Successful People Are Just Lucky? I Don’t Buy It.

Man looking skeptically to his right

I read something that made me roll my eyes.

It was the commencement speech of an author to the graduating class of an Ivy League school. What caused my reaction was this: the speaker simply told them that any success they had was largely due to luck.

Seriously?

His big advice wasn’t really advice at all. Pinning your dreams of success on luck is passive and leaves you with virtually no hope. Upon reading the speech after the fact, some folks would just throw up their hands and say, “Well, I’ve been pretty unlucky in my life, so there’s not much point in trying to be successful.”

No doubt that Dawn Loggins and David Boone, students who both had experienced homelessness and other hardships but are bound for Harvard in the fall, would disagree with this. Certainly, the intelligence both of them possess has been recognized by school officials and has helped them on their journeys. But only a fool would attribute the events in their lives to luck.

Rather, what the commencement speaker mistakenly refers to as luck is really opportunity.

This is more than a matter of semantics. Luck is something that happens to the few. Opportunity, on the other hand, is something that everyone experiences periodically throughout life. With luck, you can only wait and hope; with opportunity, you can wait and expect.

That’s not to say that every opportunity will immediately be seen as something positive. Sometimes opportunity can be hard to see because it’s couched in failure, or is part of a negative life event, as it was for for Dawn and David.

The most important thing about opportunity is what you do with it when it comes. Do you ignore it? Do you simply expect great things to miraculously occur? Or, do you scoop it up and make something happen with it? If you don’t act when an opportunity comes, you are not taking advantage of it, and that opportunity becomes lost.

When thinking about all of this, my friend Michelle Martin also came to mind. Her path to becoming a photographer has been an interesting one. When I met her six years ago, she was a pediatric care nurse with an interest in photography. She did her work well, but it wasn’t what she really wanted to do. Then, in 2008, the movie Public Enemies was filming in our town, and Michelle went down to watch and take pictures. She uploaded her images to Flickr, and they garnered interest from people who saw them. It was there that the idea that she could be a professional photographer was born.

As Michelle’s business has grown, there have been numerous opportunities she has pursued. She partners with other photographers to shoot weddings. She is a volunteer with Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, a nonprofit network of photographers who donate their services to families who experience the death of a baby. She captured images from the protests that happened in Wisconsin’s capitol (which were later featured in a book).

Just luck? No way. More like making the most of the opportunities, both good and bad, that present themselves.

Image courtesy of tylerhoff

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Comments

  1. Desiree
    Twitter: UltimateHCM
    says:

    Completely agree. Sure, luck happens to some people, but for most, life and career success are based on opportunity. Just like your friend Michelle, she saw the opportunity to run with her talent in photography and established her career. We must open doors for ourselves to see what the future may hold. I love this quote by a Roman philosopher, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” This quote, like the stories you shared, are motivational and inspire me to pursue my dreams. I can’t say the same for the idea of pure luck. Thanks for sharing!

    • Melissa Cooley
      Twitter: TheJobQuest
      says:

      Hi Desiree,

      I’m glad that this post struck a chord with you! I just couldn’t believe when someone accomplished was saying, “Oh, I was just lucky.” Either the speaker has a really low opinion of the talents that got him where he is, or he just threw the speech together at the last minute.

      If someone is a “one-hit wonder,” I would buy the luck explanation, but for someone who has continued to experience success? There’s something more there.

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