Is It Luck?

Last week I wrote about strengths, and proposed both traditional and original formulations of the concept that is so central to our identities and careers. In the process, I alluded to the fact that luck may have a role to play in how we define our strengths.

But what is luck, really? Have you ever given it more than a passing thought?

It’s a question I’m quite accustomed to contemplating. I do a lot of workshop facilitation, and one of the core workshop series we run is titled, “Is It Luck?” It’s a career exploration workshop based on a lot of the principles I’ve written about here in the past, the Chaos Theory of Careers being first and foremost among them.

Another very influential contemporary career development theory discussed in these workshops is John Krumboltz’s Happenstance Theory.

The simplest message of the Happenstance Theory is that unexpected and unplanned events have a significant impact on our career choices and development. Anecdotally, this makes perfect sense—all you have to do is ask a few people who are in mid-career whether anything unplanned impacted their career to date (nine times out of 10, the answer will be yes). Fortunately, the Happenstance Theory also has a solid base of empirical evidence to rest on as well; depending on the study, you will see that anywhere from 60% to 100% of research participants state that unplanned events significantly affected their career development.

Is this what we mean by luck? If the outcome of the unplanned event was positive, we might be inclined to say so. But this is not always—or even often—the case, at least at first. Unexpected turns of events are probably more often seen as unwelcome or unpleasant. Krumboltz’s theory, however, is all about acknowledging these events as significant in a career context, and then getting maximum exposure to such unplanned events.

Maximum exposure to events that could be considered unwelcome or unpleasant? Probably doesn’t sound too appealing.

If we think about it, though, we can start to make sense of why this is a good idea. First of all, while it’s common to see a negative, unplanned event as undesirable at first, often the passage of time reveals positives that weren’t obvious at first glance. This is very much captured in the many “mistakes as learning opportunities/failures as successes” speeches you tend to hear around convocation time (a great one is Conan O’Brien at Dartmouth, 2011). While something not going to plan can sting at first, that same situation may open you up to new possibilities you hadn’t considered before.

Second, what if the unplanned experience is a positive one? We call it luck, right? But the only difference is in the value judgment that we make about the event: good, bad or somewhere in between. I suppose you could make the argument that a bad, unexpected event is “bad luck,” and a good event is “good luck,” but that’s just skirting the issue. Let me ask you this: the last time you experienced a positive, unplanned event, did you attribute it to external circumstance, or was it a result of your own actions? What about the last negative, unplanned event you experienced: was it due to environmental factors outside your control, or to some personal quality or action you took?

Psychologists call the distinction between these kinds of attribution the “locus of control.” If you have an internal locus of control, you’re more likely to see positive events as due to your own influence or actions. Those with external loci of control, on the other hand, are more likely to see positive events as due to the whim of circumstance. Take, for example, getting an A on an exam. Someone with an internal locus on control will see that as a result of their hard work. A student with external locus of control will probably see the grade as “good luck” —that they didn’t really deserve it, or that the teacher made the test too easy.

Regardless, Krumboltz says that the more unexpected events in our lives, the better off our careers will be if we can welcome and take advantage of those unplanned opportunities.

So, luck shouldn’t really factor into the discussion, should it? What if we replaced the word “luck” with the phrase “being in the right place at the right time”?

To me, that’s a more constructive way of looking at the issue. What do you think?

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