Photo by Richard Burlton on Unsplash

Today’s my birthday, so I figured I’d post here to celebrate. (Okay fine, I didn’t get a post written in time for my usual Monday morning deadline.)

On my birthday, I often find myself reflecting on how lucky I am. Just the other day, I started a sentence with, “With my luck…” and realized that “my luck” is usually pretty good. My bad luck is typically more of an inconvenience than something really terrible.

And today, thinking about luck got me thinking about something I’ve been meaning to write about for some time: I wish successful people would acknowledge the role luck has played in their success more.

I’m a proud member of the fitness cult known as Peloton (I use the app in tandem with a cheaper bike, treadmill, and dumbbells–happy to share how for those interested). One strength workout that I’ve done a few times is taught by the formidable Robin Arzón. In it, during one of her pep talks where she’s distracting you from/getting you through some weighted lunges, she says something to the effect of, “The next time someone calls you lucky, the appropriate response is, ‘Lucky to work my ass off.'”

Here’s the thing: Robin probably does work her ass off; in fact, I’m sure she does. But I always cringe when the go-to rebuttal for luck is hard work. It’s just not always accurate. Even if the successful person in question works their ass off, discounting luck just doesn’t paint a complete picture.

Maybe instead respond with, “I try to recognize and embrace the opportunities I’m lucky to have by working really hard.” (Very catchy, I know.)

Is it lucky for someone to be born into a loving family with ample resources in an environment that fostered the development of traits that are known contributors to success, like talent, skill, grit, optimism, and emotional intelligence? (That was rhetorical.)

Of course I’m not saying that someone who, by the luck of the draw, enters the world with any disadvantages can’t achieve success. Those are always incredible stories about incredible people. But my point is that they’re not typical. And they have to involve a little bit of good luck, too.

Scientists have looked into the role luck plays in success. This Scientific American article about various studies that sought to quantify the role of luck and talent in successful careers is fascinating. Some quotes:

Talent was definitely not sufficient [to achieve success] because the most talented individuals were rarely the most successful. In general, mediocre-but-lucky people were much more successful than more-talented-but-unlucky individuals. The most successful agents tended to be those who were only slightly above average in talent but with a lot of luck in their lives.

Since rewards and resources are usually given to those who are already highly rewarded, this often causes a lack of opportunities for those who are most talented (i.e., have the greatest potential to actually benefit from the resources), and it doesn’t take into account the important role of luck, which can emerge spontaneously throughout the creative process.


Yes, this a post about privilege and a rant against our obsession with the American Dream! Happy birthday to me!

So. My birthday wish: The next time someone calls you lucky, a good response is “Lucky to be able to work my ass off.” (There we go—much catchier.)

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