“I’d rather be lucky than good,” is a phrase that I’ve heard before. What it really means is that I’d rather benefit from chance than succeed through skill. In this post I’ll cover the differences between luck and skill, the similarities between luck and skill, and how you can use luck and skill as a student affairs professional.
Luck vs. Skill
People usually see luck and skill on opposite ends of the spectrum. Webster’s Dictionary defines luck as “a force that brings good fortune or adversity.” It defines skill as “the ability to use one’s knowledge effectively to execute a task.” While these definitions (and many people) look at luck and skill as two completely different things, they actually have a lot more in common than one may think.
There are usually three different things that people associate with the cosmic force known as luck:
1. Luck happens to a single person or a group
2. It can be good or bad
3. It plays a role when we believe that something else has happened
Scientifically, we can view luck as a study of risk: risk to take the next step with a project, reach out to a colleague, or walk past someone on campus. We may have heard of “high risk” activities and how to avoid them. But these activities simply increase the probability that something out of our control will happen.
Staying at home and not taking any risks minimizes the opportunity that something may happen to you. You probably won’t get food poisoning sitting at home watching Netflix, but you also won’t experience that new Thai restaurant.
What Makes Up Luck?
Think about luck as existing in two areas: timelines and groups.
The longer the timeline, the more opportunities you have to be affected by chance. Specifically, we can look at this as a timeline of professionals. Someone who has been working for 30 years has had many more opportunities to be affected by luck than the intern that started Monday.
Likewise, larger groups or sample sizes affect how we interpret luck. If I were to ask an individual person how she got where she was today, I would get a unique answer. But if I ask 1,000 or 10,000 people the same question, I would see trends and commonalities between answers. Larger sample sizes lead to less variability amongst responses.
But when does skill make a difference? Sometimes, it’s based on when you make a move. This was best represented when Google bought a little known company called Applied Semantics in 2003. It grew to be one of the company’s biggest revenue generators and became Google AdSense. Now, it’s responsible for 99% of the company’s revenues.
One can say the same about student affairs work. Sometimes, a new position will pop up in the perfect location and perfect field. But how did you discover that position? Did you find it online? Or did you hear about it through friends gained by carefully cultivating your professional network?
This is when luck and skill collide. Jean-Paul Sartre and Sigmund Freud indicated that belief in luck had more to do with a development of a “locus of control.” That control represents the extent a person can control events around them. The result? Don’t always attribute to luck what can be explained through your own skill, knowledge, and action.
Know that skill plays a part in influencing where your career goes. Just look at the pool of student affairs professionals that enter the field each year. There are many entry level residence life positions out there, less for directors, even fewer deans, and just a handful of vice president positions. This means that as you move up, the difference in your skills and experience compared to your competitors must also increase. You most likely have the same level of experience and education. Therefore, you need to stay competitive by always learning, challenging yourself, and most importantly growing your network.
This means you need to turn luck to your side by maximizing your chance opportunities. If you have the option to experience something that will develop your network or challenge you, take it! Naturally expect good fortune by entering an experience with a positive attitude. This puts you at an advantage for turning that situation into an opportunity. Finally, turn bad luck into good luck. If something doesn’t go your way, treat it as a learning opportunity that will inform your decisions down the road.
In this post, we covered the difference in luck and skill and how the two can be similar to one another. When someone thinks about luck, he has probably simply put himself in a position where he was more open to chance opportunities–whatever those may be. Remember: luck and skill are often two sides of the same coin.
Depend on the rabbit’s foot if you have to. Just realize that it didn’t work for the rabbit!