On Luck

I used to think that the phrase “The harder I work, the luckier I get” was a clever thing to say. Or “Luck favors the prepared mind.” But now I’m not so sure.

I understand the sentiment of these quotes. You increase your chances of getting lucky the more you put yourself out there. “You’ve got to be in it to win it” is another popular saying (and advertising slogan for NY lotto).

But even so, there are other forces that help determine who gets lucky and who doesn’t. What you look like is a big one. If the people who are doling out awards, contracts, or bonuses look like you, then they will find you relatable and be more likely to share their luck with you than with someone who seems more difficult to relate to. It’s the easy path and there’s little motivation to choose the more difficult one.  It’s more work and it’s risky.

The reality is, if you don’t look like other people, you probably have to “work twice as hard to get half as much.” I pulled that quote from Shonda Rhimes‘s book, a phrase her father repeated to her growing up. It’s a phrase that doesn’t make it on to coffee mugs or t-shirts. But it’s a reality for the underdogs, the ones for whom the stars aren’t aligned. The “F.O.D.s — First, Only, Different” people in the room who are just as smart but have to put in extra work just to be heard or seen or respected. Add on top of that work the emotional labor involved and you’ve got your formula, “work twice as hard to get half as much.”

So, if you’ve been lucky, be grateful for it and humble about it. Reflect on what forces helped you achieve your position. Yes, you worked hard. But like President Obama says, lots of people work hard. Yes, you were smart, but lots of people are smart.

And if you haven’t been lucky, let me be clear. This post isn’t meant to deter you from trying. It’s just to say that if you haven’t been lucky, don’t beat yourself up. Be kind to yourself. And do keep trying. Future generations need to you to do that work to pave the way.