What Luck Has to Do With Becoming Rich and Famous

Janice Kaplan’s new book, How Luck Happens, explored the science of luck. In an exclusive essay for InStyle, the best-selling author explains the role luck plays in the lives of Hollywood celebrities.

Elle Fanning appeared in her first movie when she was barely 3 years old and has since starred with actors like Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, and Matt Damon. She’s been in more than 40 movies, and she hasn’t yet turned 20. But when asked recently if she’s been lucky, Fanning bristled.

“It’s not all luck,” Fanning said, while we were shooting the below video with other celebrities for my book, How Luck Happens. “You have to work at it. Nothing is handed to you.”

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She’s right. The hosts of CBS’s The Talk, on a recent segment about the book, all agreed on one basic point: Luck is nice—but most of the time, you make your own luck. Musician-actress Eve, who hosts the show, noted that a lot of what we call luck is simply determination. “I grew up in the ‘hood and I feel sometimes like I was plucked out,” she said. But she admitted that she was “plucked” only because she knew what she wanted and went after it. She made the luck.

Cohost Julie Chen ardently pointed out that “nobody gets to be successful on pure luck. That doesn’t exist.” If you’re not prepared, opportunities (and potential luck) will just pass you by.

Watching that segment made me very happy (and not just because Chen gave a generous shout out to my new book). Mostly, I was glad to hear celebrities recognize that they didn’t get to their exalted positions because of some magic outside of themselves.

For celebrities—as for just about everyone else—luck occurs at the intersection of random chance, talent, and hard work. There’s not much you can do about random chance, which is why most stars know to focus on talent and hard work.

Celebrities look lucky because they have glamorous positions and make lots of money. But in the many years I’ve spent interviewing stars, I’ve come to appreciate that most of them succeeded for a reason. Sure, there are a few who seem to have soared without anything truly extraordinary to set them apart. But most of those who become stars have done everything possible to put all the right pieces in place.

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A few years ago, I was at a photo shoot with Mick Jagger, and as the photographer started to snap, Jagger danced to the loud music that he had turned on. In front of the camera, he looked every inch the wild and free rock star. After a few minutes, Jagger stepped away and went to the other side of the camera to see the results. All of a sudden, the rock star was gone and he was serious and professional. “I like this one, not this one. This one is okay,” he said. He made some suggestions on lighting and effects and sounded more like a CEO than a celebrity as he discussed how he wanted the pictures to look.

“Okay, let’s do this again,” he said.

Jagger understood how stars make luck for themselves. Everything may look natural and fun but the biggest stars succeed by making sure that every step is carefully thought through and planned.

Years earlier, Jagger had recorded a song called “Lucky in Love” where he boasted, “Yes, I’ve got the winning touch.” Watching him at that photo shoot, I realized his luck in love and sex and music and stardom wasn’t random—he had prepared for every step so that he was ready to take advantage of opportunities when they came along.

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A certain amount of confidence and optimism go along with luck. As Chen said on The Talk, if you think you have bad luck, then that’s what you’ll get, but “if you think positively, things will come your way.”

Psychologists agree with Chen that your attitude affects your luck—and there’s nothing mystical about it: Research by risk-taking expert Barnaby Marsh has shown that positive people recognize opportunities and are willing to take chances. If you think you’re unlucky, you won’t put yourself in a place where good events can happen.

Daveed Diggs, who won Tony and Grammy awards for his role in Hamilton, also beliefs that staying upbeat can breed success. “You just have to be ready when moments arise and walk towards the things that feel right to you, that give you the most joy,” he says in the video above.

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Young actors coming to Hollywood often dream about getting a lucky break. But luck doesn’t come from a single role—it’s what you do with it afterwards. Sure, Elle Fanning got to play the younger version of her sister Dakota in her first movie, but the success she’s had since then was the kind of luck you make for yourself.

Producer Doug Wick, who gave Angelina Jolie her breakthrough role in Girl, Interrupted (she won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for it), told me that Jolie has power and presence on the screen that few can match. But even that isn’t enough to make a brilliant career. “You have to keep caring and focusing,” he said.

Luck doesn’t fall from the sky. But the people who know how to make it often end up stars.