Alexander Fleming and Luck

In the year 1928, Alexander Fleming woke up to a strange discovery. Fleming was a scientist, and most of his work involved culturing bacteria to investigate their properties. However, on this fateful morning, one of his bacterial cultures found a mold species growing alongside with them. Moreover, this mold was killing the bacteria inside the plates as well. Intrigued, Fleming looked into this interesting event further, and went on to discover penicillin, the first antibiotic.


Many see this incidence as Fleming making an incredibly lucky finding. The contamination itself led to the mass production of antibiotics, one of humanity’s most powerful medical achievements, and if the contamination hadn’t had happened, medicine may have been set back years or even decades. However, what’s often not as stressed upon is the whole year of research Fleming devoted to isolating the compound. This involved months of creating mold juice, and extracting the exact chemical that killed the bacteria. This research also required a sudden shift in Fleming’s priorities. Fleming had to consciously make a decision to pursue finding the mold compound that would kill bacteria, rather than what he was currently focused on. In his situation, it would have been easy to brush off his discovery as contamination, and move on with his current research.

Although Fleming was indeed lucky in his discovery, it took a certain balance of mental flexibility and dedication to have an end product. Fleming had to be both mentally flexible enough to realize that his contamination accident could be a major find, and the dedication to capitalize on this major find.

If any other scientist besides Fleming was under the same situation, it’s altogether possible they wouldn’t have done anything. In life, it seems like luck isn’t something that’s controllable, but it’s definitely possible to be luckier. This involves developing a personality that’s open to chance encounters, and the ability to capitalize on these chance encounters. Being lucky is a skill, and some will be better at it than others.

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