Are Successful People Just Really Lucky?

Career coach and blogger Marty Nemko has been writing about career myths, such as "Do what you love," "Everyone should network," "Job seekers must sell themselves," "and "Getting a degree is usually worth the time and money." This final post in he series examines the idea that "you make your own luck."

The conventional wisdom is that working hard leads to "good luck," which leads to success. You've heard the exhortations:

"Luck comes to the well-prepared."

"Luck is where preparation meets opportunity."

Those are odes to working hard. Alas, I'm no longer so sure that hard work is as often the magic pill as those aphorisms imply.

Of course, many people do succeed because of hard work, but I've also seen many succeed without hard work: They had the good luck to be born smart and/or winsome, or were in the right place at the right time. A dishwasher happened to be on duty when the sink clogged. He was able to fix it and had the good luck that a boss happened to be there to watch him and the luck that the boss was about to open another branch of his restaurant, and asked him to help manage it. Luck!

Yet I've seen other people work their guts out and are grateful to get a part-time $10-an-hour job so they can afford to eat and, yes, maybe, buy drugs or alcohol to dull their pain.

Perhaps the most important luck is being born to the right parents. Your odds of success are so improved if you're born to two loving, competent parents living in a success-oriented community. Alas, many people have the bad luck to have been born unintelligent, too laid-back or unattractive, or into a home and community that didn't nurture whatever gifts they were born with. Or they never ended up at the right place at the right time but rather met some people that were bad influences. So, consciously or unconsciously, such people realize that even if they work hard they're unlikely to reap much success. So is it fair to write such people off as "lazy?"

Might we all want to replace blanket, judgmental beliefs such as "You make your own luck" with: Yes, work hard, it boosts your odds of success, but be a bit more charitable, not just in dollars but in spirit toward the people we might dismiss as irresponsible.

And if we're even moderately successful, mightn't we be wiser to replace our condescension with gratitude? As described above, much of our success is relatively preordained.

And if you are not yet as successful as you'd like?
1. Work hard but also try to surround yourself with people most likely to bring out the best in you.
2. Develop a personal improvement plan that builds on your strengths rather than remediating your weaknesses.
3. Focus on your weaknesses just enough that they don't unduly hurt you. If you don't get along well with people, you may never be the networking queen, but you can learn how to avoid annoying people -- for example, remembering that you pay a price each time you disagree or criticize someone.

For more ideas on how to become more successful, check out some of the career advice articles on this site. Here are four of my faves written by other AOL writers, plus one of my own:

6 Job Skills You'll Need
10 Worst Work Habits
Career Resolutions Everyone Should Make
11 Career Resolutions Worth Keeping
Top 12 Commencement Speeches of All Time

The San Francisco Bay Guardian called Nemko "The Bay Area's Best Career Coach" and he was contributing editor for careers at U.S. News where he now also writes. His latest books are How to Do Life: What They Didn't Teach You in School and What's the Big Idea? 39 Disruptive Proposals for a Better America. More than 1,000 of his published writings are free on He posts here weekly.
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