We Are Lucky

A broad issue that's arisen as an offshoot of the whole Jill Abramson-getting-fired discussion: Do successful people (in the media and elsewhere) get there mainly by luck, or by skill/ virtue/ drive/ other endearing quality? It is luck, of course. Never forget that it is mostly luck.

This conversation has arisen on the back of questions about the unequal treatment of women in the workplace, which may account for some of the strange overtones it's taken on. By "strange overtones," I mean the fact that it has resulted in white Americans with desirable jobs arguing that luck is not a driving factor in their success. In The Daily Beast today, Keli Goff gently points out the absurdity of this position, referencing the following portion of Rachel Sklar's recent essay on Jill Abramson's firing:

I had a meeting with Jill two years ago, in her office. She asked me about my career trajectory, and how I had transitioned from law to journalism to tech, across industries. I said I knew how to create good content, I can spot talent, and I work hard.

She said, "I'm so glad you didn't say you were lucky."

Your power does not come from luck. Your power comes from you, and what you invest in it every day, in the work and the sweat and the giving a damn. That is what you carry around with you, even as you walk out of your fancy top job for the last time. That is what you carry into the next thing, and there will be a next thing, because you are good and because that's what you do. That is your capital.

Are women discriminated against and treated unequally in the workplace and in society at large? Yes. This is not a discussion about that. This is a discussion of a much broader question that impacts men and women alike: Does your success in life come from luck, or because you are good?

Since everyone (including me) yakking on this point is employed in the media, let's take people like us, employed in the media, as an example. Like many other fields, jobs in the media are very desirable. There are many more candidates for each decent job than there are decent jobs. More specifically, there are more qualified candidates who could do the job than there are decent jobs. I will cite my own long experience as someone employed in the media as evidence for this. I know a bunch of people who are perfectly capable journalists who—now or at times in the past—have had an extremely hard time finding steady work. Why? Because there are fewer jobs than there are qualified candidates, and some qualified candidates will therefore be left out in the cold. It's simple math.

Furthermore, I can also testify to the fact that quite a significant percentage of people employed in the media are not the very finest candidate available for the jobs that they hold. Many morons hold very important and high profile jobs! And, in a more mundane sense, many mediocre people hold jobs that lots of other, more talented people would like to hold. And even many good and qualified people are not the single best and most qualified person in America for the jobs they hold.

There's male privilege, and there's white privilege, and there's economic privilege, and there's lucky-enough-to-be-born-in-America privilege. Those are all real. This is something even more basic: luck privilege. Even if we graciously allow that talent and ability is what gets you in the door (and even that is not always true in the real world), it is still luck that gets you, at last, into the seat that you occupy. Luck of birth, luck of genetic smarts, luck of social connections, luck of being in the right place at the right time and asking the right person for the right job. If you are a person who makes a reasonable living doing something that you enjoy in a competitive field, you are lucky. It is not just that luck plays a role in getting us to where we are—it is mostly luck. That is true for me, and for Keli Goff, and for Rachel Sklar, and for Jill Abramson, and for all of our colleagues lucky enough to be employed in jobs that we enjoy in places that many other people who are just as good as or better than us would like to work.

"You didn't build that," and all that stuff.

It is not that all of the lucky people with desirable jobs do not deserve their jobs. It is simply an acknowledgment that meritocracy is at best far from complete, and, more realistically, is largely a joke when it comes to the confluence of factors necessary to land a desirable job. There is some merit, yes. And there is much more luck. Some of us are luckier than others, yes. But all of us are lucky. That luck can run out! But for now, we are lucky. To deny that is to spit in the face of those just as good as us, who were not as lucky as we were.

[Photo: Flickr]