Luck is the Residue of Design

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“Luck is the residue of design.” – Branch Rickey, legendary baseball general manager

Branch Rickey is most famous for being the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers who signed Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to become a regular player in Major League Baseball. In baseball circles, though, he’s perhaps even more famous for inventing what we know today as the minor league baseball farm system from his earlier days with the St. Louis Cardinals. Rickey did it so well, every other MLB team started copying him. Previously, MLB teams had deals with minor league teams to purchase their players on a fairly regular basis, but in Rickey’s case, his organization actually took ownership stakes into their farm system teams and ran them as part of the greater organization.

This is where Rickey’s quote “Luck is the residue of design” comes into play. By residue, he means “a small amount of something that remains after the main part has gone or been taken or used.” That is to say, preparation and well-designed systems will allow you to be lucky more often, long after the system is actually built. 

This “residue” is obvious in the organizations he helmed; after all, his Cardinals and later his Dodgers teams seemed incredibly lucky to develop the talent they would inevitably bring up to their Major League clubs; in fact, even after Rickey left St. Louis for Brooklyn after the 1942 season, what he left behind kept St. Louis a relevant contender for many seasons afterward. That is to say, his teams weren’t so much lucky, they were the benefit of a well-designed system of talent discovery and development.

While being fortunate more often than not seems like pure luck, having a strong vision that leads you to develop and design a system that works is much more the reason one enjoys a better fate than those who depend entirely on chance. Yet, most people believe luck plays a major role in life and is what can best explain the most successful people in history. While this notion may seem harmless, believing too much in the power of luck can actually serve as a major setback in trying to achieve greatness. If you believe that pure chance is the only thing that will decide your fate and overall success, then you’re unlikely to take any actionable steps that could help to make your dreams reality. 

Worse yet, believing in luck could actually lead you to misjudge certain opportunities that fall into your lap. How many organizations in sports have had a wildly talented player and mishandled them, shipping them off to another team where they blossomed into a superstar? (Oh, hi, Babe Ruth!) This didn’t really happen with any of Branch Rickey’s teams because they had systems in place to identify talent and develop it properly into Major League caliber players. In fact, they would produce so much talent they would have to sell contracts and make trades in order to fill holes on their Major League roster. Smart baseball teams still operate in this way today; see the Tampa Bay Rays, for example. This whole system started with Branch Rickey.

Outside of sports, many real-life companies still don’t have systems with a similar goal to this in mind. The most successful companies hire from within; they know what they have to work with, and know how to make the most of the talent they acquire by developing and treating them with respect for their abilities and knowledge. Yet, many corporations seem to have made up their minds on continuing with the strategy of working with talent mills and employees are now free agents that switch allegiances as often as every six months.

I’m sure I’m far from the first person to suggest that more of today’s companies, both big and small, should borrow some concepts from Branch Rickey’s organizational philosophy. Many successful companies today actually got to where they were by acquiring many other smaller companies to build up not just market share, but a talent and intellectual property base, along with existing relationships of those companies, from which to grow exponentially. Nowadays, I see most major business acquisitions as an excuse to take out a current or potential competitor with the added benefit of snapping up valuable IP’s; but, much of the talent finds itself in the unemployment line, which is a huge oversight.

So, how do we learn from Branch Rickey’s achievements and apply them to our own lives as individuals? It’s actually rather straightforward: luck favors those who are prepared. If you believe too much in luck and predetermined fate, you’ll likely tend to take an approach to life and business that works against your own self-interests; the worst part is you likely wouldn’t even know better. Luck isn’t just something that happens to you; rather, it’s something you earn through careful planning and smart execution. 

Now, yes, some people happen to be in the right place at the right time, or born into the right circumstances, or simply got a good roll of the dice. But, those one in a million freak chances were still opportunities those “lucky” people had to take, and you’d be amazed what happens to a lot of these lucky people. After those few moments of fame, a lot of them waste their opportunities and find themselves right back where they started, or worse. 

Anyone who was lucky to begin with, yet endures and finds more success, already had the foundation and mindset to succeed. Most people you might think are lucky were more prepared than you realize. Those that get “lucky” and yet flame out after a short time simply didn’t have the preparation nor the mindset for sustained success.

So, the next time you see someone “get lucky,” realize that luck is not just something that’s predetermined. Ask yourself how you can better prepare yourself for your job, what you can learn or do to move up in your industry. Then, surround yourself with people who seem to be “lucky” more than most. The combination of these things will ultimately lead you to be luckier yourself with new opportunities, new knowledge, and new ways of thinking. After all, luck is just a residue of design, so design your plan for success today. You never know just how luck might find you.

Amelia Desertsong is a former content marketing specialist turned essayist and creative nonfiction author. She writes articles on many niche hobbies and obscure curiosities, pretty much whatever tickles her fancy.
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