Do you feel lucky, punk?

Luck is interesting. It’s a relevant issue in academia, where the desired elements (a job, book contract, tenure, etc) are in much shorter supply than those vying for them. It’s naturally hard for anyone who has succeeded, in an environment that so prizes the ideal of meritocracy (blind peer review! diversity in hiring!), to admit that they may have been a beneficiary of fortune, rather than simply reaping the deserved rewards of their own hard work. Of course, there are also those convinced that they just got lucky, have no merit, and will be revealed as frauds any day now. Notorious, PhD posted recently on an aspect of this “impostor syndrome” (which also seems gendered – more women are afflicted).

But luck itself: the definition often given is that luck is when preparation meets opportunity. This I do believe. But it can also be that opportunity does not arise...

I read about a study a while ago on lucky and unlucky people. Unlucky people (or rather, those that perceived themselves in that way) tended to be more habit bound, and resistant to change. The lucky group tended to be more optimistic, and see change as an opportunity. As well as demonstrating a lemons/lemonade attitude, I did wonder how much experience had shaped their outlooks. Whether you see new circumstances as a good or bad thing probably depends a lot on what has happened to you before.

Nonetheless, I often hear the phrase “you make your own luck”. While I don’t doubt the value of positive thinking (and specifically looking for ways to turn any unexpected circumstances to advantage), it seems to bleed to easily into self-satisfied smugness on the part of those who’ve done well, and an implied critique of those who have not (“If only you’d been more positive-thinking, that tornado wouldn’t have landed on your house”).

So, to academia, which is indeed a lottery at so many stages. That’s not to say that those who reach the top are not excellent at what they do, just that many with as much talent fell by the wayside. Comrade Physio Prof put it typically bluntly here. Meanwhile, Justin Bengry wrote today about feeling lucky after getting a postdoc  – and I know exactly how he feels! I vividly recall being finally offered a job, and being unable to stop smiling for days. I wouldn’t have appreciated it so much if I hadn’t gone through the (typical) job market horror, of the avalanche of rejection letters which would bruise even the strongest ego (and drove me to break down in tears a few times). But I got that job, and another – and I do feel incredibly lucky to have my current position. I am trying to work hard, and feel worthy of it.