“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 we’ll cover the difference between luck and skill; how both are similar; and how you can use it in student affairs practice.
Luck vs. Skill
Luck and skill are usually seen on opposite ends of the spectrum. Webster’s Dictionary defines luck as a force that brings good fortune or adversity. Whereas skill is the ability to use one’s knowledge effectively to execute a task. While many look at both luck and skill as two different things, they often have more in common than you think.
There are usually three different things that people seem to associate with the cosmic force known as luck:
It happens to a single person or a group
It can be good or bad
It plays a role when we believe “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 walking past someone on campus. We may have heard of “high risk” activities and how to avoid them. But these activities are just things that increase the probability that something out of our control will happen.
Staying at home and not taking any risks is like minimizing the opportunities 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?
I think that it’s better to 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 these 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” also affect how we interpret luck. If I were to ask a single 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. The larger the sample size, the less variability I’ll get in responses.
But when does skill make a difference? Sometimes it’s just based on when you make a move. This was best represented when Google bought a little known company called Applied Semantics back in 2003. It grew to one of the company’s biggest revenue generators as it became Google AdSense. Now it’s responsible for 99% of the company’s revenues.
The same can be said about student affairs work. Sometimes a new position will pop up that is in the perfect location in the perfect field. But how did you discover that position? Did you find them online? Or did you hear about it through colleagues 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 also be explained through your own skill, knowledge, and action.
Know that skill plays a part in influencing where your career goes from here. Just look at the pool of student affairs professionals that enter the field every 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. You most likely have the same experience and education. You need to stay competitive by always learning, challenging yourself, and most importantly growing your network.
This means turning 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; then take it! Naturally expect good fortune by entering an experience with a positive attitude. This puts you at the advantage for turning that situation into an opportunity. Finally, turn bad luck into good luck. If something doesn’t go your way, then treat it as a learning opportunity that will inform your decisions down the road.
In this post we covered the difference in luck versus and skill and how the two can be similar to one another. When someone thinks about luck, they really have just put themselves into a position where they were 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 🙂