- Good or bad fortune is often arbitrary, not based on what is “deserved.”
- Failure to acknowledge the role of luck or chance can lead to excessive self-doubt in the face of disappointment.
- Relying on positive comparisons with others for self-esteem results in wide mood fluctuations and instability.
How often have we encountered the notion that we could be anything we want, that all we need to do is work hard and success will take us to the top of that mountain of good fortune?
If only we were more assertive, more organized, more confident, or had better communication skills, we could make it big in the worlds of business, entertainment, or sports. Just a little more effort and we will get there, wherever that is.
There have been hundreds of books selling the idea that success is just around the corner. While all these optimistic messages are uplifting and inspirational, they also carry the subliminal message that lack of worldly success is our own fault. We haven’t read the right books or done enough of what it takes; otherwise, we would be at the top of our game.
The problem with most success strategies is that talent and hard work alone aren’t enough to succeed. We need to be in the right place at the right time. We need to have friends who can help us along the way. We need the kind of personality that endears itself to the decision-makers in our world. As the Irish would say, we need a little bit of luck to get where we want to go.
Genetics and Early Environment
From the moment of conception, we had to contend with many factors that were not of our own making. We had no say about the kind of genes we inherited that affected our appearance, intelligence, talents, personality traits, and overall health. Did we wind up short or tall, light- or dark-skinned, musically or mathematically gifted? Did we inherit a genetic disorder or come equipped with mainly positive DNA?
From the time of our arrival, we were at the mercy of luck or chance in many ways. Was our birth eagerly awaited or were we one of too many mouths to feed? How psychologically equipped was our family to deal with a new baby? These factors, along with our parents’ personalities, their expectations of us, and our birth order profoundly affected us.
School and College Years
Similarly, teachers and early friends were influences that we had little control over. Were we inspired by them or lulled into low achievement? Most teachers prefer students who are the embodiment of their own values. As a result, well-behaved and verbal children receive most of the accolades in school and wind up believing they are smart, while other students come to see themselves as less intelligent, less competent than their peers.
As for friends, there is some truth to the adage “birds of a feather flock together,” but proximity is also important in determining friendships—in the classroom, on the school bus, and in the neighborhood. We tend to hang around, especially in our younger years, with kids nearby.
During adolescence, serious mental health disorders, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorders, become apparent. These syndromes are heavily influenced by genetics, but the environment certainly plays a role. Here again, we are at the mercy of fate as to what kind of parents we had. If we had angry, demeaning caretakers who repeatedly told us we were worthless, the negative effects of any genetic influence would be magnified. Conversely, if our parents were loving and compassionate, their positivity would attenuate negative genetic influences.article continues after advertisement
In college, the choice of a major can be a critical decision affecting careers. While our own interests and talents should be the primary driver of such decisions, many of us were profoundly influenced by our parents’ wishes. For first-generation college students, career decisions may be especially difficult. Since their parents might be unfamiliar with how colleges and careers work, they may insist that their children pursue majors leading to high-paying jobs in the fields of computer science, engineering, or medicine. The problem arises when their children are not interested or skilled in these subjects and as a result, parental pressure leads to unhappy outcomes. Many of these students and others like them drop out of college or wind up in lifelong careers they dislike.
The Effects of Luck in Adulthood
While qualifications are the main factors affecting professional success, luck regularly shows up in job hiring. We may have an impeccable resume, but whether we get a particular job is a function of luck in many cases. The reality is that hiring decisions are often based on “criteria” not listed in the job postings. For example, was the boss especially enthralled with her alma mater and likely to hire someone from that school? Or is the company eager to keep the acting person in that role and blind to other resumes?
We may be a writer who has just completed a novel, only to find out that a novel with a similar theme was published recently, and so our manuscript gets rejected. Our timing was off, through no fault of our own. We may accept a higher paying job and move to a new city, only to find that the job itself is very disappointing. No matter how much research was done ahead of time, the success of a particular venture is a function of some factors outside of our control.
Even with Olympic athletes, who are at the top of their game, winning a medal is not a foregone conclusion. The outcome depends on who their competitors are and how well each of the athletes performs in a given event. The same can be said of Supreme Court Justices, where the availability of a position and the reigning political party are the dominant factors affecting a particular selection. Sonia Sotomayor, in her autobiography, describes “luck with a purpose” that took her from childhood poverty to the highest court in the land.
The widespread availability of social media enables us to compare regularly our accomplishments with those of our peers. If we are doing better, we feel superior. If not, we feel deflated and inadequate. The reality that most high achievers come from high-status families with many economic and social advantages gets lost in our self–appraisals and judgments of others, and the opposite awareness—that most low achievers come from impoverished families with limited resources—is likewise missing in our evaluations.article continues after advertisement
Taking too much credit for our successes and too much blame for our failures, we often fail to discern the difference between what was handed to us and what we achieved by ourselves. As a result, we have entitlement and narcissism galore at the upper rungs of the social ladder in the U.S., and at the lower end, many embittered, envious souls with little self-esteem.
Misinterpreting the impact of luck can lead either to false pride or undeserved self-blame. Unfortunately, many psychotherapy patients attribute their comparative lack of success to their perceived inadequacies, which is often not the case.
Since we were not in control of the cards we were dealt and don’t have control of every factor affecting us, all we can do is play our cards to the best of our ability, that is, work hard to develop our talents and upgrade our limitations. Like Simone Biles, the Olympic gymnast, we also need to rely on an internal yardstick rather than succumb to the world’s expectations. If we manage to make the most of what fate has handed us, we can rejoice in our accomplishments, no matter how they stack up to those of our peers. While we can’t be anything we want, we can be the best self we were created to be.
This post is adapted from an essay, “Luck or Chance Has Been Badly Underrated,” published in Beyond Pipe Dreams and Platitudes: Insights on Love, Luck, and Narcissism from a Longtime Psychologist, Outskirts Press, 2021.
Sotomayor, S. (2013). My Beloved World. New York: Vintage Books.