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.












Thoughts While Hiking

I had a super interesting conversation with my partner yesterday.

We were on a hike with a Meet Up group. As we’re both people of the internet (read: we met online), we had both had experience with Meet Up. None particularly successful. But with many of his friends’ relocating and most of my friends not being from Portland, we decided to attempt this again.

We went on a fun hike with a mostly older (>40) crowd. At some point he was asked what he does and that prompted some interesting conversation. Most people there felt that they had spent most of their lives chugging along and were using their older years to really do what they love. This, I thought, is exactly what I’m trying to avoid. I don’t want to spend half my life doing what I think I have to do but hating every minute of it. I have met enough people in my life that pursued what they loved doing and felt themselves much more successful, regardless of income and material goods.

As he continued speaking with one woman on our return trip, I picked up the pace and went off on my own. I wasn’t really adding to their conversation, and I love using time in nature to think.

I realized the greatest difference between me and many people whose lives (especially their work-lives) I admire is that I made my decisions based on what career paths and monetary income I could expect, they did not. This most blatantly happened in college. A year and a half into my education, I realized engineering was not what I thought it would be. It was a lot more theoretical than, not as hands on as, I had expected. The only other thing that was really interesting me at the time was linguistics. When faced with the decision to drop my engineering degree and pursue linguistics instead my reaction was “well what could I possibly do with a linguistics degree.” So I stuck it out with engineering and here I am today.

The people I admire are people who pursued a degree they felt passionate about without any real idea of what possible job it could bring them. I know one man who studied literature never imagining he would become a web content manager. My partner studied philosophy and film theory, got a masters in critical thinking, and finds himself working in television. I follow a blogger who got a degree in percussion and is currently making her money through a cooking blog/cook book.

These are people who pursued their passions and ended up in places they probably didn’t imagine when they first went to school. I tried to plan years in advance only to find myself hugely dissatisfied with where I am.

So when faced with such decisions, I really encourage you to choose passion. The more passionate you are about something, the harder you’ll work at it, the most success you will probably find. And remember that success doesn’t always mean income or material property. Be more open minded. Pursue that which you love.

My Fear of Being Wrong

Today at work one of my team members asked me to check some calculations that he had done. This guy is probably 50, has been working in this industry for a couple of decades, and my firs thought was “I haven’t had to do engineering calculations in two years.”

He sent me his work, I looked over EVERYTHING cause at first I wasn’t totally clear what he was calculating (which made me miss the professors that made us outline a bunch of stuff before our calculation). All in all the math seemed sound, there was one thing that was bothering me. He was trying to figure out the max load before failure. He was using a material’s yield, but I had a feeling that he needed to be looking at the sheer stress because of the type of failure we were seeing.

Did I say anything?



Because I’m dumb. Because the yield he had listed wasn’t specified. Because I wasn’t sure that he should have actually been looking at the sheer stresses. Because when it comes to something I’m not sure about, I’d rather pipe down than make a mistake.

And that’s not good.

I could have learned something today if I had brought this up. Maybe I will get over myself and do it tomorrow when I come in. At the very least, I could have shown that I actually have a functioning and curious mind. Instead I deferred to telling him he was right (which I still think he might be).

When I was in high school, I was lucky enough to attend a school that offered programming as an elective. I signed up for the first programming class which taught in C and really really liked it. The teacher really liked that I liked it and showed some talent for it.

The next level programming class offered the following semester was in Java. I couldn’t for the life of me wrap my head around object-based programming. I dropped the class. I don’t think I’ve ever had a teacher be as mad at me as that teacher was. And his anger stemmed from his disappointment in me. He was the first teacher to kind of treat me as an adult when he told me that if only I hadn’t been so scared of asking questions I might still be in there enjoying myself. It was the first time a teacher criticized me in a way that I respected and therefore in a way that kind of hurt.

At the time, externally, I just laughed it off and enjoyed my java free life. I had no intention of studying programming anyway, so what was the point? I knew I was going for mechanical engineering (did I mention I’m an idiot?). Internally, though, I think I was a little scared that a person that knew me in such a minimal context (this wasn’t a teacher I would say I was super close to) could call me out on something so accurately.

Now, I’ve really enjoyed the little bit of programming that I have done and I wonder what would have been. But that’s useless, right? What’s important is seeing the lesson in this. I need to start being comfortable with asking questions. I need to start understanding that not knowing something doesn’t show weakness. I need to start internalizing that admitting that I don’t know something is actually something very strong and wise. And I need to face the fact that I might be right more often than I think.

Which brings me to a whole other paradox. For the most part, I’m extremely confident in my intelligence. Probably over-confident in certain areas and with certain people (hi mom). And yet, within me there is a part that is so incredibly unsure of herself and ironically, in the stuff I’ve been “trained” in the longest. I wonder why that is. I mean I have a Master of Science in mechanical engineering, but the second I was asked to do a calculation outside the classroom I kind of froze. Whenever my dad asks me a technical question related to mechanical engineering, I get kind of annoyed and scoff it off.

Any insights?