The Role of Luck In Author Success

This post might be a little hard to swallow for some. I know when I read up on this subject it opened my eyes to a lot of things I hadn’t thought about before.

Very recently, I stumbled upon an online discussion where the participants were talking about the role that luck plays in success. Quickly, someone pointed out a logical fallacy called Survivorship Bias. In a nutshell, humans tend to vastly underestimate the role that chance and luck plays in their individual success. We tend to focus on the ones who ‘made it’ and forget about the thousands upon thousands who didn’t. Probably because it’s much more heartening and positive to look at the few survivors instead of the scores who sank below the waves.

This happens, in part, because all our favorite celebrities, authors, and public figures like to tell us that hard work, talent, and dedication can get us to the top. If we just strive and struggle and sacrifice enough, we can be just like them. ANYONE can be President, after all! While I absolutely do believe successful people put a lot of time and effort in, it’s also easy to debunk this myth by looking around us at the people we know. For every bestselling author rolling in money and movie deals, how many authors do you know who have fought just as hard, worked just as diligently, and haven’t even gotten a book deal? Maybe you’re even one of them. How many millions of authors in history gave just as much blood, sweat, and tears to their art and never got anywhere near success?

The problem is, there’s no surefire recipe for making it. You can’t be assured to get to the top, or even to a comfortable place, if you give THIS amount of effort, or have THAT much talent. This is true of any profession, not just writing. For every celebrity chef, there’s hundreds of chefs who work just as hard, toil just as much, and are just as creative but will never have their names known. For every platinum-selling rock band who plays arenas, there are bands who sound just as good and work just as hard who will never get beyond playing their local bars. Why?

Because, most successful people will talk about their hard work and effort (and again, I do believe they give those things), but only rarely mention how some big-time author happened to read their book and give it a recommendation, or it got picked up by a well-known book critic who made the public aware of them, or they just HAPPENED to write about something that was becoming hugely popular around the time their book was released and they rode the lucky wave of zeitgeist. When a celebrity tells you “if you just work a little harder you can be me,” it’s like a lottery winner saying “if you just sell your house and use the money to buy Powerball tickets, you can be like me.” What about all the lottery winners who won because they only bought one ticket? And what if you sell your house and none of those tickets win?

This all sounds very depressing, doesn’t it? The thing about luck is that it can strike anyone, but the odds of it striking you are small. However, there is a positive side, at least the way I look at it.

Hard work, knowledge, dedication, and talent DO matter, even with the wild card of luck thrown in there. Why? Because those things shrink the betting pool and give you better odds. Those things get you into networks you didn’t have available before, they give you access to people and places you wouldn’t have otherwise, and they increase your chances of running into just the right person or situation at just the right moment that will catapult you into success. Your lucky break is out there somewhere, and work, know-how, and honing your talent will put you closer to its vicinity. The reason humans hate the idea of outcomes hanging on luck is because it’s not something we can control and we hate to feel like we’re out of control. But, you can control how close you get to luck, at least. Will someone out there blindly stumble into luck without putting in any hard work first? Of course they will, and it’s going to make you furious and frustrated. But hey, it could be you someday, too. That’s the hope in luck, at least. And that’s what people really mean when they say “make your own luck.” It actually means work hard and try to throw yourself in luck’s way.

I hope you get lucky. Or at least, you work hard enough to have a brush with luck. Here’s some (un)inspiring words from Bo Burnham to get you through. (And yes, I did steal my lottery analogy from him–sorry, Bo! Just trying to get lucky!)

13 comments

  1. Being in the right place at the right time has never hurt! But none of it even stands a chance without the hard work. If you’re doing what you love, then you’re probably not going to stop simply because you’re not famous—but it sure would be nice to shoot your way to the top as the reward for the work, wouldn’t it?

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  2. I absolutely agree, Megan.
    I do think we don’t have much chances at success without a bit of luck, and I do think, like you do, that hard work, if it does not produce luck, it can put us in it visinity.

    And there’s something else: if we are prepared and proficient, if luck stikes (which we cannot contro) we’ll be able to profit from it (we can sur econtrol). If we are preapred and proficint, we’ll be able to deliver when luck present us the right occasion. If we are not, we may be very lucky and have our time in the spotlight, but once that time it’s over, it’s over, we won’t have anything to give after that.

    That’s why I think that being a competent writer and having good stories to offerdon’t really make a difference when you are submitting your work. That’s when you need a lot of luck. But if you land that deal, being a competent wtirer and having good stories to tell will make all the difference.

    It’s a gamble, but I do belive there is truth in the adage: “The more I practice, the luckier I get” 😉

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    1. You’re absolutely right. We’ve seen it happen a lot in the public eye–someone skips to the head of the line thanks to luck, but they don’t have the skills or knowledge to handle the situation and quickly sink. Being prepared is a good way to deal with luck’s fortunes, and misfortunes!

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    1. Some people get that magical stroke of luck that strikes you without warning, without having put in any work or effort. That DOES happen, but the odds of it happening are even smaller than luck finding you when you really do try.

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  3. Not sure I believe a whole lot “in” luck alone, its like one those mythological rare things, maybe some. I hope the karma of your hard work and generous personality bring you much success always.

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  4. I’m aware that luck plays a huge part in life. It’s safe to say my unlucky times outnumber the lucky times, but that won’t stop me. My mom has a favorite saying “Life’s a bitch and then you die.” Totally Debbie Downer, but it honestly taught me to not give up just because something isn’t going my way.

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    1. I’ve heard that before! I tend to think it’s more positive than it sounds. It means life is unfair–for everyone–so it’s not singling us out for bad luck. We’re all in the same muck together, we just have to work on getting out.

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  5. Very timely post for me. I’ve been thinking about luck lately and the role it plays in our lives. I definitely believe that you have to work hard, prepare etc. but that luck does play a role in one’s success. I ran across a quote from FDR the other day that I thought was interesting – “I think we consider too much the good luck of the early bird and not enough the bad luck of the early worm.”

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    1. Good quote! It’s so easy to focus on the ones who triumph and forget there’s so many people they triumphed OVER. Being in the right place at the right time–with the right product–is severely underestimated.

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