What role does Luck play?

I had a wonderful professor in University, Denis Shackle, who facilitated a classroom survey on our belief in luck, destiny, and fate. You had to respond to questions like “I am able to influence the outcomes in my life” and “Fate plays a large role in whether I will be successful or not”. The higher your score, the more likely you were to attribute events and outcomes to fate, chance, luck, etc. Dr. Shackle used the survey to convey a message and a warning: Your mindset plays a major role in your ability to influence the outcomes in your life. And a low score is great, but a score of 1 might indicate an unconstrained ego.

The average class score was ~20 and I scored ~5. I have always been a strong believer in an individual’s ability to significantly influence their life, almost to an extreme degree. I generally subscribe to his philosophy and line of thinking; if you have the mindset that your life will be dictated by luck and out-of-your-control chance, you’re less likely to take ownership for your actions. Conversely, if you believe in your ability to act and influence your life, you’re more likely to feel empowered to do so.

Luck is defined as: success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one’s own actions. Yet, you hear people attribute outcomes to luck all the time. “I was lucky enough to get into the PhD program!”. Never mind the years of schooling, intense study efforts, and preparation required. “I’m so lucky I have a good boss. She finally gave me the promotion I’ve been hoping for!”. Forget the many projects you delivered with exceptionally high-quality, the times you went above and beyond for your clients, and the tremendous impact you had on the company.

So does that mean the outcomes in people’s lives can entirely be explained by their actions alone? Not quite. There are tragic examples of bad luck, such as being diagnosed with a certain illness or cancer. And importantly, there is one hugely influential aspect of your life that I believe fits squarely in the definition of luck: your genetic makeup and the family you’re born into. You don’t get to pick your parents and your upbringing is entirely out of your control. And, you still have the power to influence your life regardless of how lucky (or not) you are on the family front.