What is the Impact of Luck?

Photo by J Lee on Unsplash

I believe our culture has a problem.  The problem is that we have a simple narrative : “If you work hard enough, you will be successful.”  I think this is a problem because it’s not entirely true but it’s not entirely false.  Making success seem so simple is reductionist, doesn’t credit the efforts of millions of people, and leads to poor decision-making, as well as poor life choices and outcomes.

It’s possible I have this perspective because I grew up in Los Angeles.  Do you know how many people move to the City of Angels to “get their big shot”?  Some of them are incredibly talented and exceedingly competent.  Experts in their craft.  And yet, you will never hear about them.  They won’t be in a movie you’ve heard of.  They won’t feature in a TV series.  Why not?  Is it because they didn’t work hard enough?  Of course not.  It’s because they weren’t in the right place at the right time.  Let’s look at some examples.

Harrison Ford – Although he had been in several small roles- and met George Lucas on American Graffiti- he was installing a door the day George Lucas happened to come by, recognized him from American Graffiti, and thought of him for Star Wars.

Rosario Dawson – Sitting on her front porch, discovered by a novice director and photographer to star in their coming-of-age play with a series of actors with no experience.

Charlize Theron – Throwing a fit in a bank trying to cash a check, in line behind her is a talent agent who gives her his card.

Me – Had an Assistant Scoutmaster who happened to be a veterinary surgeon and well-known alumnus of WSU and veterinarian to animal-welfare proponent Betty White.

Now, I would argue that success isn’t 100% due to luck.  I like the concept that hard work creates opportunities for luck and, when luck comes around, if you have been working hard, you are more likely to find success.  But luck is EXTREMELY important in your life success.  You are lucky you were born where you are (assuming it’s a developed nation).  You are lucky if your parents had money to buy you books and send you to school.  Luck is all around us.

I think the failure to acknowledge luck in our success is a major problem.  I think it leads to a lack of empathy for others. “That person isn’t successful because they didn’t work hard enough” is often a belief people have.  Maybe they COULDN’T work hard enough.  Maybe they have a health problem.  Maybe their family was dysfunctional.  Maybe their parents were sick and they had to work all the time and couldn’t go to school.  Maybe they live in an area with systematic racism.  There are way more reasons people aren’t successful than reasons they are successful.

Conversely, luck can adversely affect people and yet people may internalize that failure as “not working hard enough”.  I’ve been doing veterinary anesthesia for 20 years and my arterial catheter placement success rate is probably 85%.  Are those 15% I don’t hit because I’m not competent?  I’m sure I can get better- you always can- but I think it’s likely that a large chunk of that 15% is due to random chance.  Sometimes, you can do everything right for a patient and it still dies.  We’ve talked before about handling failure.  I think we need to acknowledge the place random chance has in both success and failure.

Yes, hard work is necessary.  It is important.  If you don’t work hard, it will be more difficult to be successful (although some highly privileged people succeed nonetheless).  But I believe we have to acknowledge how important luck is.  At a certain point, you can’t hard-work yourself out of a situation or into another situation.  Work hard, create opportunities, put yourself in a position to be successful.  But realize there are many things outside your circle of control.  Once you have done what you can, be content and realize you can’t control everything.  Luck plays a big part in our life, for good or ill.

2 comments on “What is the Impact of Luck?

  1. -

    I appreciated your line that to simplify success and not acknowledge luck leads to a lack of empathy/compassion. I very much agree that there is a portion (maybe a lot?) outside of a control that impacts our ability to succeed.

    Reading this reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s chapter in Outliers where he mentioned professional hockey players and Bill Gates’ luck in their ability to succeed.

    • - Post author

      Yes! I love Malcolm Gladwell’s writings. And the hockey thing was incredible. Just to be born in Jan-Apr improved your chances of being a professional level player. MASSIVE amounts of luck in that!

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