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On Luck

Posted on 6 August 2014


I am a lucky person. I was born in a safe, stable country during a safe, stable time. I have no major health or genetic issues and come from a supportive, loving family. These are huge contributors to succes that I did absolutely nothing to earn– pure luck.

Recently, though, I’ve realized that attributing any success I’ve ever had to pure luck isn’t entirely helpful. For example, a few aspiring journalists have asked me for any advice I might have on how they, too, can work in the exciting world of broadcast journalism. Telling them “be lucky!” isn’t exactly useful. So I’ve started re-examining the narrative I tell myself about how I got to be where I am today.

The short-hand version that I use to tell people about how I started working at CBC is that I happened to apply for a job at a time when the local bureau was looking for someone to fill in, and I was lucky enough to be given a chance, which was followed by several other circumstances that led to more openings that I was able to fill. And boom, here I am. Lucky.

But let’s analyse that a little more. I’m thinking about luck because I was just re-reading some research on it from pyschologist Richard Wiseman. He’s spent time studying the difference between “lucky” and “unlucky” people and has come to a number of interesting conclusions including the fact that so-called “lucky” people are more likely to look for and find opportunities:

“I gave both lucky and unlucky people a newspaper, and asked them to look through it and tell me how many photographs were inside. On average, the unlucky people took about two minutes to count the photographs, whereas the lucky people took just seconds. Why? Because the second page of the newspaper contained the message: ‘Stop counting. There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.’ This message took up half of the page and was written in type that was more than 2in high. It was staring everyone straight in the face, but the unlucky people tended to miss it and the lucky people tended to spot it.

“For fun, I placed a second large message halfway through the newspaper: ‘Stop counting. Tell the experimenter you have seen this and win £250.’ Again, the unlucky people missed the opportunity because they were still too busy looking for photographs.”

So, spotting opportunities. Now let’s go back to how I started working at CBC and my luck at applying for a job at the exact right time.

I was applying because I had started looking for work several months earlier, while I was in a temporary position. Rather than wait for it to end, I was hunting for a new job four months before I needed one. I updated and honed my resume, I scoured the job market in several cities, I cold-called, I networked, I applied. I sent out dozens of applications and had multiple coffee meetings, and it still only led to two interviews– a success rate of less than 5%. Oh, and I didn’t get either of those jobs. I was unemployed for the next four months.

Eventually I got an interview at CBC… and did not get the job. The rejection continued. But then I got a call saying that I had performed well enough that I was offered some casual work to fill in when other employees were away. And we went from there.

Yes, I applied for the right job and the right time, but not before applying for the wrong job at the wrong time (and the right job at the wrong time- I didn’t get an interview at CBC the first time I applied) far, far more. I was looking for opportunities… and only eventually found one.

And even then, it’s not entirely true to say my luck had begun. I had no training in radio, so I spent spare time teaching myself new skills and finding, listening to and analyzing award-winning radio so that I could have a better sense of where I could go next. When my job was to answer calls and manage the office supplies, I used spare time to learn how to book and write stories. When my job was to book stories, I used time to learn how to do investigative journalism and file for news. I started asking questions about how other jobs work, including the producer role. Eventually, this meant that when the producer was away, I had the skills to fill in. If I had just kept my head down and answered phones, I wouldn’t have gotten to that point. I showed an interest, asked questions, and learned, a process I’m still involved in.

Another part of Wiseman’s research that intrigues me: how lucky and unlucky people view their own lives.

Here’s an unlucky person:

“We had a subject named Carolyn. When she would come to the unit to be interviewed, it would be just this whole string of bad-luck stories: “I can’t find anyone. I’m unlucky in love. When I did find someone, the guy fell off his motorbike. The next blind date broke his nose. We were supposed to get married, and the church burned down.” But to every single interview, she’d bring along her two kids. They were 6 and 7 years old — very healthy, very happy kids who’d sit there and play. And it was interesting, because most people would love to have two kids like that, but that wasn’t part of her world, because she was unlucky in her mind.”

And a lucky one:

“Lucky people tend to see the positive side of their ill fortune. They imagine how things could have been worse. In one interview, a lucky volunteer arrived with his leg in a plaster cast and described how he had fallen down a flight of stairs. I asked him whether he still felt lucky and he cheerfully explained that he felt luckier than before. As he pointed out, he could have broken his neck.”

Again… there are a number of major factors in my life that I absolutely attribute to luck. I did nothing to earn my parents, where I was born, or my genetics. I live in a country where you can be unemployed for months and be taken care of, and my support network helped me. I don’t subscribe to the view that anyone and everyone with problems in their life just needs to work harder and be better to fix them.

But if I attribute everything I have to luck it gets me nowere. I can’t believe that I’m completely subject to the fates and nothing I do can affect where I am.

Even when I was four months unemployed, I don’t remember thinking to myself about how unlucky I was. I just kept looking. And it’s worth mentioning that the first time I applied for a full-time job at CBC (while working there), I didn’t get it. And that a couple years ago I applied for a host position, and didn’t even get the interview. Still didn’t consider myself unlucky, just tried to get better so I would have better “luck” next time.

And eventually, I did.

Image: “clovers” by groovysui

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