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Here’s Why Luck Will Ruin Your Pursuit of a Great Career

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I wear many hats, but that of fortune-teller is not one of them. I do not know your future, just as you don’t know your future. Even if you generated many career alternatives and evaluated them with carefully considered information, you still couldn’t know for sure what the future holds for you.

No Fears, No Excuses.Smith Book cover image courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

There is a little thing called probability. Not knowing the future is a matter of degree. For instance, it is far more probable that you will have a great career if you love your work. Your decisions have a higher probability of success if you consider more — rather than fewer — alternatives. Decisions are more likely to be wise if you are using quality information.

There is no certainty, of course, but there is greater probability. But people like to think about certainty, and without certainty, it’s more comfortable for them to wing it than to pursue the murky world of probability. That may be more comfortable, but it is highly illogical. And that is the choice ahead of you: do you trust logic . . . or luck?

The Universal Excuse: Luck

Fortunately, we have a universal excuse around which we can all rally: Luck. Luck is the great leveler. Who has not seen bad luck in their own failures and good luck in the successes of others? By perverse contrast, we know our achievements are the result of effort and talent, while those of others are just dumb luck.

Our reliance on luck is everywhere. Lotteries thrive. Investors and their advisors treat the stock markets like great casinos, playing secret strategies that rival those at the roulette tables. Jobseekers send out hundreds of résumés randomly, hoping that one of them will be a perfect fit.

Luck has even invaded our language. We continue to wish each other good luck for every possible occasion, from exams to job interviews to investments. Perhaps you might conclude that this incessant wishing of good luck is no more than a social convention. But conventions reflect a widespread societal belief.

Consider the parallel to romance. There are those singles ready for a relationship or even marriage, but spend much of their time hoping for it and envying the “luck” of their coupled friends. When friends suggest they go to an online dating site, they laugh. “That’s just not how love is done,” they say, and then they wax on about how romances used to happen. They go about their lives — going to work, going home — waiting for lightning or luck to strike. How utterly disempowering!

Compare this portrait to the woman who wants great love and knows it. She also knows she mustn’t wait for it to come to her. So she puts herself in as many situations as possible that increase her probability of meeting someone she likes. If she is turned off by motorcycles but loves the outdoors, she is likely to join a hiking group rather than spend her time in dive bars. She’s thoughtful about it, and she’s proactive about it. And she’s the one who is likely to pursue a job she loves, by the way. She’s aware of the times she lives in, she doesn’t just hope for a great job to come to her; she recognizes that it’s up to her to find it. And the odds of her having a life that makes her happy are much, much greater than are the odds of her cohort.

The Tyranny of Time

Of all the excuses I hear, the constraint of time is closest to a true reason. When I am told that someone doesn’t have the time to consider alternatives or gather information, it is often true that, at that moment, they don’t actually have the time. Of course, they had time in the past, or they will find it in the longer term. This makes the time constraint an immediate reason and an earlier and future excuse. And by the way, we all struggle for time all the time.

And then there’s time as considered through an hourglass. “It’s too late for me,” shrugs the young man. He’s a businessman who hates his job and would much rather be writing screenplays or scripts for television. To get a foothold in that field, he would have had to start as an unpaid intern — something that sounds OK at 22, but not at 33, with a wife who is eager to buy a house and start a family.

Okay, that’s one way to look at the fact that he’s 33. But let’s see . . . he’s been in the workforce for barely 10 years. He will be in the workforce for another 40 years. Perhaps he can’t financially commit to working for free, but that doesn’t mean he needs to give up and spend more years than he has so far been alive being miserable for the majority of the hours of his day. It just means he needs to follow his passion more creatively. Instead of becoming a screenwriter who follows the path others have taken, perhaps he should try in an original way that still meets his family’s situation. Too late? Please!

Consider Harland Sanders. In 1955, he was 65 years old and the proprietor of a successful restaurant in Corbin, Kentucky. Then an interstate highway came along that diverted traffic — and his customers — away. Just like that, he lost his livelihood. But he still had one killer secret recipe for fried chicken, and he went practically door-to-door peddling it. And so began Kentucky Fried Chicken. Colonel Sanders enjoyed nearly 30 years of success as its originator before he died.

Sometimes the most effective inspiration comes from those who are older and not afraid to call an excuse out for what it is.

Heather E. was 62 when she wrote me that she had decided to revisit her doctoral dissertation after a hiatus of two years. “I have certainly been through all the ‘but’ stages and the ‘if only’ stages — I am so ready not to look at what stops me and only to go ahead and have a great career — of course, I am 62, so it may be shorter than others’, but perhaps no less important.” No less important, indeed.

Our Culture of Excuses

It is bad enough that our human nature tempts us into excuses, but we now live in a society where excuses are close to the norm. The evasion of all responsibility is commonplace. Politicians read the polls to discover what policy to support. If it fails, it’s not their responsibility — they were just following the public’s guidance. If they can’t get a law passed, it’s their opponents’ fault. The public fails to vote, using the excuse that their votes don’t matter. The political process barely functions, but somebody else is always to blame or there is no one to blame.

Executives take bonuses while their companies crash. But who can blame them, because the market “turned against them” or a new technology “appeared out of nowhere.” But whose job was it to foresee changes in the marketplace or in technology? And who gets fired, besides low-level employees?

We live in the Age of Victimization. We are all victims now–so many victims now, it’s hard to find the oppressors. And so this gluttony of excuses is not surprising. In today’s stressful and highly challenging world, success in every aspect of life is hard-won. The competitive pressures of the global economy add uncertainty to our employment and sense of security. Investment returns are not assured. Technology can make an entire industry obsolete in the span of a few years. The pace of social change is so rapid as to be destabilizing. It is easy to see defeat at every turn. Thus, it is equally easy to see the lure of the excuse.

If many of us see success as uncertain, then a culture of excuses is appealing. It is like a magical get-out-of-jail-free card. If you enable others to make excuses, you enable yourself as well. So better not criticize your colleagues too aggressively, and they will surely offer the same accommodation to you. We can all be inadequate together, comfortable that we are all alike.

Sometimes the obstacle standing in your way is you. No excuses–just you. Now get out of your own way, and get to work:

  • What excuses do you routinely rely on? Or do you claim you have never used an excuse?
  • What role does the notion of luck play in your thinking about career?
  • What personal characteristics most stand in your way, and how do you intend to overcome them?

Excerpted from No Fears, No Excuses: What You Need to Do to Have a Great Career by Larry Smith. Copyright © 2016 Larry Smith. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.