If You’ve Had Success, You’ve Also Had Luck

One of my least favorite qualities in many of the “successful” individuals I meet (those who’ve achieved wealth, notoriety or a combination) is their insistence that they’ve “made their own luck.” That’s why I loved Michael Lewis’ commencement speech from Princeton this year:

This isn’t just false humility. It’s false humility with a point. My case illustrates how success is always rationalized. People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck — especially successful people. As they age, and succeed, people feel their success was somehow inevitable. They don’t want to acknowledge the role played by accident in their lives. There is a reason for this: the world does not want to acknowledge it either.

If you have success in life – in whatever pursuits you endeavor, I hope that you’ll read Michael’s speech and consider it carefully before ascribing your accomplishments solely to yourself.

The opportunities and advantages we’re given may not be wholly responsible for the outcomes. It’s certainly true that those same advantages were likely presented to others who didn’t put in the work, have the intelligence, apply the creativity or find the path that we found. But, to neglect to give credit where it’s due is to tell yourself a lie so dangerous, it can negatively impact entire ecosystems of opportunity. Here’s Michael again later in his talk:

Life’s outcomes, while not entirely random, have a huge amount of luck baked into them. Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck — and with  luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your Gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.

I make this point because — along with this speech — it is something that will be easy for you to forget.

That debt of giving back to those less fortunate cannot be absolved by telling yourself that “luck had nothing to do with it.” That belief, at least from my perspective, is a huge part of why things in the world are less positive than they could be. Those of who are lucky, and I certainly consider myself among that group, have a massive, overriding obligation to spread the luck around and never to place false credit on ourselves. In fact, I’d go further and say that if we should give the benefit of the doubt to luck when sourcing our successes. If we do, and if we accept the obligation that comes with it, we’ll make a far better world (for ourselves, and others).