What’s Luck Got to Do with It?

Sometime last  year I read the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. At the time, when I read it, I felt a great sense of relief. The book is all about how, sure, hard work is important, but hard work without luck will rarely (if not never) propel  you to greatness. Also, just so people don’t yell at me, I am one to believe that luck without hard work also wouldn’t propel you to greatness. My gut tells me the latter happens more often than I’d like to admit.

Anyway, upon reading that, I felt a great sense of relief. Suddenly, if my achievements turned out to be totally mediocre, it wasn’t entirely my fault. It wasn’t that I didn’t work hard enough (and at times I worked very hard), it was at least partially that my timing wasn’t miraculous.

I’m seeing the story from a different perspective now, from the lucky side.

At the end of last week, I got a promotion at work. It was pretty exciting. And while I had to apply for the job, so the promotion didn’t come out of nowhere, I was expecting at least on other round of interviews. So I was still caught off guard when I got the call.

I excitedly went and told my friend. He had also applied for a promotion, but for a different group in the organization. He was still waiting. That group was less pressed for time. He congratulated me, we chatted, and eventually he asked if I felt comfortable sharing my new salary with him. Which I did. I’m getting much more comfortable talking about salary without seeing it as an actual value of my worth. And we got to talking. How did I end up with a significantly higher salary than him (and no, not in the “I’m a man so I should statistically be making more than you.” kind of way).

So we worked back. Firstly, I got a slightly better review this past year because I had made myself visible to the right people in the company. I also happened to have a boss who took it upon himself to snag his team as much money as he could get his hands on when year-end reviews came about. Last year, after I had worked for the company for only 2 months, he managed to get me a raise, a small raise, but still a raise. This man had made this his mission, and man did he succeed.

So that’s luck #1.

The other thing that differed with us is that I started at my current company as a direct hire and he started as a contractor. We started right around the same time. My situation is pretty rare and most people were surprised to hear that I started directly. The reason, I believe, that I started direct was because I had three years experience at an automotive company. While not a direct competitor, the skills and technical knowledge were still very transferable. And my current company happened to own my previous company at some point in history. He had worked in a totally different industry.

Luck #2.

Then we got to how I even got to work at that previous company. Again, the typical way to get in there was as a contractor. I happened to apply and get into (through hard work and great interview skills) a leadership rotational program there. A year later they very much limited their pool of candidates to people who had either interned in automotive or had done Formula SAE in school. Had I applied a year later, I would likely not have been considered.

Luck #3.

Oh, and the icing on the cake? I just remembered. The guy doing the first round of interviews for that rotational program came to campus for a career fair. I had had a rough day/week/month at school and decided I wasn’t up to walking in a crowded gym in heels for networking. But I sent my resumes in via our career center website to a few positions that really interested me. He picked mine because he saw the address on my resume and realized he had lived in the same house 25 years earlier. BOOM!

Luck #4.

Now, there are a lot more ways I was lucky. There’s everything from the super meta (like luck that I had been conceived in the first place. Luck that I was born healthy. Etc etc.) to the more concrete like getting into a university where that first company recruited, etc etc.

It’s funny, a lot of times if you point out to people that they got to where they are today because of luck, they get insulted. They think that luck somehow lessens the hard work they did. It doesn’t. I went to a really good high school, and I worked really hard to get good grades. I took the most challenging classes I could. I did well on my SATs. I worked my ass off in college, both academically and not, to maintain a good GPA so that I would be noticed by top companies. But with all of that, I was also very very lucky as this post has shown. Anyone that’s successful has to have a little bit of both.

They talked about this tendency on the latest episode of Freakonomics Radio. Tom Gilovich, the interviewee, said:

If you tell people how lucky they are, they don’t like that. They guard against it. They’re like, “Wait. What are you? You’re diminishing my achievements.” But if you ask people, “How has luck played a role in your life?” People can get in touch with their tailwinds, or how lucky they are. So it really suggests an ask-don’t-tell policy when it comes to either luck or particular type of tailwind, or all the other tailwinds.

And that’s all well and true. My friend and I had seen this first hand when we tried to talk to our coworkers about their own luck. But what I also know to be true, is people who are aware of their luck, and are grateful for it, tend to be happier people. If you ask me, it has something to do with that relief that I felt when I first read Outliers, but I’m no expert. At least not yet.

All I know right now is I’m truly in awe of all the things that had to fall in place to get me that promotion and nice pay bump. And I’m very grateful for my luck, which had at least something to do with it.













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