on luck

In an earlier post about our work life in Canada, I wrote:
People often note that I am "lucky" because my job gives me the time and freedom to pursue my writing career. That irritates me, because it's not a function of luck.

Then I wrote a capsule version of how I got to this place, in terms of my writing career and my day-jobs, which involved huge amounts of hard work, persistence and drive. Then I said:
Of course, we, all of us, are fortunate to achieve what we strive for, and you know I am grateful for good fortune. You can work hard at something and still not achieve it, through no fault of your own. (I ought to know that: I have two unpublished novels.) But I seriously bristle at the implication that I accidentally fell into my life. I didn't. I built it.

Some readers questioned my downplaying of the role of luck, citing luck or the lack of it in their own and others' lives.

That made me think about why the "you're so lucky" comment irritates me so much, and the role of luck in our lives generally.

I can't count how many times I've written on this blog how fortunate I feel, how lucky I consider myself to be, and that has expressed only a fraction of my feelings.

I regard myself as very privileged. I feel extremely fortunate in all the major, important parts of life. Hey, I'm a woman, and I am Jewish. How lucky am I to be born in North America in the latter half of the 20th Century?

I am lucky that my body is in generally good working order (something I wish all women realized that when they beat themselves up over the size of their hips or thighs).

I'm lucky to have grown up with one parent who gave me unconditional love and support. I wasn't so lucky with the other parent, but lots of people never have parental love and support at all. I have family - siblings, sibs-in-laws, nieces, nephews - who love me. I have a life partner and soulmate. That is very lucky, but I will say that our happiness is not a function of luck. Meeting the right person is luck; building and maintaining a relationship takes hard work and commitment.

And I'm lucky to have found meaning in life, through my writing and my activism.

When I think of the sum of all this good fortune, I believe I am, to paraphrase my favourite baseball player, the luckiest person on earth.

In the bad luck I've had - I am a rape survivor, I had an abusive parent and quite a bit of craziness growing up - I was still lucky. I had help and support, and I came through in one piece. I turned the damage into growth. Some of that was luck. Some of it was hard work, and my refusal to yield.

So let's call all this big-picture luck. In the big picture, I've been damned lucky.

The "you're so lucky" comment that I find so irritating attributes things for which I've worked to what I'll call small-picture luck.

Having a three-day-a-week job so I can have more time to write was not luck. If a job was there when I looked for it, that was luck - and I could sure use some of that right now. But arranging my life to be able to write wasn't luck. It was a deliberate choice.

Finding a portable, marketable skill and becoming very good at it - so that if a job existed, I could get it - wasn't luck. Right now, I'm brainstorming for other suitable income-earning ideas, in case I can't find a legal doc-pro job that works for me. I'm not waiting around to get lucky.

If you're hard-working and persistent like I am, then you've known lots of people who are lazy, or mired in inertia, or who quit at the first obstacle, and then blame the world around them for their failure to get what they want. And those are usually the people who pronounce me lucky.

I didn't grow up this way. I was told I was "smart but lazy". All through grade school and into high school, I sailed through, getting top grades without trying. There were plenty of things I couldn't do (sports, advanced math), so I simply didn't do them. (What passed for parental advice in my home was, "You can't be good at everything.") I did what came easy and the rest I let slide.

I didn't discover the motivation to work hard until university. Maybe that's why I value my own hard work and persistence so much: it's an acquired skill. (I just thought of that, right now. The power of blogging.)

Then there's the other side of the coin. You can be hard-working and persistent and come up empty-handed. That's one of the hardest lessons I've learned.

I rearranged my life so I could write, which included incurring parental disapproval and entering into voluntarily poverty. While working as a nanny and a proofreader, I wrote a book, then did everything I could to get it published. Then I wrote another one, and did the same. The first was a "starter novel," I'd have been shocked if it was published. The second deserved to be published. Still does. Yet neither are.

I am persistent to a fault. Giving up is very hard for me. But I had to let go. I had publishers tell me, "15 years ago we would have snapped this up, but it's not in style now..." My agent told me houses that used to publish 30 young-adult titles a year were now publishing 3. The book never got published. I have to think that was bad luck.

[However, had it been published, if someone had said, "You're lucky your book is published," I would have burst a blood vessel. Small-picture luck to finally get that much-needed break, yes. But that break would have been just one step along the path I had paved myself.]

So I kept writing, and eventually my writing was recognized. Someone offered me an opportunity. I took it. I built on that. I tried different kinds of writing, and different venues. And slowly I became a working, published writer.

I needed a break, for sure. But I got the break by writing, by putting my work out there, by persisting. Without my own hard work and persistence, that break never would have found me. It took a lot of work to get to the point where that small-picture luck was relevant.

You can do all the right things and never get the small-picture luck. And apparently you can do nothing right and get lucky anyway. Life is not fair. The world is not a garden of just rewards. The industrious fail and the indolent prosper. That's the annoying truth.

But when you've worked hard and gotten what you worked for, you want to believe your choices and actions had something to do with it. Maybe it's an illusion I cling to. Or maybe the apparent absence of luck is an excuse to do nothing.

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