making luck

What is luck? There could be a spectrum for luck. Big bad luck (terminal disease), small bad luck (tripping over and looking silly), big good luck (winning the lottery), small good luck (finding a pound coin), and everything in between.

Put in those terms, you might think perhaps there is a spectrum, different chunks of luck which you may or may not be afforded. But still, it is possible to consider luck singularly, as a one entity or phenomenon.  In which case you might claim it’s impossible to attribute causal reason to luck and happenstance. It is ungovernable and purely random.

But there is a common, lazily trotted out motivational phrase which deeply irritates me. “You make your own luck,” people say. People who say this usually appear comfortably off, moderately successful, possibly smug. At times it appears self congratulatory, as if they might have been served a good helping of luck at one time or another, whether by their birth into wealth or a fortunate career turn, and they wish to acknowledge that luck while also communicating that they are deserving of the luck because they worked hard. At times it whispers faintly of guilt.


I most recently heard the view espoused by a well groomed middle-aged white man of affluent appearance to a sports’ hall of hundreds of people: young people and their parents. To exemplify resilience and achievement against adversity he also used a recent Premier League football match in which one side apparently overcame a 2-0 deficit to win 3-2. I don’t really know anything about the chap (‘chap’ feels appropriate) but I found it all nauseatingly trite, almost social class propaganda.

A patronising implication of “you make your own luck” is that if you buckle down and work hard at something, conform to the system, you will be successful. It will happen.

But if you work hard at anything, surely the aim is that you will ultimately earn rewards. You will improve or develop and good things may come as a result. Is that luck or basic cause and effect?

Sure, if you go around scouring city centre pavements, you’ll have a better chance of finding some pound coins. (Although would it be ‘lucky’ if you did?) If you religiously enter the lottery every week, you’ll have a better chance of winning.

You might always get a break (perhaps a medium chunk of positive fortune), but this is not really the same as luck: wild, random fluke. Not if there is a direct relationship between solid effort, industry and progress of any kind. You can create and inhabit the conditions in which a positive turn of events can favour you. Not really the same as luck, is it?

It’s misleading to say there is a simple direct correlation between working hard and success. Although a degree of positive fortune is often needed to grease the wheels of achievement, and perhaps young people always need the reinforcement that there is virtue in working hard, in being disciplined. I don’t know.

Modest people occasionally attribute their success to luck. “Me? No, I was just lucky” they might say. “Right place, right time.” But again, their ability and work until or indeed beyond that point is likely to have a strong bearing on sustained success. They inhabited the conditions in which they might ultimately prosper. It was not plain, out of nowhere, here-have-a-million-quid luck.

Luck is often discussed in total isolation from big bad luck because it is a whole different kettle of fish. If your plane falls out of the sky or your baby contracts an obscure terminal disease, that big bad luck is exempt from anything we have done. It has no relationship with our actions, with fate or destiny. In the aftermath of a devastating accident and multiple fatalities, nobody claims, “pah.. well, you make your own luck”. Or “everything happens for a reason”. But it is still luck, fortune, chance.

Should bad luck be divorced from good luck? And if you can’t create bad luck, can you really create good luck? Surely luck is just luck: bald, featureless, arbitrary, ungovernable. To suggest otherwise, to suggest it can be created by working hard, that is self-serving nonsense.