Wednesday, May 21, 2014

What is Luck?

The word “lucky” has been coming up so often in conversations with diverse people that I began to consider it’s nature and also how the word is used.

I have often called myself lucky, in acknowledgement that my accomplishments have something to do with the fates, not all my own doing.  Fortune has smiled on me.  I have not doubt of that.   And in ways that were poor chance.

We all owe to chance our genetic make up, for instance.  How did your parents meet?  What put them in mood the day you were conceived?  All of us owe a lot of who we are to what particular sperm hit which particular egg.  And so it goes from there on.  That teacher who inspired you could have become a doctor or accidentally gotten pregnant in high school and never made to college.  You could have gotten into a traffic jam on our way to buying that house and found it already sold.

Life depends on luck, right?

I say a small “yes,” and a resounding “no.”

I lost my taste for the word when I sold my first book—a how-to volume on management for business types.  The day I signed the contract just happened to be my birthday—March 17, 1983.  My husband and I were celebrating with dinner out.  With us were a colleague of mine and his wife—a school librarian who regularly bragged about how little work she had to do in the Brooklyn public high school where she was employed.  (I hesitate to say “where she worked,” since her efforts seemed to be singularly focused on avoiding doing a lick.)

David ordered champagne and offered a toast to my birthday and the contract for my first book.  Our friends were very interested in the book and expressed their congratulations.  Except for the “librarian,” who exclaimed, “Wow.  You’re really lucky.”

What could I do but lower my gaze and agree with her.  If I was turning red, they all might have thought I was blushing from modesty.  Modest though I wish to be, at that moment I was miffed.  Perhaps it was because the words came from that woman—who had an opportunity to help underserved children, who instead rejoiced that they were not interested in books.  Their disinterest allowed her to sit around reading magazines instead of engaging with the students.  And she thought that a person got a book contract through luck?

Just two weeks ago, a visitor from Europe reported that a mutual friend had told him how lucky my husband and I were to have bought a place to live in lower Manhattan when it was still affordable.  Yes.  But.  We bought when others were running to the suburbs because NYC was bankrupt and in trouble.  We stuck with our city out of love, not greed.  We WERE lucky—to have found each other, to have the same dreams, to have the capacity to work very hard and take joy in doing so.  In answer to what I hope was mild mannered question, my visitor reported that in his country, everyone ascribed success to luck.  “What about failure?” I asked.  “Oh, they blame failure on the person.”   Really?  Why would anyone with such a belief system get off the couch?  Does it surprise you to know that his country is not one of the more economically stable in the EU?

On the other hand, I expressed to a friend earlier this week that chance is the most creative force on the planet, if you let it in.  For me that "if” makes all the difference.

Are these beliefs the reason why some people persist in pursuit of success while others remain passive in the face of their own possibilities?  If opportunity knocks, are the people who get off their duffs and answer the door lucky?  If you ask me, failure is often merely a result of bad luck.  Success requires good luck.  But sometimes it also requires a whole lot more.

Annamaria Alfieri


  1. "You must be really lucky" would be even more irritating than "I could never do that." I used to get that a lot and it annoyed me. "So what?" I always thought. "I could never do what you do, either." Or even better, "I could write a book if I had the time."

  2. And then there are the people who want to tell you their idea. This atheist resorts to prayer for patience on those occasions. It's funny that no one ever says, "I will write a book if I ever get lucky enough." The FIRST thing you have to do to get lucky with publishing a book is to write one. After you have 60+K of really good words written, that's when luck enters into the equation.

  3. I have never thought much about the term luck... But I have done a great deal of thinking about fate and divine providence. tjs