The M Dash

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Let’s Stop Talking About “Luck”

November 13, 2016 | Filed in: Your Career

My favorite part of my job is interviewing women who are really good at theirs. Throughout my career, I’ve talked to hundreds of women who are brilliant at what they do—entrepreneurs, authors, doctors, actors, consultants, musicians, politicians, artists, lawyers, and the list goes on. Most of their common traits—a willingness to work hard, a passion for learning, an eagerness to share credit with their colleagues and loved ones—aren’t surprising. But many of these women, in describing their biggest breaks, have also used one word that I’m tired of hearing: luck.

I recently interviewed a woman who’d made a U-turn career change, and I asked how she’d gotten her first job in a new field. The question had barely left my mouth when she responded, almost reflexively, “Pure luck.” I must have raised my eyebrows, because she then backtracked. “Also, I had about a hundred meetings with different people all over the job spectrum. I really struggled for a couple of months.”

To attribute your accomplishments to luck is to downplay your own grit and raw effort. It passes off your gumption and intelligence to the whims of the universe. It makes your success sound easy and simple when it was actually painful and complex. It conveys a lack of control over your own trajectory. It erases your many tough decisions from the equation. It deflects your ambition. And it undermines you as well as the women who strive to follow in your footsteps.

Sure, I know these lucky ladies mean well. They’re being humble. Taking all the credit for your own advancement seems arrogant, ungrateful, even awkward. To be “lucky” is a much tidier, brighter story than one in which you work your ass off, get passed over for seven jobs, and spend a family vacation holed up in a hotel room to prepare for an interview or presentation that impressed one person who, four months later, thought of you when a position opened up. 

Of course, there’s much to be said for being in the right place at the right time. I got my first job because I was interning at a newspaper when an entry-level position became available, and it was much easier for them to hire me than go through the trouble of finding someone else. I felt incredibly lucky to be there. But still, I was there. I’d put in long hours for almost six months, on top of two other internships, wrestling open cardboard boxes and researching photos and jumping at any reporting opportunities I could get. I didn’t get that newspaper job because of luck. I got that job because of me.

I’m not saying that luck doesn’t exist. Hell, we’re lucky to live in a country where flushing toilets are the norm, and we should certainly be grateful for the many advantages we were born to (the fact that you can currently read this sentence, for instance). But don’t collude those circumstances with the hard-won steps in your career. Those are your triumphs, not random twists of fate.

When fortune bends in our favor, it’s important to recognize and celebrate it. But if you aren’t poised to pounce when it flutters in your direction—or at least ready to lurch towards it, swipe at it clumsily a few times, and finally capture it with the help of an unwieldy net—it would simply pass you by and bestow itself on someone else. (Put more succinctly, one of our favorite sayings at MM comes from an old Latin proverb: “Luck favors the brave.”)

I haven’t conducted a formal study, but I rarely hear men talk about luck. In my experience, they’re more likely to bring up times they were unlucky—they didn’t get the job because it just wasn’t meant to be, or they just didn’t get dealt a good hand. Conversely, men often have an easier relationship with claiming ownership over what lands in their path. It’s time we do too. 

So, women: The next time you feel the urge to gloss over your story with the L-word, take a pause. And then say, “I earned it.”


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Charlotte Cowles is a New York-based writer​ ​and editor.​ ​Her work has been published in New York Magazine,​ Harper's Bazaar,​ and Art in America. She'd always rather be at book club. Read more of Charlotte's posts.


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