Don’t call me lucky

We have a weird relationship with luck.

There are definitely times when “lucky” is good. Like when we avoid disaster by the skin of our teeth, or enjoy some unexpected good fortune. My son sure felt lucky when he found twenty dollars frozen to the ground the night he took the garbage out. That kind of luck is okay.

But when we’re successful after a lot of hard work, well, lucky kind of takes a negative spin. As in, “your book is going to be published – you’re so lucky.” The unspoken implication is that you’re not being published because you worked your butt off for years, wrote, revised, took classes, got feedback and tried to better yourself as a writer. No, you were lucky. And “lucky” can happen to anyone, right?

Other people scoff at luck. There’s no such thing, they say. Chance is just someone’s justification or cop-out. But is it?

So, I recently read about a Harvard study on the role of chance, or “luck,” in popularity (I looked for a link to the study, honest, but I can’t find it). And surprisingly, it comes down to this.

Once you have achieved a certain level of quality, it is chance, luck, that propels it to popularity (or so the study argues). In other words, the reason the Mona Lisa is so popular has less to do with the quality of the painting (again, assuming a benchmark level of quality), a more to do with popular opinion. The more people like a thing, the more they tell their friends about the thing, and the more new people flock to the thing. This was all studied through creation of virtual worlds and computers. If you can find the study (and if you do, shoot me the link), it’s kind of fascinating. At least to me. For the first time, someone actually sat down an quantified, or at least attempted to quantify, the role of luck in success.

Of course, authors should know this. We really should. Because what sells books? Survey after survey says the same thing: word of mouth. Amazon reviews. Goodreads reviews. Conversations in your local bookstore. Your friend reads a phenomenal book, so she recommends it to you (presumably because she thinks you’ll feel the same, sometimes not, but often yes).

As a reader (because all writers are readers, perhaps we’re readers first), this is profound. I never left book reviews because it felt kind of funny doing it. But now, I see it as my contribution to chance. Sure, my one book review might not make the difference. But teamed up with the hundred other reviews, well, that might be a game-changer. In that way, I’ve affected luck – the publisher’s luck (the book is a financial success), the author’s luck (maybe she gets a new contract to write another book), the bookseller’s luck (she gets to stay in business), and even my luck (I get to read another book).

So does luck exist? I’m pretty sure it does. And it’s not a bad thing either. So the next time someone tells me, “Oh, you’re lucky,” I won’t think it’s a negative comment. It just means that the weight of popularity and chance has shifted my way.

What about you – do you think public opinion influences luck, and is that good or bad?


Author: Liz Milliron

Liz Milliron has been making up stories, and creating her own endings for other people's stories, for as long as she can remember. She survived growing up through reading, cutting her mystery teeth on Agatha Christie, Mary Higgins Clark and, of course, Nancy Drew. As an adult, she finds escape from the world of software documentation through creating her own fictional murder and mayhem. She lives near Pittsburgh with her husband and two teenage children, and fantasizes about owning a dog again - one of these days.

14 thoughts on “Don’t call me lucky”

  1. Luck is definitely a major factor in a writer’s career. What about that guy who had a novel featuring terrorism that was supposed to come out around 9/11 and was postponed? Or when an editor leaves a house and your book in the lurch? Or when your publisher is bought by a house uninterested in your writing and you get canned.


    1. And that’s what’s so hard to live with, no matter how hard we work, luck and timing don’t always work out for us. The flip side is that luck can work in our favor in unexpected ways. Example: Because I happened to do a reading at the Goethe-Institut in D.C. for my memoir “My Germany,” and someone headed to work at the American Embassy in Berlin heard me and loved it, she spearheaded two all-expenses-paid book tours for me across Germany, each one lasting about two weeks. It was one of the highlights of my writing career. So to be honest, when I start to bemoan the ways luck didn’t help me, I have to balance it with all the ways it did.


  2. I really like that Harvard definition of luck. Because I do think quality plays into it as much as people contributing to your luck (leaving reviews, picking up the book on word-of-mouth, etc.).


    1. And wasn’t Ross McDonald made famous by the lucky of NYT and LA Times editors and reviewers meeting and deciding to review his new book on the same Sunday on their front pages? He might have made it anyway, but that was a coup de foudre.


  3. Mary, I think this is true. We work hard for a long time to get to a professional level in our writing, and it takes longer than we imagined when we began. But then it takes something — luck, divine intervention, fate — to really ring the bell at the very top of the money charts. Then there’s Emily Dickinson and such, who hit the jackpot after they’ve exited stage right.


  4. And Theresa, sometimes luck and money don’t come from book sales. I have another one for you, Cynthia: The Michigan State University Special Archives bought my current and future literary papers, in effect giving me an annuity paid out over ten years. I know authors who couldn’t *give* their papers away.


  5. Lev, what awesome stories. A tour across Germany. Nice.

    Theresa, so true. Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, Charles Dickens – I don’t think any of them hit the “big time” until they died.

    A coworker today told me that her daughter is determined to be published by 18. She’s 13 now, “so she figures she’s got plenty of time.” She asked if I had any advice and I said, “keep writing, keep learning, keep working – and keep your fingers crossed.” Especially that last part huh?


  6. Mary, when I read about your coworker’s daughter asking for advice, I immediately thought, tell her to fit ten years in between 13 and 18!

    Luck is a funny concept for a lot of reasons. If you work hard and achieve something, and people credit your achievements to luck, it undermines the work. But we’ve all seen people who appear to make less of an effort and get more. What is that about?

    All my life I’ve hung my hat on the concept of hard work, but I’m starting to acknowledge that it takes more than hard work. Something extra. Maybe it’s luck. (Which is why I don’t play the lottery…I want my luck to be available for something really important!)


    1. I think we need loving friends, spouses, whoever, to help us see our careers plain. There are many things we won’t accomplish, just as there are things we will that we never expected to. Each career has its own peculiar arc, but unfortunately we live in a culture that measure success in just one way: money.


  7. I like how you guys are looking at more than one side of a concept–it’s intriguing & fun to read. I agree that “luck” can have a hard underside: I sometimes want to write “good luck on your job search” at the end of an email, but that sounds flippant, doesn’t it, and doesn’t acknowledge the quality of the applicant and how surely they’ll have no trouble finding work. the Harvard study is interesting. Have you seen this video–you probably have–sort of shows the tipping point: Thanks for the stimulating reading!


  8. Diane, I thought exactly the same thin”g, but didn’t exactly say it. And yes, I understand the whole “luck undermines hard work” thing – but clearly luck does play a role. Perhaps “luck” is that happy convergence of hard work and the right opportunity?

    Josie, I hear you. But what I (and I suspect you) really mean is “I’m wishing you the best in your job search.” Because I certainly can’t DO anything – but I can think positive thoughts, you know? But “good luck” is just such a convenient phrase. 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s