The Privilege of Luck

I’m not lucky! Have you ever found yourself uttering that sentence? I’ve certainly been guilty of uttering that statement. In fact, I’ve felt a bit insulted when people tell me how lucky I am. I worked for what I am and what I have after all!

Today, my thinking about luck was challenged, and I now see things differently. First, I read Don’t Tell Your Friends They’re Lucky which states that 99% of our accomplishments are due to hard work, and 1% to luck. I found the numbers to be arbitrary but the argument to be compelling. The article happens to intersect with themes in my with recent conversations about privilege, clubs, networks, and nepotism. I recently listened to a Freakonomics episode about how it’s more difficult to attain the American dream nowadays because of the widening gap between poor and rich people. Today, I listened to Krista Tippett talking to Eula Biss about Whiteness and how privilege can be renamed opportunity hoarding. All this content has convince me that luck and privilege intersect.

What Does it Mean to be Lucky 

I’ve often heard the phrase “luck is preparation meeting opportunity”, which is credited to Oprah. This definition nicely coincides with the argument in the Nautilus article. A definition in Merriam-Webster is “producing or resulting in good by chance”. I’ve always thought that luck accounted for the magical/unexplainable reason why one person is afforded an opportunity out of all the other equally qualified people. Sometimes that magic happens because of alumni networks, where you went to school, your parents and other family ties, your location, and other “chances” that affect your opportunity if not your preparation.

Perhaps we revolt against the idea of luck because we see it as implying we don’t deserve what we got, or that we didn’t work hard for what we achieved. I’m now inclined to think that luck can coexist with a growth mindset, but means you got a chance that many other people were qualified to get. Perhaps that still may sting for those of you who like to think that our achievements are due to the fact that we are the best! It may well be true that not everyone given the same opportunity as you would have been successful, but there may be others who would have been.

The challenge is to recognize that being lucky doesn’t diminish you in any way.

Acknowledging my luck 

I was lucky to move to Canada from St. Lucia at 12 years of age. This gave me access to opportunities that would have been more difficult if not impossible to attain otherwise. I was lucky to get a job teaching overseas even when I had no teaching experience besides my practice. I’m lucky that I have always had a job. I’ve been lucky to leave in very diverse countries. For each of those situations, except the first, I prepared for it and found opportunities to make it feasible. But I don’t think that it diminishes my capabilities in any way to consider that there were other qualified candidates, maybe even better qualified ones, in each case. I expect to continue being lucky because I’m going to keep learning and growing, and putting myself in situations where I will have interesting opportunities.

The Challenge of Luck

So what about those people who truly are not lucky? What about the people who have many roadblocks in their way to achieving preparation, far less opportunity? Those people tend to be people who are poor and of minority’s groups. Extending Biss’ argument, I offer that it’s the responsibility of each of us to share our wealth of privilege, of luck with others. This does not need to be a grand gesture. Can you identify one “unlucky” person in your community? I’ll define that as someone with a growth mindset, who is having trouble achieving success. I’m leaving this deliberately vague because I’d like you to own it. Can you provide a little bit of magic for that person, and sprinkle a bit of luck or chance? I’m inspired to look out for opportunities to spread luck every day.