Meri Paterson

The ideas business and other interests

Geisha playing violin

Stop describing career wins as ‘luck’

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Tell me if you recognise this. You go to a talk or seminar about some topic to do with succeeding in your career or getting a job. There are panelists, each more distinguished than the last and clearly chosen because their careers are somehow exemplary. Excellent, you think, these people will definitely be able to tell me how it’s done.

And then they all proceed to tell you how lucky they got, and how they owe it all to fortunate circumstances. They may have a speck of talent but mostly it was that they were in the right place at the right time. Time well spent?

Geisha playing violin

I was fortunate enough to have this violin fall into my hands.

I often think not. It’s pointless advice, because it’s impossible to try and imitate luck. I also think that it’s hardly ever true. So if you are someone who gets invited to these things to talk about your career, or perhaps someone who someday hopes to have a career to be proud of, then let me make some requests about how you could talk about it to others.

Give yourself credit

I have been to enough career talks to have heard the ‘luck’ narrative a fair few times. I even started thinking of various points of my own career as luck. When I was doing my  year abroad at Aberystwyth University in deepest, darkest Wales, an email came through my home university’s careers mailing list. It advertised a 9-month internship at a publishing house in London. It sounded so dreamy – publishing, long internship doing something interesting, chance to stay in this weird and wonderful country for a bit longer, chance to live in London.

Long after I had got the internship, I heard that many of the other applicants hadn’t even sent a covering letter, or couldn’t speak English very well. Of course, in my head, I had been imagining thousands of bright young things applying for it, so it had felt incredible that they should have picked me. It had been easy to think I had got really lucky. But I don’t say that any more. I actually got a number of things right, from being subscribed to the career emails to getting advice about applications from Aber Uni’s career centre to practising questions and answers beforehand. My competition may not have been that tough, but I was the best candidate, thanks very much.

Even jobs and promotions that may seem like a result of being in the right place at the right time are usually just the cherry on top of a long line of good choices – by you! You had the presence of mind, the courage, the good sense, the ambition and the determination to position yourself there. It may help to think about what would, actually, be luck. If an HR person decided to recruit by picking names out of a hat. If you had the same name as someone up for promotion, and they accidentally gave it to you. If your boss forgot that you had just had a raise and gave you another one. Unless your career is a collection of moments like these, give yourself credit where it’s due!

Don’t worry about being seen as conceited

Describing every win as ‘luck’ is a form of externalising your achievements, saying that they happened in spite of the way you are. The other extreme – implying that you got there because of the way you are – is the flipside of the same coin. Starting to accredit the wins to personal qualities rather than your output is where you can go wrong, I think, from an audience member’s perspective. It’s equally bad advice to tell people that they just need to have the social skills you do, or your head for numbers. These can both still be useful points if framed differently (‘it helps to attend networking events’ or ‘you can take free maths courses online’), but the easiest way to sound conceited is to imply you haven’t done any work, you were just born with it.

Don’t worry so much about how you will come across – if you’re giving practical advice that can be followed by anyone, your listeners will be grateful for the tips. If you’ve ever heard a speaker talk about their career in this way, you’ll know how motivating it can be. I can’t remember ever thinking a bad thought about someone who showed me an example of what to do, rather than making me feel that the best I can do is somehow become ‘fortunate enough’. Stories of skill inspire, stories of luck just make you despair.

I will leave you with this quote from the film Rounders:

Why do you think the same five guys make it to the final table at the World Series of Poker every single year? What are they, the luckiest guys in Las Vegas? It’s a skill game.

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