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?