise, is wiped out by a financial crisis, which leads to a mental and emotional crisis, which leads you to the chair of a psychiatrist.
For the last eight years, that’s been my story. Along with disaster, crisis is the least desirable form that chance can take, but as I learned, it also gives us a life-changing opportunity.
Scientists, particularly psychologists, love to measure behavior so it can be predicted and controlled. And yet, when chance makes her appearance, the only one who can capture her is the one experiencing that moment. In each of those stories, the characters chose to embrace chance instead of ignore her. Had they not, those stories would’ve ended much differently.
“When chance makes her appearance, the only one who can capture her is the one experiencing that moment.”Mike Flynn
Not only does our response to chance shape our story, it also shapes how we see the world. Prominent psychologist Martin Seligman suggests that embracing chance may make us more optimistic. However, as Louis Pasteur implied, this activity can’t be approached passively.
You must prepare to encounter chance. Here are three ways you can prepare to met her.
When I interviewed author and Navy SEAL Jocko Willink on my podcast, I asked him about the tools we can use to adapt on the fly. “Listen,” he told me. “Tool number two is what you’re going to take out of your box after you’ve listened.” The problem, Jocko explained, is that too many people never use the first tool, so they don’t know which tool to take out next.
Think about it like this: if your spouse showed up somewhere you weren’t expecting and called out for you, you’d know they were there because you’d recognize their voice, right?
Chance works the same way. We have to train ourselves to listen for her so we’re prepared when she shows up. When you read about Ernest Shackleton’s story, there’s a moment where he’s sitting on the ice by himself reflecting on what’s happened and listening for what he should do next. He listened to see where chance was guiding him, and because he listened, he was able to draw on his tools and abilities to keep his crew alive until they were rescued.
“If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not find it.”– Heraclitus
As that quote reminds us, it’s important for us to remain open to the way that chance will show up in our lives and to leave room for the unexpected. It’s okay to begin your day with a to-do list if you expect that chance may step in and take you a different direction. You never know when you’ll get an opportunity to step into your greatness through your response to chance.
Sometimes chance will show up in an amazing way that blesses and enriches your life. Other times, she’ll appear in a way that makes you want to run away screaming. But by maintaining that expectation, you’ll be more present in each moment, manage your day more effectively, and be more in charge of your mental and emotional responses to the challenges you face.
The most important thing that chance wants you and me to do when she shows up is respond. She wants us to get up off our butts and move in the direction she is calling us, take advantage of the opportunity she is giving us, or step into our greatness through our response to her.
She wants us to wake up to our potential when a stranger knocks a half-eaten sandwich from our hands. She wants us to think about our life choices as mortar shells rain down around us. She wants us to keep moving and not get stuck when our boat is crushed by the ice. She wants us to wait in that crowded room for someone to stand up, and to not be so proud that we won’t sit down in that therapist’s chair and get the help we need after our world crumbles.
Those kinds of stories, when woven together, reflect humanity’s great potential.
Victim or creator: it’s your choice
It’s easy for us to look upon chance with favor when we are fortunate, lucky, or blessed. But the bottom line is that in every instance, we have the choice to look at the events that have shaped our lives either through the lens of a victim or that of a creator. Alex could’ve reached back into the trash for that sandwich, Christmas could’ve gone on living her life after the mortar attack was over, and Ernest could’ve curled up on the ice and waited for death to appear. I could’ve walked out of that crowded lounge in San Francisco or turned my back on the issues I faced.
Such decisions would’ve reflected a victim’s mindset. It would’ve signaled that each person, myself included, was content to let our circumstances dictate the way we live.
Instead, we all chose to respond when chance showed up. In doing so, we created our own endings to those stories. When chance shows up in your life, what choice will you make?
An abridged version of this article was read on the Optimal Living Daily podcast.
Mike’s #1 bestselling book Master The Key: A Story to Free Your Potential, Find Meaning and Live Life On Purpose is available now on Amazon.