To what do you attribute your success — hard work or good fortune?

Every now and then, I get an email from a fellow writer who's just starting out and wondering where to begin. “How did you do it?” they ask. “How did you make freelance writing your career?”

It's flattering, but what do I say? First of all, I'm still working to reach my own writing goals, so I'm not even sure I'd be the best person to ask. But also, any success that I may have had as a freelancer has at least a little to do with luck. True, it's mostly hard work, but auspicious timing and lucky breaks have also helped my career along the way.

For example, when I started writing for MSN, it wasn't because I worked hard to get their attention and relentlessly pursued their editors. It was also because I had an enormously talented and kind friend who landed a job there, and she happened to be hiring freelancers right as I decided to leave my job to become a freelance writer.

I'm not saying I wouldn't have gotten that gig had I not worked hard. But it also helped that I knew someone whose department was hiring at the right time. As important a role as hard work plays in success, it's also important to acknowledge good fortune. Here's why.

Self-attribution Bias

Disregarding the role of coincidence can make you believe a certain behavior is effective when it really isn't — or worse, that behavior can actually work against you. Carl Richards of The Behavior Gap called it “lucky fool syndrome.”

“What sets off the lucky fool syndrome? Psychologists call it the self-attribution bias. It means we're inclined to take all the credit for things going well, but we have no problem blaming outside forces when things go wrong. On top of our bias, we have a very difficult time separating skill from luck. As a result, we're susceptible to the lucky fool syndrome and the problems that come with it.”

Investing is a perfect example. Richards cites a 2013 study, Self-Attribution Bias in Consumer Financial Decision-Making. In it, researchers studied the impact that investment returns had on how people perceived their own skills. When returns were good, subjects credited their awesome investing skills. When the market sucked, as it sometimes does, investors blamed it on bad luck.

This sounds harmless enough. What's wrong with a little innocent self-delusion? The problem is, it can lead to costly mistakes.

Take my own example of self-attribution bias. When I decided to try my hand at active trading, I had huge returns within the first few months. I convinced myself I had a natural talent for it. (Embarrassingly, I believe I referred to myself as an investing genius, only in my head, of course.) I deluded myself into thinking that somehow I was able to accurately calculate the future, even though the most skilled and experienced investors can't time the market.

So I repeated the “skills” I thought I possessed that helped me get those returns. The result? I lost $400 — more than half of my earnings. I should have cashed out when I got lucky. Instead, I learned the hard way that discounting the role of luck can come at a cost.

There is another problem with self-attribution bias. It limits our empathy and understanding. We think that, because one method or formula for success worked for us, that must be the magic formula for everyone. We think we have all the answers, so we stop considering any other possible problems or solutions. And sometimes we actually offer terrible insight. This article I wrote a year ago is like the case in point:

“I've found that it usually helps, when asking for something, to remind people that you're human. When arguing for a raise, I reminded my boss that my financial situation was suffering due to inflation…”

I cringe reading my own words. Readers totally called me out on this, and rightfully so. This is the exact opposite of what most experts agree you should do. But because it happened to work for me, I figured, without giving it much additional thought, that it would work for everyone. Sure, my own good diligence helped me nab that raise, but I think it's a good example of how self-attribution bias can limit your understanding.

Maybe It's a Balancing Act

None of this is to say that hard work isn't absolutely necessary. With most things, if you want to succeed, it takes a great deal of effort. Take my mom's savings story. Despite being poor, she did whatever she could, sacrificing quite a bit just to save a few bucks a week. That's the hard work.

But she acknowledges a few things out of her control actually worked in her favor: interest rates, overtime availability, and a part-time job opening. She told me:

“Not everyone sees overtime as lucky. Everybody gets lucky breaks, but it depends on you seeing it as a lucky break.”

Maybe the key to success is taking advantage of both — seizing those lucky breaks by being willing to do the work when they happen. Maybe it's about recognizing the opportunities and taking advantage of them in the right way. Most of us aren't lucky enough to make it on our good fortune alone. In fact, without effort, any luck that does come your way could easily be squandered. For example, if you are an over-spender, you might blow through a windfall. But if you've been working hard to get control of your finances, you may be more inclined to use that windfall to reach your financial goals.

Luck alone probably won't get us far. But it seems that recognizing it can work in our favor. It helps us take advantage of those auspicious opportunities and, plus, it gives us a better understanding of our skills and exactly how our hard work pays off. It seems to me that understanding this balance is a little more realistic anyway.

Do you attribute your success to hard work or good fortune? Have you seen self-attribution bias backfire before? Have you changed how you view working hard versus being lucky ?

More about...Career, Psychology

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Brian
Brian
5 years ago

“To What Do You Attribute Your Success – Hard Work or Good Fortune?” Yes. I didn’t choose my parents. I didn’t choose my race or my gender or even my country of origin. I didn’t choose to be born with fully functioning mental and physical capabilities. All of those are things over which I had absolutely no control and yet every single one played a huge role in the course of my life. Through hard work I took advantage of, and even created some, opportunities and eventually set myself up to travel full-time at the age of 38. But without… Read more »

Beth
Beth
5 years ago

I like how Kristin explored the balance between good fortune and hard work. I think success is both — with some faith and courage in the mix. You can be talented and a hard worker, but you can’t predict when an amazing opportunity will come along. (And opportunities are more likely to come along if you have a reputation as being talented and a hard worker) But without courage and faith in yourself, your loved ones, your spirituality/religious beliefs, you might not take that chance. An interesting point about the self-determination bias… I can’t count how many “how not to… Read more »

Alix
Alix
5 years ago

This article reminds me of the Chinese ideogram for “luck” — it combines the symbols for “opportunity” and “preparation”.

Ms. Mintly @ MintlyBlog
Ms. Mintly @ MintlyBlog
5 years ago
Reply to  Alix

Thanks for sharing this – that is so cool (which is a word that truly does not do that concept justice)!

Cait
Cait
5 years ago
Reply to  Alix

Just wondering, which word for luck are you referring to? I can’t figure it out!

Stephen
Stephen
5 years ago
Reply to  Cait

Been digging through the translations, too, and haven’t come across it. Would love to see the hanzi (ideograms) or pinyin (Latin-ized phonetic spellings) on this.

I did find a quote attributed to Seneca that seems to express the thought succinctly (if not ideogram succinctly) … “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

Had heard that one before.

There are some lovely, poetic words combining simple characters (radicals)–like the word for “good” emerging from a combination of “woman” and “child” …

“Luck” coming from “preparation” and “opportunity” is almost too good to be true. =)

Anne
Anne
5 years ago

I think this is brilliant, and accurately portrays the difference in youth and experience. Generally, experience that is well assimilated teaches us the difference in what we worked our tushes off for and what fell into our laps, or was at least nudged in our direction.

It’s one of the important life lessons. It also helps with a attitude of gratitude.

Tricia
Tricia
5 years ago

The word “lucky” gets me a little worked up. I do think there is an element of luck in most things, but it isn’t everything. Like Brian said above, I didn’t choose my parents, my race, my gender. Yes, sometimes you’re in the right place at the right time. However, to reduce my good fortune to “luck” when I’ve worked hard, is insulting. For me to call it “bad luck” when I’ve screwed up is passing the buck. I seem to have a lot of people in my life that think everything is luck and wonder why luck isn’t raining… Read more »

Emily @ Simple Cheap Mom
Emily @ Simple Cheap Mom
5 years ago

I love hearing about people’s investing skills when the markets are working.

I think it would be best if we could all recognize when we’re lucky and not squander our luck. But I think sometimes when something falls into your lap you can’t always appreciate it right away.

Ms. Mintly @ MintlyBlog
Ms. Mintly @ MintlyBlog
5 years ago

I wholeheartedly believe that luck without hard work will not result in lasting benefits. On the flip side, working hard when opportunities arise will be much more likely to change your life for the better. I wouldn’t be where I am today (able to switch careers in my 30s!) if I hadn’t had an amazing opportunity for a FREE master’s degree fall into my lap. But I could have decided to stay in my other career out of fear of change (the degree was supposed to enhance my work in my original field). This conversation also reminds me of a… Read more »

Jennifer
Jennifer
5 years ago

When luck comes knocking, it had better find you working.

Michelle
Michelle
5 years ago

I love this article. I often also receive emails from others who are interested in freelancing online and working for themselves. Yes, I did have some luck, but I also worked very hard to get to where I am.

Steve K
Steve K
5 years ago

Almost 68, I can look back over a lifetime and see many examples of success that were due to either hard work or good fortune or both. But what I haven’t seen discussed yet is that we need to cultivate the opportunity for luck. If we stay home all day watching TV, we won’t be networking, we won’t be seeing the tiny path in the woods that leads to the highway. I’m reminded of the old joke, where the poor Jew prays to God, asking to be rewarded for a lifetime of devotion, but nothing ever comes of it, he… Read more »

Tom
Tom
5 years ago
Reply to  Steve K

Almost 60, I agree. I can’t tell you how many times folks I worked with told me why they couldn’t prepare or position themselves for success. I think you need three things – hard work, good luck, and the willingness to position yourself for success. Luck favors the prepared.

William @ Drop Dead Money
William @ Drop Dead Money
5 years ago

Excellent article! Self attribution bias is particularly prevalent in businesses and executives. The economy these days treats almost all businesses kindly, so they’re full of of self-congratulation (and fat bonuses). However, when the economy, which giveth today, taketh away tomorrow, they’re very fast to blame the economy for that. It gets worse: one of the biggest reason (all) people get into trouble with debt is in the good times they tell themselves (and their spouses) “hey look, we can easily make those payments,” when the reality is it’s the economy which makes things look better than they are now. Then,… Read more »

Lis
Lis
5 years ago

Nothing to do with freelancing, but a personal experience with luck and hard work. When I was in college, I had an internship at a tax accounting firm. I realized quickly that tax accounting was not what I wanted to do, but I still enjoyed the job and learned everything I could. I worked hard, always offering to take on more tasks that they were initially reluctant to give me. Fast forward a few years when I’m job hunting in the real world. I was interviewing for my current job, and while my phone interview went well, the agency that… Read more »

Mike in NH
Mike in NH
5 years ago
Reply to  Lis

It’s attributed to several people but I have written down on my list of quotes, “Luck is where hard work meets opportunity.”

Beard Better
Beard Better
5 years ago

To a large extent, we really do need to consider the luck involved with winning the genetic, time, and location lotteries. It should not be taken as a given that one would be born without physical or mental disabilities, or that one would be born to loving parents who are invested in one’s life, born in the First World, born in a time and place of relative abundance so that it is possible to live without being a subsistence farmer, etc. Now, once that has been accounted for, there still remains the question of whether or not hard work or… Read more »

Louisa
Louisa
5 years ago

Both luck and work.
Luck = born to parents who could afford to send me to college. Born in a country where white people, at least, had relatively few barriers.

Work = I saw opportunities where others didn’t and pursued them. In your case, you had a good friend working at MSN, but the fact that you had a well-placed friend was not sheer accident.

FYI, re your sentence, “I’m not saying I would’nt have gotten that gig had I not worked hard.”

“Would’nt” should be “wouldn’t.”
Part of being a successful freelancer is checking for errors and typos, imho

Linda Vergon
5 years ago
Reply to  Louisa

Hi Louisa,

I think I’ll make an appointment for new glasses because I didn’t see that either!

Haha – Thanks for the catch!

Linda Vergon, Editor 🙂

Carla
Carla
5 years ago
Reply to  Louisa

I’m a “skimmer” when I read most blog posts so I missed that as well!

Mike
Mike
5 years ago

Luck–“success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one’s own actions”

Very few people will have success by the definition of luck above. Even if you include being born in a developed country and if you desire to adjust for socio economic status or other demographics. You still have to take action 99% of the time to have some success, even if its minor.

Sarah
Sarah
5 years ago

I definitely agree that it’s mostly hard work, but luck does come into play, too, as with anything. I got started in freelancing much like you – a friend worked for a company that was hiring freelancers. I then worked my way up to an editorial position that I love! Had I not known someone, I do not thing I would have been working for that company, but at the same time – I’ve been there over two years now and work for various other companies, which shows that hard work does pay off! Great read, thanks!!

Carla
Carla
5 years ago

I can’t say that I’m “successful” or have good fortune according to the GRS definition, but despite losing the lottery in so many ways, there’s a lot I can say I did acquire though both luck and hard work. Winning the genetic, racial, ethnic, skin color, nationality, gender, intelligence, parental, health and the physical attraction lottery doesn’t mean you’ll be successful in life and vise versa. I “lost” the lottery in some ways, especially parental and health (I won’t say gender, racial, etc because I like who I am) but there are some areas that I did win in that… Read more »

Beth
Beth
5 years ago
Reply to  Carla

I love your outlook 🙂

Delta
Delta
5 years ago

I know someone who attributes everything to luck. Other people’s success always came through luck, especially. He doesn’t see that his contemporaries made better choices all along the line. They chose to study in school while he chose to party. They chose to go into careers with a future and to work their way up. He chose a whole series of entry level jobs and just coasted along. So now he’s pushing 60 and his friends and classmates are doing well financially (some have even managed to retire and do the things they’ve always wanted to do) and he’s miserably… Read more »

mysticaltyger
mysticaltyger
5 years ago
Reply to  Delta

Although the details are different, I know someone else who’s pushing 60 in the same position with the same general attitude.

NZ Muse
NZ Muse
5 years ago

Oh yes, the self attribution bias is huge.

I credit ym success to a healthy dose of hard work and an equally healthy dose of good luck.

My husband is struggling at the mo. Definitely a lot of bad luck, as well as on his own part, a lack of direction (and I have to frequently stop myself and pause that self attribution bias and remind myself that a lot of things that happpened in his career were beyond his control)

Kayla @ Femme Frugality
Kayla @ Femme Frugality
5 years ago

I’d like to say it’s all hard work, but in reality some of my “big breaks” in freelancing have been luck. Some of them have been hard work and paying attention to when it looks like people need help (and then contacting them to follow up), but the very beginning of it was luck!

Marie
Marie
5 years ago

If “luck” can also be referred to as “knowing someone” or “being in the right place at the right time”, then I can think of multiple professions that rely much more on luck than they do on work ethic. Most of those are the types of jobs that make you rich and/or famous. Standard middle-class jobs seem to swing more heavily towards work ethic, though luck is still in play.

Investment Total
Investment Total
5 years ago

In my own experience, I succeed most of the time because of hard work. Hard work pays off. But good fortune is also for all of us. Just we have to use the law of attraction.

patrick
patrick
5 years ago

I grew up in abject poverty and pushed myself to get to get away from home via the Army, go to college, then push with drive to get a pretty good paying career. There is the saying that luck is being ready when the opportunity presents itself. That must be what luck is. Opportunity (luck) is everywhere, if you pursue it and prepare for it. Part of luck is also meeting people and interacting and socializing, as hard as it is for many of us. You can make opportunity/luck. That is real luck. Then there is dumb luck, where things… Read more »

marjo
marjo
5 years ago

Luck and hard work but even more important, is knowing people. So many young people do not know how to meet and engage in conversation with people of all ages. Its the many many connections in life that makes a difference – in finding employment, friends, life partners, etc. Get away from the cell phone screens and get to know people – care about them – listen to their dreams and success stories – and you will find a mentor or mentors who can help you fulfill your dreams and goals. And don’t discount anybody — the person you treat… Read more »

ChinoF
ChinoF
5 years ago

That’s the mistake people make – believing hard work and good fortune are mutually exclusive. They’re not. It’s an interplay of both that leads to success in life. This would require us to be alert in our lives to the opportunities related to this.

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