Lucky Me, by Emily Winslow

I have mixed feelings about luck.

Philosophically and morally, I abhor the concept of someone being “lucky.” It’s not democratic. It’s not fair. But, in my personal experience, I recognize that I’m lucky.

It’s not that nothing bad happens to me. Bad stuff has. But so much of the good stuff has been over-the-top good. There’s definitely a skew. I feel relieved when I find some kind of reason behind the apparent luck. (And not that victim-blaming “The Secret” nonsense that I’m not even going to link to.)

Richard Wiseman conducted an experiment that revealed one reason behind successful people’s “luck,” and a way for less successful people to emulate the “lucky” people’s unconscious techniques:

“I gave both lucky and unlucky people a newspaper, and asked them to look through it and tell me how many photographs were inside. I had secretly placed a large message halfway through the newspaper saying: “Tell the experimenter you have seen this and win £250.” This message took up half of the page and was written in type that was more than two inches high. It was staring everyone straight in the face, but the unlucky people tended to miss it and the lucky people tended to spot it.” He then used these findings to design exercises to increase awareness and therefore “luck.”

Malcolm Gladwell, in his terrific book Outliers, examined lots of “reasons” for success. The one that resonated most with me had to do with the birth months of great hockey players, and how most of them had been born in a month near the school-grade cutoff that therefore made them older than their class peers. That advantage, of a few months to nearly a year of growth and coordination, led to them being identified as more “skilled” and given extra training which ended up making them *actually* more skilled. I had a similar experience. My December birthday was right by the school cut-off, and my parents were given the choice of making me the oldest or youngest in my class. They chose oldest. I think I’m pretty smart, and I like to think that even if they’d put me in school a year earlier I would have done well. But there’s no doubt that my extra months and in some cases year of maturity is part of what made me stand out as “gifted.” Also, I’m grateful that, in the late seventies and eighties, my schools were full of teachers who liked my independence and boldness. I think in another time or place I would have been labeled a troublemaker instead of a leader.

So there is “luck” in the sense of chance—for example, some of us are born into families, schools, towns and/or cultures that praise or criticize our natural personalities. But I still resist the idea of luckiness as something a person can have within them, something supernatural that attracts good things.

As Malcolm Gladwell says:
“My wish with Outliers is that it makes us understand how much of a group project success is. When outliers become outliers it is not just because of their own efforts. It’s because of the contributions of lots of different people and lots of different circumstances— and that means that we, as a society, have more control about who succeeds—and how many of us succeed—than we think. That’s an amazingly hopeful and uplifting idea.”

9 Replies to “Lucky Me, by Emily Winslow”

  1. Luck? I think it’s the environment in which you grow up. Meaning: the people around you who encourage you and give you the support you need in order to achieve your goals. So yeah, I do believe in luck.

  2. Outliers is a great book for so many reasons. The idea of luck as a “group project,” as Gladwell puts it, is very inspiring to me. Thanks for the link to that BBC article. The researcher found that peoples’ “thoughts and behavior are responsible for much of their good and bad fortune.” That’s certainly something to keep in mind when I’m having a “glass is half-empty” kind of day. (If I think it’s half-empty, then it is!) Great post Emily.

  3. I had the same experience with school; I started school in Oklahoma and the cutoff was either November 1 or October 31. I was born November 5 and the school basically let my parents choose whether to bump me up a grade or not, I’m glad they didn’t.

  4. Brilliant – I agree on the awareness. So what makes a person aware? I know I can ask someone who drive on a certain highway every day, “Do you know company XYZ” and they will say, “No,” even though they drive past the HQ every day. (That happened to me with a family member and boggled my mind.) KIM

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