Luck and Success

“People often remark that I’m pretty lucky. Luck is only important in so far as getting the chance to sell yourself at the right moment. After that, you’ve got to have talent and know how to use it.” -Frank Sinatra

At one of my interviews, there was a group exercise on discussing meritocracies and their manifestations in society.  I seemed to have very strong opinions on that, but that’s a topic for another time.  We moved to talking about how much of success is luck versus hard work, and then watched Michael Lewis’s commencement speech at Princeton on the role of luck in success.

I will willingly admit that I feel like much of my success is due to luck.  If I wasn’t lucky and didn’t get that first job off of Craig’s List to babysit, who knows if I’d even have been able to finish my college degree, much less get this far in my education.  If I hadn’t luckily switched classes one semester from an intro biology class to an intro programming class, who knows if I’d have ever learned that I liked programming so much?  There are so many situations where I feel like luck played a big part into getting me where I am today.

Our discussion in the interview went as such: how can you tell the good apart from the lucky?  How can you fairly evaluate people if there’s luck involved?  Do you think you’re luckier right now than someone else?  Does everyone have equal amounts of luck in their life?

For the first half of those questions, we talked about how to accurately assess people during interviews.  Very meta, right?  I talked about the downfall of standardized tests, particularly how the SAT had an unfair bias in the first place and often a racial skew still (particularly with things like the oarsmen-regatta question).  When asked what would be the ideal testing mechanism, I suggested that there be a quick skills training session to get everyone on the same page and then an assessment on that skill.  That was particularly amusing to the interviewer as they do exactly that during one of the testing parts of the interview.  In retrospect, that test was especially neat because I wouldn’t have known how to approach it if there wasn’t that initial training and I legitimately enjoyed taking the test afterwards because I had a foundation to work from.

As for the second half of the questions on the distribution of luck, I had no good answers.  It’s honestly something I think about a lot.  There are times where I feel like I’m luckier than other points in my life.  Right now, for instance, I feel like the luckiest girl in the world.  It was extremely awkward for me to admit during the interview that I felt like I was luckier than other people.  I tried to clarify and say that in my idealistic view of the world, luck is like karma and there’s a balance of good and bad.  That maybe someone thinks that I’m unlucky even though I think that I’m very lucky now.  That we can’t judge and assess other people’s luck.  Finally, that maybe, maybe, maybe, we all didn’t have even amounts of luck, and no, I couldn’t explain why or how it is unfair.

Is that true?  Do we all have uneven amounts of luck?  In the vein of what Sinatra said, is luck just opportunities that come our way and we are the ones that have to reach out and take them?  Are some people unlucky in that they don’t have as many opportunities?  Are they unlucky because they don’t recognize opportunities when they are right in front of them?  Are luckier people the ones that make their lives such that they are open to receiving opportunities?  For example, if someone is out and about meeting people, can you fault them for getting more opportunities than someone who stays at home all day?  Can you say that they are luckier than the other person?  How much of that is hard work and how much of that is luck?

I feel like there is something to say of the balance of hard work and being in the right place at the right time and being lucky.  In the commencement speech, Lewis says: “You owe a debt, not just to your Gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.”  I interpret the quote to mean that you should try to create lucky situations for others, or more colloquially, pay it forward.  I feel lucky, I feel happy, how can I help others get to this state?  I think that’s an extremely important thing to think about, especially when you’re the person that can create a lucky situation for another person.

Overall, it was a very interesting discussion.  I wish I had more answers.  I’m very curious to hear what other people think on the matter though.

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