Luck matters. We hate to admit it, but it does.
Let’s start with DNA. Your genes are responsible for 50 percent of your happiness. It’s called the “genetic set point.” Don’t buy this? Talk with twins who’ve been apart for forty years. Or take a look at the research. The conclusion is clear: half of your happiness is determined at your birth. You can pick your jeans but not your genes.
Now consider demographics. How much wealth you are born into. The color of your skin. The place where you grow up. You don’t control these either.
Yet we convince ourselves it does not.
If life’s been hard and success elusive, many people want to blame you. You don’t work hard enough. You’ve made bad choices. You’re not taking responsibility. And, guess what. There may be something to these charges. You do have flaws. You do screw up. Yet tell that to the college professor who has the same degrees, title, and income as his close colleague yet can’t provide as well for his kids and has less financial cushion. The big difference? Whereas his colleague’s parents gained wealth on their home by buying low and selling high, his parents missed out because banks redlined their neighborhood. (Too many Black residents.) So now he sends a much higher portion of his income to his parents to cover their medical bills.
Same intelligence. Same effort. Different outcome.
And not just bad luck.
Let’s say you’ve made it big. Impressive job. Growing business. Nice house. Or perhaps, instead, you’re solopreneuring and live in a mini house, because you decided to simplify. You made the choices that got you here, right? You seized opportunities and took smart risks. Or you simply put in longer hours than others. Luck had nothing to do with this.
Except that it did. Your parents are white, so they got the loan that helped them buy the house that is responsible for half of their wealth appreciation. And you got healthy genes, so you spent your childhood playing sports or going to dance camp rather than getting surgeries to correct for chromosomal abnormalities. It’s like that famous quip about one of our recent Presidents: “He was born on third base but thinks he hit a triple.”
But, wait, you didn’t grow up wealthy. And, you were sick a lot as a kid. But now you’re a success. Clearly, this is a case of overcoming obstacles and making the most of your talents, not luck, right?
Maybe. But it’s one thing to work hard and make smart choices and another to attribute all of your success to these actions. In reality, you got breaks others didn’t—the mentor who took an interest in you, getting into the right company at the right time, or the siblings who sacrificed so you could move ahead. You seized these opportunities, but you didn’t create them.
It’s time for us all to come clean about this. Not just to call BS on our fables of success and happiness, but for three powerful reasons:
- Gratitude. Acknowledging the role of luck is an act of gratitude. People who are grateful are happier than those who are not. So if you want to be happy, fess up to the primacy of luck.
- Humility. People who know they’re not the sole architects of their lives tend to be more open to their own fallibility. They admit mistakes, seek opportunities to learn, and spend less time being arrogant know-it-alls.
- Focus. When you realize the power of luck, you pay more attention to it. You see positive breaks that others miss. And when bad things happen, you don’t obsess about what went wrong, but focus on your creative response.
Let’s get real. Luck matters.