Is Luck a Skill?


Can luck be an acquired skill?  Can you create your own luck?  Is it possible to put yourself or your company in circumstances so that you’re more likely to experience good luck or even great fortune?

Have you ever known someone who seemed to win at everything?  My sister is like that.  If there’s a contest on the radio or a drawing for something, she’ll win if she enters.  She has won tickets to countless concerts and events, and even several all expenses paid trips.  If you ask her, my sister will tell you that she simply expects to win.  And win she does.

It’s my observation that there are some things you can actually do that set you up for more positive experiences than the average Joe.

Attitude As we’ve established, your attitude can invite luck.  People who are open to opportunities, expect positive experiences, and are actually looking for them are more likely to experience/notice them.

Combine that with a personality that is inviting and communicative, and these happy-go-lucky types have a greater propensity to make contacts which seem to the rest of us to spontaneously erupt into fortunate situations and opportunities.

Timing We’ve all noticed that being at the right place at the right time is an advantage when it comes to being lucky in business and life, in general.  Wouldn’t you like to claim credit for inventing the Internet?  Alas, this one’s already taken by a certain prominent Democrat.

Curiosity A healthy dose of curiosity can lead you to stumble across a great idea -- a happening also referred to as “dumb luck”.  Sometimes, just asking more and different questions can lead you down paths not previously taken.

Reportedly, Percy Spencer, the inventor of the microwave oven, of course, stumbled upon the technology while working for Raytheon in 1945.  A candy bar in his pocket melted (where else would you keep one?), and his sense of curiosity led him to further test and confirm his accidental discovery -- ultimately leading to the microwave oven that Raytheon launched in 1947 -- at $5,000 a pop. (Spencer went on to win all kinds of awards and accolades, and even to have a building named after him.)

Tools When running a business, you need to have reliable tools that you trust to augment your experience, data and gut instincts.  That’s why we’re big fans of resources that keep us sharp like Nathan Yau’s FlowingData blog, The New York Times Visualization Lab and David McCandless’ Information is Beautiful.  Find the tools that work for you, refresh them as necessary and use them consistently to keep you sharp, in tune and constantly on the look out for opportunities and good fortune.

So, is luck an acquired skill?

I’d say if you work hard at it -- and you’re lucky, it can be. (Throw in an extra measure of curiosity and maybe they’ll name a building after you.)


30 Great Visualization Resources in 30 Days

A lot of the applications that Juice creates are designed to make information more accessible to people who wouldn’t consider themselves to be data experts. They realize the value in the data that they have, and in many cases they have some sort of analytics solution in place, but they know they’re not getting as much value from their data as they should. One of the hurdles we frequently come up against is that people who aren’t actively participating in the visualization discussion don’t know what’s possible. All they’ve ever seen, in many cases, are the confusing dashboards, charts, and graphs that are all too prevalent from the vendors in our space. You know the ones: a thick layer of technology slathered with some gloss and wiggle, between two slices of "do it yourself".

In many cases, we find ourselves closing this gap by referring to some of the best examples of work out there. As we were thinking about this, the idea to provide a simple walk through of these examples came into being. The result: a 30 day calendar chocked full of some of the best samples of skills enhancing examples we could find.

30 Days to Better Visualization

Each day is a bite sized chunk and takes only a few minutes to watch, read, do, or play. Some of the days are comprised of Juice content, but most days are from other sources that we’ve found useful.

You can download it to use yourself, or to share with your friends who need to expand their info-viz horizons. Either way, we think it’ll get your creative juices flowing.


Here’s a bash function I use for Django development to quickly set DJANGO_SETTINGS_MODULE.

function setdsm() { 
    # add the current directory and the parent directory to PYTHONPATH
    if [ -z "$1" ]; then 
        export DJANGO_SETTINGS_MODULE=$x.settings
        export DJANGO_SETTINGS_MODULE=$1 


I put this in my .bash_profile, then a quick setdsm sets the DJANGO_SETTINGS_MODULE to the in the current directory and add the current directory and it’s parent to PYTHONPATH.

Introducing Chart Chooser

Find and Download Great-Looking Excel and PowerPoint Charts

Chart Chooser is an online tool that answers two questions we commonly get:

  1. What type of chart should I use to show my data?
  2. How can I make good looking Excel or PowerPoint charts?
Chart Chooser

Chart Chooser is easy:

  1. Check the boxes on the left that best describe your objective
  2. Select the chart that you want to use
  3. Choose from Excel or PowerPoint downloads to get a formatted chart template

A few notes about Chart Chooser:

  • Thanks to Andrew Abela of Extreme Presentations for inspiring Chart Chooser with his “Choosing a Good Chart” post and for working with us to put this tool together.
  • We’ve tried to make the charts both Tufte-compliant (i.e. minimal chart-junk) and visually attractive (thanks to Google for the color scheme).
  • Feel free to suggest other types of charts that you’d like to see in the Chart Chooser. Send an example to
  • If you’d like a customized version of Chart Chooser for your organization, write us at or call me at 202.251.7750.

Google Presentations and the Right Tool for the Job

Last week, Google released Presentations to fill out their portfolio of online, collaborative document types (they already offer text documents and spreadsheets). The Google folks were kind enough to include us in a round of beta testing a few weeks back, giving us a chance to preview this application, find bugs, and offer feedback.

If you give Google Presentations a try, you may be struck by its limitations. It doesn’t offer much flexibility in creating presentations, especially when compared to Microsoft PowerPoint or Apple Keynote. The best you can do is create simple text slides on a few predefined templates. On the other hand, it offers unique capabilities you don’t get with desktop applications. In particular, we were impressed with how easy it was to share a presentation live online.

I have started to wonder whether calling Google Presentations a "web-based competitor to PowerPoint" or "a PowerPoint clone" was simplistic and misguided. Lumping together software tools is a natural reaction to long lists of features and techno-terminology. Software vendors don’t make it any easier to distinguish the differences when they attempt to convince us that their solution is the complete, do-everything tool to satisfy all your [presentation/data analysis/communication/networking] needs.

So, we assume our software tools fall into neat buckets. We assume the tool we are using today do everything we need "well enough." And we assume any new tool is a direct competitor to what we use. As a result, we are severely limited in what we can achieve.

For a long time, I was a fan and a heavy user of PowerPoint. It did what I needed. Perhaps I told myself that what it did was all I needed. A while ago, I had to break off this exclusive relationship.

Now, I find myself using a bunch of different tools to communicate information. On the one hand, this has made my life more complicated. There are new applications to learn and the hassle of moving documents around. But in other ways, it’s easier. I use tools designed for the task at hand. And I have opened up a whole new realm of what is possible in terms of organization, polish, and audience engagement.

The table below shows the activities involved in business presentations. For each activity, I have a rough assessment of how well PowerPoint, Keynote, and Google Presentation perform. I also list the current Juice toolset.

Why make 100 charts when one will do?

Charts are a great way to explore data. Here is some American baseball data showing player salaries over a five year period.

Baseball salaries by team over time

Charting this data with a line chart would allow us to see trends in salaries by team. However, when we use Excel’s default chart, we get something that looks like this:

Excel’s default multiline chart

That’s quite a mess. It would be a lot easier if we could create one chart for each row.

The OFFSET function is going to help. In its simplest form the OFFSET function works like this:

OFFSET(anchor, rows from anchor, columns from anchor)

That is, OFFSET will start with the anchor cell, go down a number of rows from that anchor and over a number of columns and return the value it finds.

OFFSET function

We can use the OFFSET function to create cells that pull a single row of data out of the table dynamically. We create a new row atop of our data and create a series of OFFSET functions that all rely on a single cell (the big yellow one) for their row offset. So changing one cell will pull different rows of data into our fixed location.

Creating a dynamic row that doesn’t move

Now, chart the data that doesn’t move.

Charting the dynamic row

After fixing the chart, we’d like to make it easy to change the value in the big yellow cell.

We can use Excel Forms to build a lightweight user interface. Bring up the Excel forms toolbar by rightclicking on any toolbar and choosing Forms. Place a scrollbar beside the chart.

Excel Forms

Right clicking on the scrollbar allows you to Format Control. Link the control to the cell that is controlling all the row offsets. Now, moving the scrollbar will update the chart.

Chart with scrollbar
Selecting Format Control
Formatting the scrollbar control

Now, the scrollbar controls the chart. Here is the baseball spreadsheet for you to play with: Baseball_offset.xls Have fun!

On the way to 100 charts

Note: this post is adapted from a presentation I gave at eMetrics 2007 in San Francisco.

The Google Analytics relaunch

Google Analytics has been rebuilt and the result redefines the frontiers of doing analytics on the web. Avinash Kaushik has the definitive early review.

Google Analytics v2

I had the privilege of attending the launch and playing with the early release. Here are a few things I noticed.

  • Speak my language: Google has put a lot of effort into replacing specialized terms with everyday ones. This makes the application usable by a broad base of people and is one way to fight GUI Jock-itis.
  • Speed kills: The interface is easily reconfigurable and fast. I’ve long argued that interface speed is a substitute for configuration options. I’m curious to play with the tool and get a better sense if this is true.
  • Flex rules: Much of the componentry for viewing data in Google Analytics is built in Adobe Flex. This is similar to Google Finance, and not at all like GMail or Google Reader, which use the GWT. We believe this has profound implications for analytical tools on the web and will dig into this in later posts.

    Instant Shopping Lists, or…How Excel Can Improve Your Marriage

    Sunday mornings at my house:

    Wife: "What do you want for dinners this week?"

    Me: "Dunno. Something easy."

    Wife: "Think of something."

    Me: "Bratwursts?"

    Wife: "Something real."


    And so it goes, every weekend. Making the weekly grocery list is one of those tedious tasks that feels like an unavoidable mallet to the brain.

    My friend Cathy decided to do something about it—she built an Excel tool that helps her pick dinners and automatically build a list of ingredients. This Recipe Manager is a fine feat of Excel engineering and she has been kind enough to let us share it with our readers.

    Step 1: Use the handy recipe input sheet to add new items to your list. Tip: Only add ingredients that you don’t normally stock.

    Recipe Input

    Step 2: Select from drop down lists of dinner options--one for each day of the week. The dinner suggestions area at the bottom randomly selects a set of recipes to provide some fresh ideas.

    Recipe Selection

    Step 3: Print out your automatically generated shopping list.

    Shopping List

    Download Cathy’s Recipe Manager here. It may just free up some quality time.