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Lucky us.

Increasingly, my friends in academia are talking a lot about the role of “luck” in success.   Granted, in any and all success stories there tends to be a luck component – the serendipitous meeting, the unexpected opportunity, the “accident” that turned to yield something interesting.   Most of the people I know are honest that luck does play a role in success particularly when one follows up on the lucky break with hard work.

But the current discussion about luck is not about these chance opportunities that favor someone for no identifiable reason.     Rather, the main point of the seemingly out of nowhere interest on luck and success appears to be more about how attitudes about luck differentiate liberals from conservatives.    Successful liberals are more likely to think of themselves as lucky while successful conservatives are more likely to consider their success self-made.    The two different perspectives are reflected in:

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/05/why-luck-matters-more-than-you-might-think/476394/  and https://www.forbes.com/sites/ricksmith/2014/08/18/skill-effort-or-luck-which-is-more-important-for-success/#5e7599a49ba8

Recently I was confronted with this question about the role luck has played in my life and career.   I realized I tended to acknowledge the role of luck (e.g. being in the right place at right time) while also considering hard work, sacrifice, and the choices made along the way as major contributing factors.    The friend who posed the question told me she included in the “luck” side of the equation – being born white, being born middle-class, and being born in the US.    And suddenly it hit me … ah, this is a “trick” question in the academic sense of the term.  Just as knowing the tricks and strategies for ‘acing’ certain tests gives individuals in the know an advantage over the naïve, non-academics and conservatives answering this question when surveyed or polled most likely don’t know that they are weighing the contributions of luck and hard-work without having the baseline explained to them.   They may not think of these different factors in their personal calculations.   I know that I interpreted the question as this balance of happy accidents and initiative.   I would not have thought to add – oh the luck of being healthy, the luck of being tall, or all the sundry attributes we are born with.   But once made aware -I was more than willing to accept that we do all have different starting lines.

That said – I know a lot of white, healthy, good-looking, well-educated, middle class screwups.   Luck can’t do it alone.   ( I also can’t help but point out that while academics are happy to play the luck card with respect to business success, academia still operates with the view that it’s a meritocracy and not a luck-ocracy).

Most of all – what I took away from this exchange is that maybe academics could be a little more skeptical of polls and a little more generous to those polled who may not be in on what they are really being asked.   The ongoing and expanding “gotcha game” is very useful at dividing – but to what end?