The Role That Luck Plays In Our Success

Why Being Thankful For Good Fortune Doesn’t Have to Ignore Impact of Effort & Skill

“There’s no free lunches,” was the mantra my father repeated to me most often as a kid. I was taught that effort matters (alongside ethics) and, ahead of the ‘growth mindset’ being academically coined, believed that with enough focus on a goal, I could probably get closer to achieving it. And now as a parent myself, we work to instill similar values in our daughter. Given this, why do I also now ascribe ‘luck’ (and not just my own attributes) as such a significant factor in my own success? Not because I’m less secure in my abilities, but because I’m more expansive in defining what luck actually means.

In my understanding now, luck isn’t about removing the notion of self-determination, or suggesting that everything which happens to us is just a random number generator. Instead my luck is a set of circumstances that I was gifted and which created the platform upon which I built my life. This includes: Where and when I was born; my health; the cultural, ethnic, socioeconomic benefits; and so on. Sometimes it’s not about what you have (I wasn’t a silverspoon kid) but what you didn’t have to deal with (I also wasn’t born into poverty).

Looking at luck through this lens also shapes a notion of ‘paying ones luck forward.’ Can you find ways to help replicate your luck for others? Looking at someone who is beginning their career without some of the benefits we had and helping to give them a break. Believing that effort is required but sometimes not sufficient for an individual who needs some mentorship or help in where to direct their energy. Or that helping someone early on in their career with a ‘lucky break’ (an introduction, a part-time job, etc) will compound for them, versus just leaving them to their own devices and assuming Darwin will sort it out.

Cornell University professor Robert H. Frank has done research in this area, most notably in his book “Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy.” He writes:

“According to the Pew Research Center, people in higher income brackets are much more likely than those with lower incomes to say that individuals get rich primarily because they work hard. Other surveys bear this out: Wealthy people overwhelmingly attribute their own success to hard work rather than to factors like luck or being in the right place at the right time.”

Ok, but why does this matter? Because it impacts the decisions we make about how we help (or don’t help) others:

“That’s troubling, because a growing body of evidence suggests that seeing ourselves as self-made — rather than as talented, hardworking, and lucky — leads us to be less generous and public-spirited. It may even make the lucky less likely to support the conditions (such as high-quality public infrastructure and education) that made their own success possible.

Happily, though, when people are prompted to reflect on their good fortune, they become much more willing to contribute to the common good.”

So my hope is that those of us who are successful, can also realize we’ve benefitted from *some* degree of luck, and work on extending that luck to the greatest number of people possible, since that perpetuates the dynamism in society we’ve come to appreciate. Best of luck…..